Zawahiri mission underlines the need for India to be cautious on ties with Taliban, says Michael Kugelman


How will the killing of al-Qaida boss Ayman al-Zawahiri affectTaliban’s relationship with the US and India? In an interview with Sunday TimesMichael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, discusses its impact
What does the hit on Zawahiri smack in the middle of Kabul tell us about Taliban’s links with al- Qaida and other terror groups?

The fact that Zawahiri was living comfortably in central Kabul shatters the Taliban-propagated myth that the group denies space to terrorists. Did all Taliban leaders know that Zawahiri was in Kabul? Probably not. Did some of them know? Most definitely yes. Those in the know, we can assume, were leaders of the Haqqani Network, which enjoys the deepest relationship with al-Qaida of any Taliban faction. It’s therefore unsurprising that the home where Zawahiri was found is reportedly owned by a close aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani.


There is speculation that Pakistan helped the US take out Zawahiri in exchange for an IMF loan. Do you think there is any truth to that?

I don’t think so. The mission was planned for many months, long before Pakistan became desperate for an IMF loan. The most likely way Pakistan may have assisted the US would have been indirect, through the provision of its airspace. One can’t rule out the possibility of Pakistan also providing some intelligence support. But let’s be clear: US-Pakistan security relations are shot through with baggage and mistrust. I don’t think Washington would be comfortable including Pakistan in such a sensitive operation. After all, the Haqqanis are al-Qaida’s closest ally within the Taliban, and the Haqqanis are close to the Pakistani establishment.


Despite its decision to provide humanitarian aid and reopen the embassy in Kabul, India has always been worried that much like the 1990s, Afghanistan under the Taliban would become a safe haven for anti-India terrorists. That concern now seems justified, doesn’t it? And what could be the possible way forward for India now that we know we can’t trust any Taliban guarantees?
The discovery of Zawahiri in Kabul underscores the gamble that New Delhi is making by deepening its engagement with the Taliban. The Taliban are close to al-Qaida, and to many other militant groups — all of which are ideologically hostile to India. I don’t think the Zawahiri mission will prompt India to change its policy. It has many good reasons to develop a deeper footprint in Taliban-led Afghanistan: Counter potential moves by its Pakistani and Chinese rivals, strengthen ties with a population that already holds India in high regard, and facilitate access to important markets and natural resources in Central Asia. These factors aren’t any less salient now that we know Zawahiri was living in Kabul. But I do think New Delhi will be extra cautious as it pursues its relations with the Taliban.
What are the implications for the US-Taliban relationship?
US-Taliban relations are in for a rough ride. Both sides are angry. The US believes Taliban leaders facilitated Zawahiri and violated the Doha deal. The Taliban, which vowed never to let foreign military forces re-enter Afghanistan, have been humiliated by a unilateral US military operation. The sad truth is that the Afghan people will suffer the most from a more toxic US-Taliban relationship. Neither side will be in the mood to negotiate the possible unfreezing of Afghan Central Bank assets held in US banks, which are critical to help ease Afghanistan’s economic crisis. The US won’t be inclined to increase economic aid to Afghanistan, for fear of money ending up in the wrong hands.
The anniversary of the pullout is coming up. Do you think things would have been any different had the US not withdrawn?
Had the US not withdrawn, the US would be back at war with the Taliban, because the Taliban would have accused Washington of violating the Doha accord, which called for all US troops to be gone by the spring of 2021. This is an oft-overlooked aspect of the otherwise traumatic events of August 2021: For Afghans, the Taliban takeover and US withdrawal ended 40 years of war. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
You’ve described Zawahiri as far less influential and charismatic than Bin Laden. So, is his killing just a symbolic win for the US?
It’s a substantive triumph as well. Most analysts weren’t willing to give the “over the horizon” idea a shot: In effect, how was it possible to target terrorists in Afghanistan without a presence on the ground? There was not a single known US counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan for 11 months post-withdrawal. This makes it all the more remarkable that the very first deployment of the over-the-horizon capacity resulted in the elimination of one of the biggest fish of all.
How do you see the situation in Pakistan playing out? Fresh elections this year?
Pakistan’s government and opposition are seemingly on a collision course. Imran Khan and his supporters are galvanised by the government’s dreadful performance, and the recent by-elections in Punjab show just how electorally vulnerable the government is. But the government keeps digging in, even as the walls close in. Still, I would be surprised if the elections don’t take place before October 2023. A key moment is this coming fall when the next Pakistani army chief is appointed. The current government will want to stick around long enough to make sure that the next person to hold the country’s most powerful post isn’t an ally of Khan.