The Egyptian doctor and extremist leader Aiman al-Zawahiri was probably only a shadow of himself. Little or nothing was known about al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. Still, the fact that the 71-year-old was actually killed after two decades of the “war on terror” is worthy of a headline – in part to raise some uncomfortable questions.
As-Sawahiri’s killing is not a success worth celebrating. After all, the Egyptian was not killed in the desert or in a remote Afghan mountain village, but in the middle of the former Kabul “Green Zone”, where diplomats, mercenaries, non-governmental organizations and corrupt politicians and warlords once frequented.
The last tenant of the house where as-Sawahiri stayed was a close adviser to ex-President Ashraf Ghani. He fled with the president a year ago when NATO troops withdrew and the Taliban took Kabul.
During the 20-year war, it was primarily rural Afghanistan that was regularly bombed by the US military. Afghan villages were seen as hotbeds of militancy and extremism and havens for wanted terrorists. Strangely enough, those people who were also on the Americans’ hit lists were rarely hit, let alone injured or killed. Instead, it was often wedding parties or funerals that became the target of the Predator drones.
In recent years, as-Sawahiri has been pronounced dead several times, including after what appeared to be precise surgeries. The same was true of the al-Qaeda chief’s suspected host, Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, who currently serves as the Taliban government’s interior minister. But at the same time, one obvious question was rarely asked: Who were all the people who were killed in their place?
After the announcement of the killing of al-Zawahiri, ex-President Barack Obama also spoke out. “Tonight’s news is proof that you can eradicate terrorism without going to war in Afghanistan,” Obama wrote on Twitter. This borders on cynicism given that it was he who once escalated the war in the Hindu Kush and made Afghanistan the most drone-bombed country in the world.
In 2014, the British human rights organization “Reprieve”, based on the evaluation of media reports and research for the period 2002 to 2014, calculated 1,147 civilians killed by drones for 41 targets in Pakistan and Yemen.
The targets at the time also included as-Sawahiri and Haqqani, which were always suspected to be in the Afghan-Pakistani border area. The last drone attack by the US military, which took place about a year ago during the withdrawal, did not kill terrorists, as the Americans initially claimed, but ten civilians in Kabul.
The US government’s version could only be refuted based on the work of journalists on the ground. The families of the victims are still waiting for an apology and promised compensation payments.
Another inconvenient truth that often goes unnoticed in the context of al-Zawahiri’s killing is the fact that such attacks violate any basis of international law. This is also the case when they meet wanted terrorists.
Because they, too, deserve a fair trial according to the understanding of the rule of law. The presumption of innocence is one of the most important achievements of Western democracies, but since the beginning of the “war on terror” it has been permanently dismantled.
The paradoxical status quo since then has been: We are morally superior and the “good guys” because we abolished the death penalty, but extrajudicial executions – even with German assistance – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or elsewhere are fine. Or as the Federal Foreign Office once put it: “Anyone who goes to Waziristan and dies there has only themselves to blame.”
A year after leaving Afghanistan, Biden seems intent on making it clear that the usual “war on terror” is far from over.
The silence of the Taliban, who are now obviously in a deep crisis, is also telling, revealing possible fractures within the group. By hosting al-Zawahiri, Afghanistan’s new rulers have probably violated the Doha Agreement that they signed with Washington in the Gulf Emirate of Qatar at the beginning of 2020.
However, according to all reports and assumptions, the al-Qaeda chief’s hosts were not the same men who had negotiated with the Americans at the time; but the Haqqanis, a notorious wing within the Taliban known for its close ties to international jihadists.
The suspicion that another wing of the Taliban was actively working directly or indirectly against the Haqqanis and revealed the al-Qaeda leader’s hiding place is therefore reasonable. It seems unlikely that an American team could work without local support.
What all this means for the relationship between the US and the Taliban is still unclear. Prominent Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar maintained talks with the CIA not only after the pullout a year ago, but also apparently during a recent conference in Uzbekistan. There are common interests: cracking down on the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) is one such thing. And at the moment ISIS supporters are being brutally massacred in Afghanistan.
Whether there is even cooperation between Washington and the Taliban on this issue cannot yet be proven. In any case, it was striking that US President Biden did not mention the Taliban once in his speech on the killing of al-Zawahiri in Kabul; while his foreign secretary, Anthony Blinken, did not mince words, accusing them of breaching the Doha Cooperation Treaty for allegedly harboring the al-Qaeda leader.