On August 3, I was supposed to meet an old friend at a coffee shop near the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, next to Rome’s famous Termini station. Thanks to Roman gods or perhaps the heat, both of us got our wires crossed. I turned up for coffee while my friend embarked to Tagliacozzo, a charming medieval village in the Marche region of Italy an hour from Rome. Despite the heat and the distance, I decided to make the journey to Tagliacozzo to meet my friend.
How do Rome and Tagliacozzo come into the picture in an article on Afghanistan?
Well, both places are relevant because my friend Tonino Bettanini is a philosopher, a politician and a Renaissance man with much expertise on Afghanistan. He was presenting his latest book, Bruxelles, Les Pelouse des Anglais (Brussels, the Lawns of the English) at the prestigious 38th mid-summer international festival of Tagliacozzo. Fortuitously, Stefano Pontecorvo, a noted Italian diplomat and author was also presenting his book at the same time. Pontecorvo was NATO’s last senior civilian representative to Afghanistan and served as Italy’s ambassador to Pakistan.
Furthermore, Pontecorvo spent his childhood in the 1960s in Kabul and Islamabad, where his father also served as a diplomat. The good ambassador was presenting his book, L’ultimo aereo da Kabul (The Last Flight from Kabul), which describes the last few days of NATO’s hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and his own departure on one of the last flights out from Kabul.
Going to Tagliacozzo did not only give me an hour with one of Italy’s most talented and colorful diplomats, it also gave me Pontecorvo’s point of view on the current situation in Afghanistan. This was a godsend because the US had just killed Ayman al-Zawahiri on July 31. Obviously, Italy’s star diplomat had a lot to say and I have done a lot more thinking on the matter since.
Why kill al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri?
The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the lackluster, pedantic idealogue of Al-Qaeda, brings a strange closure to the US “War on Terror,” which began with 9/11. Egyptian-born al-Zawahiri, was known to be a confidant of Saudi Osama bin Laden, who was America’s public enemy number one, until he was found and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, over 10 years ago.
The Taliban-Occupied Afghanistan Threatens Global Security
The world had all but forgotten about al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. This organization had declined dramatically since the days of bin Laden and was no longer the most dangerous global Islamic terrorist organization. More deadly organizations such as ISIS have taken its place. Islamic terrorism has evolved extensively since bin Laden and al-Zawahiri masterminded the attacks on New York and, before 9/11, on several other US targets. The ageing al-Zawahiri neither had the finances nor the sophistication to upgrade to “Terrorism 4.0,” a concept popularized by Adewunmi J. Falode in 2018. Falode argues this terrorism “has two basic and definable characteristics: it is fratricidal and genocidal in nature.”
The killing of al-Zawahiri marks the end of a chapter for the US. However, its timing, significance and collateral results open uncomfortable questions. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden by the Obama administration in which Biden was vice president, al-Zawahiri’s role and importance has been downgraded by intelligence and political analysts. After bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahiri was proclaimed the leader of al-Qaeda. Under his leadership, the organization was unable to launch any significant attack on the West.
After hurriedly abandoning Afghanistan less than a year ago, the Biden administration has steered clear of South Asia. This has allowed China and Russia to increase their influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The region is now literally in flames. Myanmar is being ruled by a pro-China military junta which executes democracy activists arbitrarily. The Taliban control Afghanistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are at war with the Pakistani establishment despite Pakistan’s close relationship with the Afghan Taliban and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) exercising much control over the Haqqani network. Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are facing unprecedented economic catastrophes.
As if the mess in South Asia and Ukraine was not enough, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to fly to Taiwan to fan flames in East Asia too. Curiously, this is precisely the time that the Biden administration authorized a drone strike to kill the most famous face in the US after bin Laden. That al-Zawahiri might never have been that relevant or important an operative is immaterial. It made Americans feel good and took Pelosi as well as Ukraine off the headlines for a day or two.
Not only Indian analysts but also South Asia expert Michael Kugelman, suggest Pakistan might have had a role to play in al-Zawahiri’s killing. The army and the ISI need US support. So does the ragtag coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif who is dealing with “an ailing economy amid political turmoil.” To ride out the crisis, Pakistani bigwigs have done what they always do: go with a begging bowl to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). With US support, Pakistan could get the latest installment of funds from the IMF and avoid defaulting on its debt a la Sri Lanka.
Other analysts suspect that “Mullah Yaqoob, Afghanistan’s defense minister and son of the late Taliban founder Mullah Omar, disclosed al-Zawahiri’s location during his recent visit to Qatar.” Who enabled the killing of al-Zawahiri is neither here nor there. The key question here is simple: what does it achieve?
Justice, Revenge or Convenient Distraction?
One argument for killing al-Zawahiri is it brings this terrorist to justice. A reason to kill is America’s emotional need for revenge, which curiously might not be that different from the Pashtun tradition of badal. As this author mentioned earlier, the killing might just have been a convenient distraction at an inconvenient time.
America’s Afghanistan Fiasco: The Buck Stops With Biden
The Russia-Ukraine War is not going terribly well. Boris Johnson and Mario Draghi, two great proponents of war, have been defenestrated. The Russians are making slow but steady and bloody progress. Inflation has ripped through the global economy, putting hundreds of millions at risk of starvation. Biden, Pelosi and their fellow Democrats are increasingly nervous about the midterms. The word on the street in Washington is that Democrat staffers are now gunning for lobbying positions in anticipation of the defeat of their bosses.
The youthful-looking 82-year-old Pelosi has flown to Taiwan arguably to boost Democrat poll prospects and burnish her legacy. This visit has been an unmitigated disaster. The Economist has opined that her “trip to Taiwan highlights America’s incoherent strategy” and that the Biden administration’s foreign policy is a mess.
After al-Zawahiri’s killing, the farce of the 2020 Doha Agreement has been formalized. The Taliban never observed this agreement. It is fair to say that it paved the way for the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. After all, al-Zawahiri was living in a building owned by the Haqqanis in a posh Kabul neighborhood. The Haqqanis are infamous and powerful. They hold key positions in the Taliban government. As per the BBC, the Haqqani network is “one of the region’s most powerful and feared militant groups.” With al-Zawahiri’s killing, the US has joined the Taliban in signaling that the Doha agreement is dead and buried six feet under.
The Consequences of Killing an Aging Has-Been
The Biden administration might have scored a big point at home by killing al-Zawahiri. However, this killing will not go down well with the Haqqani network. As per the honor code of the Pashtuns, which is known as Pashtunwali, they are now duty bound to avenge the killing of a guest. After all, al-Zawahiri was under the protection of the Haqqanis and they have now lost face. Honor dictates that they act against the US.
As and when the Haqqani network strikes, Pakistan will find itself in a tight spot. Pakistani elites need to keep Uncle Sam in good humor. Inflation is rising, unemployment is skyrocketing and the state’s coffers are empty. For the 23rd time since 1958, Pakistan needs loans from the Washington-based IMF. This is only possible with US blessing. If the ISI-backed Haqqani network strikes American targets, any politician in Washington will find it hard to make a case for Pakistan getting more IMF cash.
There is another fly in the ointment. Pakistan is not only suffering from economic meltdown but also political turmoil. The Afghan Taliban brokered talks between Pakistan and the outlawed TTP. They have ended in deadlock. A spike in cross-border terrorist attacks by the TTP have followed. In retaliation, Pakistan has launched airstrikes in Afghanistan targeting the TTP. This has led to a dangerous deterioration in the internal security situation in Pakistan.
The jihadist groups that the still somewhat secular Pakistani military backed to dominate Afghanistan and undermine India are now turning against their masters. It is yet another case of Dr. Victor Frankenstein not being able to control his monster. In Islamabad’s case, it has to deal with too many monsters.
Pakistan’s turn to violence is also because the state has become completely dysfunctional. The populist Imran Khan has been turfed out by Pakistan’s traditional dynasties. Military rule failed the country and now democracy is not delivering either. Kleptocratic elites are packing off their children abroad in droves. It is an open secret that property prices in Dubai go up when IMF money comes into Pakistan. The people are fed up with the system and are turning to jihadis for recourse.
Pakistan’s colonial state has been unable to deliver basic services to its people. This includes elementary education. Religious schools termed madrassas have stepped in to fill the void. These madrassas teach millions of male children the Quran and the teachings of the prophet. Numerous reports by various intelligence agencies and think tanks chronicle how these schools have increased fanaticism and become breeding grounds for terror. The Taliban are their most illustrious alumni. Even China’s CCTV News, generally not known for its worldliness, has now started making documentaries on madrassas.
Reports that Pakistan provided the information that led to al-Zawahiri’s killing will cause many, if not all, of radical Islamist Frankenstein’s monsters to turn on their master. Terror incidents are likely to increase in the country. Even if Pakistan is absolved of blame, the blame may land on Yaqoob. This will pit the Loy Kandahar faction led by Yaqoob and Mullah Baradar against the Haqqani network, creating conditions for yet another civil war in Afghanistan.
As Pontecorvo aptly summed up, “When Osama bin Laden flew to Afghanistan in the early 1990s as a guest of Mullah Omar, he started marrying Arab fighters to local women and vice versa. This created over 300 mixed Arab-Pashtun families who were part of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda entourage. Now, many of them are senior members of the Haqqani network, including Sirajjuddin Haqqani himself. These families have both Arab and Pashtun blood, making it improbable that al-Qaeda and the Loya Paktia faction of the Haqqani network will ever separate.” The killing of al-Zawahiri might set off the Loya Paktia and the Loy Kandahar factions of the Taliban against each other.
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Apart from triggering fratricidal fighting within the Taliban, al-Zawahiri’s killing will cause an upheaval in al-Qaeda itself. A new leadership will take over and might be leaner, meaner, younger, hungrier and bloodier than bin Laden’s sidekick. In fact, the killing might lead to just the sort of CEO change that al-Qaeda needed.
The Biden administration has clearly not thought beyond its nose while killing al-Zawahiri. This White House is proving to be fractious, overstretched and incompetent in its foreign policy decisions. Instead of closure to the trauma of 9/11, al-Zawahiri’s killing has opened a Pandora’s box in one of the most dangerous times since 1945.
This is not only my thinking but also those of my eminent Italian friends with whom I enjoyed an aperitivo in the glorious piazza of Tagliacozzo before driving back home.
(In an era of a global pandemic, social media wars and explosively evolving geopolitics, the human spirit and its expression have suffered the most. With apologies to Edward Morgan Forster, “Rome, with a View” is a view of humanity from an interesting perspective. The author, a third culture kid, gathers from his various perches in the eternal city of Rome — Caput Mundi, the capital of the ancient world — the whispers of wisdom through the ages imperfectly and perhaps even unwisely.)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.