Senior Taliban commanders weighing up how to respond to the US assassination of al-Qaida’s leader in Kabul are caught between their hopes for international recognition and pressure from their own ranks.
Nearly three days after Ayman al-Zawahiri was struck by a drone in the heart of one of the most elite neighbourhoods of the Afghan capital, the Taliban have barely responded.
The killing of such a high-profile guest was a counter-terror coup for Washington, and a security and intelligence failure for the Taliban. It has also created a major internal and international crisis for the group.
Nearly a year after seizing control of Afghanistan they are still seeking diplomatic recognition for their government, which they hope will curb an economic crisis by allowing for the lifting of sanctions and the release of frozen funds. An aggressive response to Zawahiri’s death would not further that cause.
But al-Qaida and its leadership are revered by many in the group’s ranks, who are also likely to see a drone strike in the heart of the capital as an assault on their sovereignty.
A firefight in the heart of Kabul on Tuesday with Islamic State militants was a reminder that the group is under pressure inside Afghanistan from even more extremist groups, who are aiming to pick off disaffected Taliban fighters.
“For Taliban who want to have a good relationship with the west I think this is a very tricky political situation,” said Bette Dam, analyst and author of a biography of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Omar.
“They need to comfort their fighters, by being harsh to the US … At the same time, they want to be political in order not to lose the US.”
So after Zawahiri’s death the Taliban leadership has gathered to debate whether they should respond to the strike, and if so what approach to take, Reuters reported, citing senior figures in the movement.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s designated delegate to the UN who is based in Doha, effectively acknowledged the group had not yet decided how to respond when he told journalists asking for comment on the strike: “I am awaiting details and reaction from Kabul. So far I have not received.”
Kabul-based spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued only a short statement accusing America of violating the Doha agreement, which paved the way for its troop withdrawal. Some officials have said the house was empty but none have directly denied Zawahiri’s death.
The Taliban had promised the US in Qatar that they would not offer haven to militant groups that may threaten America and its allies, and for nearly a year after seizing Afghanistan insisted they had stuck by that commitment.
Just two days before the strike, the Taliban’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, told an Indian news outlet that al-Qaida was “already dead” and “has no presence in Afghanistan”.
At the time, Zawahiri was still alive, in a house thought to be rented by one of Haqqani’s aides, in an enclave controlled by the minister’s own faction of the Taliban.
It was an open secret among many circles in Kabul that the area – a stone’s throw from the diplomatic enclave and ministry buildings – was filled with “Arabs”, a barely veiled reference to foreign al-Qaida fighters, though the presence of their leader was likely a closely guarded secret.
He may have been kept there under a form of house arrest. The Taliban previously summoned Osama bin Laden to their then-capital of Kandahar in the mid-1990s, in an attempt to curb his activities or improve oversight.
It proved spectacularly unsuccessful and Zawahiri too seems to have operated effectively from his Kabul base, sending out messages and videos.
Like his former guest, Haqqani has a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head for his role in terror attacks, and is reportedly still so concerned about his own security that he regularly switches homes even in Kabul. So it is unclear why he thought the al-Qaida leader was safer staying in one place.
The US had long been clear that they would target Zawahiri, a key architect of the September 11 attacks on America, wherever they found him.
But the Taliban, having defeated America on the battlefield, apparently thought they could also hide one of the most wanted men in the world from its spies.
“The location of the strike is only about a five-minute walk from the German embassy, which itself is scarred from terrorism (a major Taliban attack in 2017), and the Taliban have been in talks with the Germans to try and bring back diplomats and German development aid,” said Graeme Smith, senior consultant with International Crisis Group, focused on Afghanistan.
“So this highlights the really audacious hosting the Taliban were trying to do, trying to host representatives of the international system, while also hosting radicals bent on tearing down that system.”