Afghanistan’s Taliban on Wednesday condemned the U.S. drone strike that killed fugitive al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul over the weekend but said they still had no information about the intended target and renewed their resolve to combat terrorism.
Abdul Salam Hanafi, the second deputy Taliban prime minister, made the remarks to reporters in the Afghan capital in what was the first official reaction by the Islamist rulers to the killing of the terror mastermind following confirmation by U.S. President Joe Biden late Monday.
Zawahiri’s presence in a posh Kabul neighborhood is seen as a humiliating blow to the Taliban, who seized power nearly a year ago and have been seeking international legitimacy for their rule.
“We still are not aware of these details. All that we know is that an aerial attack has taken place here and our Islamic Emirate strongly condemns it,” Hanafi said when asked to comment on the killing of al-Zawahiri in the U.S. drone attack.
The Taliban call their government Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA).
Hanafi denounced the U.S. attack as a violation of his country’s “sovereignty, international laws and the Doha agreement.” He referred to the February 2020 deal the Taliban and Washington sealed in Doha, Qatar, which called for U.S.-led foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and the then-insurgent group to prevent transnational terrorists from operating in the country.
“The Islamic Emirate has repeatedly said [to the world] that it is our policy not to allow anyone to use our territory against neighboring and other countries. The Islamic Emirate firmly stands by this policy,” Hanafi said.
Washington, however, blames the Taliban for violating the 2020 pact.
“By hosting and sheltering the leader of al-Qaida in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries,” according to a U.S. State Department official.
A senior U.S. official said Monday that al-Zawahiri, the 71-year-old Egyptian jihadist leader, was on the balcony of a three-story house in the Sherpur area of the Afghan capital when two Hellfire missiles fired from an unmanned aircraft struck him.
‘Broader effort to cover up’
“The Haqqani Taliban members acted quickly to remove Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter and her children to another location, consistent with a broader effort to cover up that they had been living in the safe house,” stated the U.S. official.
Suhail Shaheen, head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said that an investigation was still ongoing to determine whether or not al-Zawahiri was living in Kabul and died in the U.S. drone attack.
“The government and the leadership wasn’t aware of what is being claimed, nor any trace there,” he said in a message he shared with journalists late on Wednesday.
“IEA is committed to Doha Agreement. Investigation is underway now to find out about veracity of the claim. The leadership is in constant meeting in this regard. Findings will be shared with all,” Shaheen added.
The weekend drone strike came just days after Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi reassured an international conference hosted by neighboring Uzbekistan that his government would not allow any groups, including al-Qaida, to use Afghanistan for terrorism against any country. He cited the specific counterterrorism clause in the pact.
“Last week in Tashkent we heard the Taliban trying to convince countries and organizations committed to supporting the Afghan people that they had full control over Afghan territory. They repeated their commitment that Afghanistan would not become a safe haven for terrorists,” Tomas Niklasson, the European Union’s special envoy for Afghanistan, said Wednesday on Twitter.
“The killing of Mr. al-Zawahiri by the U.S. in central Kabul reinforces previous doubts about such claims. Were the Taliban unaware, unable or unwilling to take action against the AQ leader?” the envoy asked.
Niklasson went on to question whether the Taliban would be able to deliver on their commitments that they would rule the country through an “objectively inclusive government” and respect human rights. “Are they more capable of delivering on these promises to the Afghan people?”
U.S. officials have said that al-Zawahiri was hosted in Kabul by senior members of the so-called Haqqani Network, a powerful militant faction within the Taliban with deep al-Qaida ties and links to the Pakistani spy agency. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the network, is the powerful interior minister in the Taliban government and carries a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.
Washington and the world at large have declined to give legitimacy to the Taliban rule, linking such a move to easing of restrictions the hardline group has placed on women’s access to work and education, and upholding counterterrorism pledges. The U.S. has imposed strict financial sanctions on the Taliban and has withheld from them about $7 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign financial reserves.
Pakistan under scrutiny
Meanwhile, questions are being raised about whether neighboring Pakistan played a role in enabling the U.S. to conduct the fatal drone strike against al-Zawahiri in landlocked Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry on Tuesday cautiously responded to opposition allegations and skepticism about Islamabad’s participation in the U.S. airstrike.
“Pakistan condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations … Pakistan stands by countering terrorism in accordance with international law and relevant U.N. resolutions,” said the brief ministry statement.
A major non-NATO ally, Pakistan allowed the U.S. allied troops to use its ground and air routes to invade Afghanistan 20 years ago.
The military intervention dislodged the then-Taliban government in Kabul for permitting al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to plot the September 2001 deadly terrorist strikes against America. Bin Laden, the founder of the al-Qaida network, was later located and killed by U.S. forces in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
Shireen Mazari, a key opposition politician and former federal minister, in a tweet asked Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government to explain whether it covertly had provided the U.S. with a military base to conduct Sunday’s airstrike.
“Puzzling question: a U.S. drone flew into Afghanistan from direction of [the] Gulf region — assuming Pakistan hasn’t given bases yet (unless this govt has done so covertly) — but flew over which country’s airspace? Iran does not give any airspace rights to U.S. military so was Pakistan airspace used?” Mazari asked on Twitter.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asian affairs expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, also asserted that Pakistan was the only country that could have facilitated the U.S. raid if at all it did so.
“The geography doesn’t lie. If this drone was launched from a U.S. base in the Gulf, it wouldn’t be able to fly over Iran,” Kugelman said.
“Flying over Central Asia is circuitous and hard to pull off if you’re undertaking a rapid operation. This leaves Pakistani airspace as most desirable option,” he added.