The assassination has exposed a rift between hardliners and pragmatists
As the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s triumphant entry into Kabul approached, the U.S. seemed to be coming to terms with the situation. “Normalisation”, while not exactly imminent, was not out of the question, and talks were ongoing between U.S. diplomats and Taliban counterparts.
There were two big issues: the billions of dollars of Afghan Central Bank funds that had been withheld by U.S. courts and the matter of girls’ schools. The prevailing American view was that funds could not be released to a terrorist group that had been involved in 9/11 — especially one that was so retrograde that they weren’t even allowing girls to go to middle school and high school.
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The Taliban insisted that this was not a matter of policy, just a question of logistics, and that girls would have access to education at all levels “soon”. But ultimately, both issues — the frozen funds and treatment of women — boiled down to one word: trust.
But then came July 31. When the hugely influential Elder of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a U.S. drone strike, any prospect of negotiations died. What had he been doing in an upscale residential neighbourhood right in the middle of Kabul, living with his family in a villa surrounded by the comfortable residences of the Taliban elite?
It is hard — actually, it is impossible — to believe that the Zawahiri clan and entourage were smack in the centre of Kabul without the knowledge and support of the Taliban. As we now know from the reporting about his elimination, the plan to take him out was “in preparation for months”. So, he hadn’t just secretly arrived at a discreet safe house somewhere in a secluded area.
It is possible that the hosting of al-Zawahiri was controversial within the Taliban. To pull off the strike, it is likely that the U.S. depended on human intelligence (HUMINT) as well as signal intelligence (SIGINT), which may have been provided by Taliban insiders. The statement released by Anthony Blinken, however, appears to put paid to that notion. In it, the Secretary of State accused the Taliban of “grossly violating the Doha Agreement” by “hosting and sheltering” al-Zawahiri.
We know, however, that there are deep rifts between the ideologues and the pragmatists in the Taliban, the embittered grandfathers and the more open young. It is the isolationists versus the Doha Group, which took enormous pride in the success of its negotiations with the U.S., achieving not only the withdrawal of American forces but also the easing of sanctions, recognition and economic aid. Surely the latter group will now recognise that their gains and opportunities are being snuffed out?
During the Doha talks, the Taliban repeatedly expressed regret that they had let “the Arabs” — al-Qaeda — pull them into a confrontation with the West that cost them 20 years of misery and war. They would never be that foolish again, they stated.
But now, it appears as though the hardliners have been foolish once again. They have put everything at risk for an ageing Arab killer. Will the pragmatists remain obediently quiet as the hardliners once again turn the country into a pariah state? It is a battle that will be worth watching unfold.