Intelligence gathering is key in today’s global affairs, and nobody does it better than the United States. The precision drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the most wanted terrorist on July 31 more than a decade after Bin Laden’s assassination. He was known as ‘the man behind Bin Laden’ and the operational brain of the 9/11 attack.
The strike came when the globe was experiencing numerous tipping points, such as China’s aggressiveness in the Taiwan Strait, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and unrelenting proxy warfare in the Middle East. The United States’ power and norms have been questioned in the context of such precarious geopolitics. It has been criticized for withdrawing from Afghanistan and jeopardizing its credibility in the Taiwan dispute. The short-sighted framing of U.S. foreign policy is the subject of many critiques.
Despite the Taliban’s denial of any knowledge that Al-Zawahiri was hiding in Kabul, many experts believe that it would not have been possible without Taliban cooperation. While the entire world has denounced the Taliban for inciting terrorism, China has responded cautiously and questioned why the U.S. maintains a double standard regarding counterterrorism efforts. By investigating the three sides of Al-Zawahiri’s assassination, this article will analyze who seems to exhibit double standards.
Unrelentless United States
The United States has a long history of counterterrorism efforts, demonstrating its priority to eradicating terrorism worldwide. The pursuit of Al-Zawahiri reflects the enduring impact of 9/11 on American history. Through UNSC resolution 1267, the U.S. fought tooth and nail for the Taliban to be labelled a terrorist organization two years before the attacks on the World Trade Center. The list has now been expanded to include numerous other terrorist groups and individuals, including the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, ETIM, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund, and Maulvi Abdul Salam Hanafi, among others.
While Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan, Zawahiri’s death in Afghanistan shows that the Af-Pak area has once again become a refuge for terrorists. The U.S.’s presence in the area produced a centrifugal effect that kept Islamic terrorist organizations at bay and under check. Equally valid, its absence has a centripetal impact, with many splintered radicalized groups converging on Kabul soil, bringing back instability and high-intensity terror breeding. On the question of sovereignty, the interim government is a terror-designated organization, and many individuals with blood on their hands are holding ministerial posts.
The Taliban established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but Mullah Baradar’s hard labor diplomatic outreach failed to convince global powers of its legitimacy. Video footages and pictures of locals and activists speak volumes about Afghan suffering. So how much support do the Taliban enjoy? According to the Asia Foundation 2019 survey, 85 percent of Afghan people feel no sympathy for the Taliban. Hence, there is no question of sovereignty as the Taliban’s rule has not been approved by the Afghans in particular and other countries in general. While the West is maybe convinced that the Taliban have modernized their outlook from material usage to diplomatic outreach, they are sure that Islamic ideology grips the Taliban firmer than ever.
While countries across the globe took two steps back and cautiously monitored the misrule of Afghanistan, the U.S. was staring at its $2-trillion bill, which went into establishing a responsible Afghan people backed pluralistic, human-rights-respecting and economically sustainable government on democratic principles within its security architecture. Still, for many reasons, it failed to sustain itself and crumbled like a pack of cards post-U.S. withdrawal.
Admittedly, the U.S. has many priorities: for instance, it has thrown weight behind Ukraine, is heavily invested in the Indo-Pacific, a looming recession post-COVID-19 pandemic, and the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it still maintains a firm grip on counterterror operations. Kabul’s debut was a powerful show of over-the-horizon counterterror policy (a favorable policy for New Delhi to potentially partner in). To paraphrase Amb. Anil Trigunayat, Al-Zawahiri’s assassination has halted the spawning of new groups and connections in the centrifugal process from Africa to Asia and left the central organization at a loss, signifying a win for the U.S. Well-charted strategies, covert operational capability, high-end tech support, and seamless interoperability among intelligence agencies show diligence and no double standards with which Washington executes terror.
Rising from the Tora Bora mountains to seizing the Kabul Presidential Palace, the Taliban’s takeover was a clarion call for insurgency. This interim government reflects a unique mix: a supreme leader, his fanatic core group, some moderate leaders and over 70 percent globally designated terrorists. Cohesion among the groups and information flow on critical matters in the chain of command is now very improbable following Al-Zawahiri’s assassination. Amb. Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, the Afghan envoy to Tajikistan, revealed that Haqqani family members were also killed in the US strike. Even while the Taliban insists it has no ties to Al-Zawahiri, family members of its minister are also murdered in the same safe house.
The fact that Taliban leaders reject any knowledge about Al-Zawahiri suggests two scenarios. First, the Taliban was aware of Al-Zawahiri’s relocation to Kabul but chose to remain silent because the Haqqani faction wields considerable military strength. Both Haqqani and Al Qaeda have a long-standing relationship with Pakistan’s backing. Therefore, the Kandahar faction may have continued to pursue its goal of portraying a united Taliban, assuring the world that it does not harbor terrorists. Second, the Taliban was unaware of Al-Zawahiri’s presence in the capital, and most probably the Haqqani sneaked Al-Zawahiri in. This lends credence to the widely held view that the Taliban is deeply divided and distrust among factions runs high.
It would not be inaccurate to argue that Taliban 2.0 will soon become history as well given current trends. While the Taliban primarily relies on China for resources, including money and investments, diplomatic ties, and a seat at regional fora, China is not enough to ensure its survival. For financial and humanitarian reasons, the Taliban requires the assistance of major world powers. With tyranny, theft, and murder rampant, it appears another civil war is on the brink. The Taliban has displayed double standards by nurturing terrorists, abusing human rights, and killing minorities and former government officials while clamoring for international legitimacy. Al-Zawahiri’s assassination in Kabul was the worst way the Taliban could have possibly ended a year of reign. Taliban 2.0 has already diminished any glimmer of hope that may have existed, complicating the legitimacy argument even further.
The Taliban must comprehend that Beijing’s friendship strategy is nothing but Debt Trap Diplomacy. S. Akbar Zaidi, a Pakistani political economist, has written that the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would reduce Pakistan to ‘a vassal state’, describing it as a Chinese project for Chinese interests. China is worried about its western frontier and will offer assistance to the extent that it serves its needs and interests. Therefore, to earn legitimacy for its government, the Taliban has to look beyond China and deliver results on multiple dimensions of human security, rights and justice, and security challenges it faces from the Islamic State of Khorasan. Most importantly, the Taliban must deliver on its promises of counterterror commitments as stipulated in the US-Taliban Deal (Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan). Before this, the Taliban must first emerge from its neck-deep terror network and work towards winning the hearts of the Afghan people. Legitimacy within is more critical than beyond borders.
China’s Moving Cheese
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is also interpreted as Beijing’s ascendancy Chinese investments in this unstable region, for instance, benefited from Western forces’ protection. Even before the withdrawal, Former President Donald Trump made it clear that NATO forces would withdraw boots from Kabul soil. With excellent foreign policy acumen and a solid instinct for the storm that might brew in the coming years, Beijing was prepared to handle if its cheese would move. Hence, Beijing started engaging with the Taliban through backdoor channels and sometimes on public forums. Beijing hosted a nine-member Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar on July 28, 2021, the first official visit post-Kabul capture. However, a delegation was also hosted in 2019, while in 2015, negotiation between Taliban and Afghan officials was also attempted by China.
There are twofold reasons for the Beijing-Taliban bromance. First, despite China accusing the U.S. of having double standards, it has a constrained view of the Taliban that shields its Xingjian region and Uyghur Muslims from radicalization. The Taliban delegation promised during their July 2021 visit that no force would use Afghan territory to harm China. Likewise, it believed that China would play a crucial part in Afghanistan’s stability, development, and prosperity.
Second, aside from domestic concerns, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East and Central Asia is seriously jeopardized by the withdrawal of the western military. Beijing seems to view the Taliban as a force that might combat fractured terror organizations and safeguard its assets without deploying its foot soldiers on the ground. Beijing is actively promoting Taliban-Afghan legitimacy as an alternative.
After looking at the relationship described above, it is not surprising that China’s response to Al-Zawahiri’s assassination was cautious, almost lenient, against the Taliban. Beijing has demonstrated its double standards by failing to denounce the Taliban, who gave Al-Zawahiri a haven, and instead condemning the U.S. drone strike. Yet, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister, Hua Chunying, claims that her country is resolutely opposed to terrorism and actively participates in global counterterrorism efforts. In sum, China failed to tackle the threat in its neighborhood to safeguard its narrow interests, but the United States killed Zawahiri and upheld its resolve despite all odds. Even though its narrow interests portray it as hypocritical, China must exercise caution when criticizing U.S. activities as having a double standard.
China has taken opposing stances by criticizing the U.S. while being lenient toward the Taliban. Additionally, Beijing has been obstructing the designation of Azhar Masood, Jaish-e-Mohammad’s chief, as a terrorist because he is not a near-term threat to Beijing’s interests. By doing this, she is jeopardizing her reputation as a global power. Clearly, the Taliban, China, and, for the most part, Pakistan are the ones who have maintained double standards when it comes to combatting terrorism.
The United States and its allies intend to win the fight against terrorism, and have shown no hesitance in doing so. Al-Zawahiri’s assassination will also affect Al-Qaeda and Taliban relations because it exposes the Taliban’s inability to provide a haven for terrorism in Afghanistan. Another implication is that U.S.-Taliban relations would suffer and that the efforts to recognize the Taliban would hit a dead end. The Taliban must now make a prudent choice; it cannot shelter terrorists while attempting to earn legitimacy.