Will the assassination of Al-Zawhiri return to South Asia? | Sergio Restelli

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As we approach the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban (August 15, 2021) and the United States rushed to capitulate to a terrorist group, the United States finally killed Ayaman al-Zawhiri during from a drone strike yesterday. al-Zawhiri lived in an affluent Kabul neighborhood where other senior Taliban officials have also been living since last year. While the statement Secretary of State Anthony Blinken blames the Taliban for violating the Doha Accords for this attack, the timing of renewed US interest in South Asia is rather interesting.

Not only does Al-Zawhiri’s death come at a time when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is visiting Taiwan and Asia in general, but it is also at a time when a strong defeat in the mid-term elections -November term will give control of Congress and the Senate back to the Republicans and, essentially, Joe Biden will be a lame president.

Besides regional geopolitics and China, the most important element of this attack is Pakistan. For decades, Pakistan has shared a close relationship with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and presumably Al-Zawhiri through its spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). While actionable intelligence may or may not have been provided by Pakistan for Al-Zawhiri’s killing, Pakistani airspace was certainly used for the drone attack, presumably with the authorization of the highest authorities. This comes at a time when Pakistan is grappling with the worst economic crisis in its modern history, its relationship with its proxy, the Taliban, has hit rock bottom and its negotiation efforts with Pakistani Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have failed. The TTP has carried out several terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, is aligned with the Afghan Taliban and wants the Pakistani government to withdraw its troops from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, uniting the Pashtun homeland under the banner of the United Taliban.

In the first half of 2022, Pakistan intensified its ongoing efforts to complete
fence its border with Afghanistan along the Durand line. The Durand
Line is not recognized by the Taliban and has never been recognized by
neither has any previous government in Afghanistan.

These efforts to build border fences have met with considerable resistance throughout the year, and tensions have only escalated in the past two months.

Recently, a Pakistani army helicopter carrying a senior officer came under fire
on the Afghan side, and a Pakistani soldier who was repairing the fence of the
Durand Line was captured by Taliban forces, apparently because he was
involved in drug trafficking. Negotiations for the return of the soldier were
extremely surly and the Pakistani army requested its troops deployed along
the Durand line to thoroughly inspect all vehicles crossing the “border” and to
monitor and report any breaches in the fence.

Pakistan has always been keen to make progress in fencing, but recently
this became a top priority, regardless of the diplomatic cost. This
the sudden emphasis on border security is a direct consequence of the dramatic increase
in cross-border raids by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
operating from safe havens in Afghanistan as well as an increase in cases of
urban terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities.

The Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies noted in a report that Pakistan was facing an almost 50% increase in the number of terrorist attacks from the previous year. According to the report, the TTP alone was responsible for 87 terrorist attacks. In addition to this, the TTP began to extort high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants demanding large payments. TTP activists have even personally threatened senior government ministers and are aggressive enough to detonate small bombs near the residences of those who dare to resist the group’s demands.

This state of affairs has caused panic in the Pakistani establishment and spurred action.
It is no coincidence that the recent change in policy has coincided with the danger
get close to wealthy Pakistanis and government officials. Pakistani resident
in the more remote parts of the country have long believed that the elites of Lahore
and Karachi have seen the impact that years of conflict have had in places like
Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as acceptable collateral damage in research
broader strategic goals. These remote provinces are economically backward
and often lack even basic amenities. Now that rich and mighty
Pakistani officials and businessmen are in personal danger, Pakistan is
making increasingly frantic attempts to secure its cities against the threat of the
PTT.

The sad reality is that Pakistan has already misjudged the danger
involved in supporting and nurturing Taliban extremism without
given the inevitable consequences of doing so. The TTP, like the Taliban,
subscribes to an ideologically extreme version of Islam that prohibits a wide
perfectly normal array of activities in most Muslim-majority countries.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have made it nearly impossible for women to lead
sort of normal life or even appear in public. For foreigners, Pakistan may appear
being a very conservative Islamic country, but this point of view is not shared by the TTP
which follows a much more extreme version of Islam. The military success of
The Afghan Taliban and the subsequent imposition of their ideology in Afghanistan
served as the inspiration for the TTP and indeed a myriad of others like it
groups.

Political instability in Pakistan, coupled with the growing prevalence of
extremist ideology especially in the already disaffected provinces such as
Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has created conditions where the
The Pakistani state will experience significant difficulties in coping with the TTP and the
various similar groups that have multiplied throughout the country. Pakistan has
for a long time cynically used various extremist groups to advance its political goals. Until
recently, the consequences of this policy have been particularly felt in remote tribal areas,
physically removed from the heart of Pakistan. With an increasing push of
terrorist attacks are now hitting major cities in Pakistan, the establishment is
frantically trying to protect themselves against the threat.

The tacit involvement of Pakistan in the assassination of Al-Zawhiri will have repercussions, first on the Afghan Taliban who will see it as a betrayal, then on the TTP who will use it as just cause to increase their violence. On the other hand, the American pressure must have been immense at a time when Pakistan needs American support for its IMF grants and other aid to shore up its economy, after China has all but abandoned it. Stuck between the devil and the sea depths, Al-Zawhiri’s death will have an impact and an echo, both regionally and internationally.

Sergio Restelli is an Italian political adviser, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990s as special assistant to Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Martelli and worked closely with anti-Mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades, he has been involved in peacebuilding and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020, his first fiction “Napoli sta bene” is published.

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