The Killing of Zawahiri: What Future Awaits US-Taliban Relations?

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On August 1, 2022, the United States (USA) neutralized Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, as a result of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.i Following this development, the Taliban announced that they condemned the attack and the Washington administration’s violation of the Doha Agreement dated February 29, 2020; thus, the violation of the sovereignty of Afghanistan.ii

The statement made by the Taliban indicates that the tensions in the contacts with the United States will be further tightened. It is because the Taliban made a commitment in the Doha Agreement of February 29, 2020, that it will not allow terrorist organizations to operate in Afghanistan and will fight against terrorism. In this sense, the killing of Zawahiri on the territory of Afghanistan can be interpreted as an event that will weaken the hand of the Taliban. As a matter of fact, immediately after the incident, voices criticizing the Taliban began to rise from the USA. For example, US Senator Lindsay Graham said, “This development is proof that Afghanistan has once again become a safe haven for international terrorists,”iii as he revealed the situation.

It should be noted that; As Graham pointed out, the drone attack on Zawahiri is a development that confirms the existence of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization in Afghanistan. At this point, the most critical situation is that the attack in question was in the Sar-e Pol region of Kabul; that is, it is organized in the bureaucratic-diplomatic community where the Taliban rulers stay. Based on all this information, it can be predicted that the USA will increase the pressure on the Taliban over its alleged involvement with terrorism. Yet, the essence of the matter may be much different than it appears.

If the above-mentioned picture was valid at the time of Zawahiri’s killing, the US may have wanted to punish the Taliban through this assassination and reveal the Taliban-Al-Qaeda relationship to the international community. However, considering the opposite possibilities, it is also possible to talk about four different scenarios.

The first one of these scenarios is that the Taliban may have cooperated at the institutional level during the killing of Zawahiri. As it is known, Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob visited Qatar on July 11-12, 2022, and it was announced that a comprehensive cooperation agreement would be signed between the parties, ranging from border security to the fight against terrorism, after the said visit.iv

Undoubtedly, Qatar is the Taliban’s window to the West. It is because many Western actors, especially the USA, maintain their contacts with the Taliban through Doha. Therefore, the Taliban may have shared intelligence on Zawahiri’s location as a sign of goodwill that it distances itself from the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. As can be expected, if such a scenario reflects the reality, contrary to expectations, a positive atmosphere will be created in US-Taliban relations. This may open the door that will lead to the recognition of the Taliban.

The second scenario can be explained through the power struggle within the Taliban. It is because within the Taliban, there is a rivalry between the moderate-reformist wing led by the Deputy Prime Minister of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the radicals, which is expressed as the Haqqani Network. In the context of this rivalry, the Baradar group may have prepared the ground for Zawahiri’s murder by sharing intelligence with the United States. At the same time, this will mean that the Haqqani Network will be targeted by the Washington administration. This, in turn, will strengthen Baradar, and thus the moderates. However, if such a development has taken place, it is inevitable that the Haqqani Network will react sharply, and the intra-Taliban conflicts will gain momentum.

The third scenario that needs to be considered is related to the power struggle within the Taliban as well. Accordingly, the Haqqani Network, which has already been sanctioned by the United States for its links with the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, may have reported the location of Zawahiri to the US officials, aiming to reduce the pressure of the sanctions on them. This may be the beginning of developments that will increase the weight of the Haqqani Network within the Taliban and lead to the dissolution of the reformists.

The fourth scenario is Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is known to have a significant influence in Afghanistan, sharing information with the United States. It is because in the current conjuncture, the Islamabad administration is trying to repair its relations with the West. In this context, Pakistan, which made an initiative with the West, may have chosen to cooperate in the killing of Zawahiri as a sign of goodwill.

In conclusion, the attack by the USA on Zawahiri via drones is a development that will be considered a milestone in terms of the future of both the Taliban and Afghanistan. If the killing of Zawahiri was the result of an institutional cooperation of the Taliban, it may lead to a positive momentum in the Taliban-US relations in the future despite the condemnation statements made in the current situation. However, if the attack is due to the separation of the forces within the Taliban, it can be said that the power struggle within the organization will increase, Afghanistan will become destabilized, and the actor cooperating with the Washington administration will become stronger. However, if it was Pakistan’s ISI that shared the information with the USA, it means that the tension that has been rising in the Taliban-Pakistan line in the recent period will increase and the relations between the parties may go to the breaking point.

i “Zawahri’s Kabul Death Raises Questions About al Qaeda Presence in Afghanistan After US left it to the Taliban”, Fox News,, (Date of Accession: 02.08.2022).

ii “Statement of the Spokesperson of the Islamic Emirate Regarding the Drone Attack in Kabul City”, Just Paste,, (Date of Accession: 02.08.2022).

iii “Zawahri’s Kabul Death…”, a.g.m.

iv “Kabul, Doha to Sign Security Agreement: Acting Defense Minister”, Tolo News,, (Date of Accession: 18.07.2022).

Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN
Dr. Doğacan BAŞARAN, 2014 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Yüksek lisans derecesini, 2017 yılında Giresun Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda sunduğu ‘’Uluslararası Güç İlişkileri Bağlamında İkinci Dünya Savaşı Sonrası Hegemonik Mücadelelerin İncelenmesi’’ başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Doktora derecesini ise 2021 yılında Trakya Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı‘nda hazırladığı “İmparatorluk Düşüncesinin İran Dış Politikasına Yansımaları ve Milliyetçilik” başlıklı teziyle alan Başaran’ın başlıca çalışma alanları Uluslararası ilişkiler kuramları, Amerikan dış politikası, İran araştırmaları ve Afganistan çalışmalarıdır. Başaran iyi derecede İngilizce ve temel düzeyde Farsça bilmektedir.