Drone strike on al-Zawahiri confronts Taliban with nationalist backlash

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KABUL — The US drone attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri here early Sunday morning also dealt a humiliating blow to the Taliban regime, which had secretly harbored the aging extremist in the heart of the Afghan capital for months but failed to keep him safe.

As the Taliban prepared to celebrate their first year in power later this month, the attack sparked a nationalist backlash against the embattled regime at home and snide comments on social media calling for revenge against the United States. United.

“If Zawahiri’s martyrdom is confirmed, then shame on you that we couldn’t protect the true hero of Islam,” an Afghan named Ehsanullah tweeted in response to a statement Tuesday morning from the spokesperson. leader of the Taliban that the leader of al-Qaeda had been killed in an American drone strike.

The assassination of al-Zawahiri, a hero of militant Islamist groups but a long-sought terrorist in the West, also crystallized the ongoing struggle between moderate and hardline factions within the Taliban regime. Several leaders of the radical Haqqani network, long denounced by US officials for leading large-scale terrorist attacks, hold senior positions within the regime.

Now, according to some Afghan and American analysts, the drone strike could harden Taliban attitudes and push the regime towards open adherence to the extremist forces it pledged to renounce in its 2020 peace deal with the United States. .

“The Taliban are currently in deep political trouble and they will come under pressure to retaliate. Their relationship with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups remains very strong,” said Islamic extremism expert Asfandyar Mir. at the American Institute of Peace in Washington, DC “I think we should prepare for the impact.”

Mir noted that while Taliban officials were hoping for international recognition and access to more than $9 billion in assets frozen by the Biden administration, the group’s supreme religious leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, said emphatically at a conclave. National in May: “We are in a clash of civilizations with the West.

US kills al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in drone strike in Kabul

There is deep-seated animosity towards the United States here, which intensified after the withdrawal of American troops last year and the collapse of the war economy, leaving millions of Afghans jobless. When Afghan officials belatedly confirmed that a US drone had killed the al-Qaeda leader, after initially insisting the strike was a harmless rocket attack, many Afghans were furious.

“We already have so many worries. For a whole year, there was no job, no trade, no activity. But at least the fighting was over. The Taliban were in control and the security was good,” said a resident of the Sherpur neighborhood, where the drone hit, who went by the name Hakimullah. “Now suddenly this attack is happening, and everyone is scared again.”

Many Afghans seem to know little about al-Zawahiri or al-Qaeda. This is partly because so many of them were born after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which US officials say were orchestrated by al-Zawahiri and his associates, and partly because the Al-Qaeda fighters who have joined forces with the Taliban are Middle Easterners whose presence in Afghanistan has always been discreet.

What the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri means for al-Qaeda

Until now, people here have been much more focused on the threat posed by another Sunni Muslim extremist movement, known as Islamic State-Khorasan or ISIS-K. The group has in the past repeatedly bombed mosques, schools and other sites in Kabul, particularly during the Shia Muslim holiday of Muharram, which began this week.

Among those most dismayed by the turn of events are Afghan civilians who have tried to forge a working relationship with the new Taliban authorities, encouraging them to develop moderate and practical government policies rather than focusing exclusively on religion.

Faiz Zaland, who teaches governance and political science at Kabul University, expressed frustration with the Taliban for not anticipating the risks of bringing al-Zawahiri to the capital and fears the US attack had reduced the chances of the regime’s moderate elements competing with the religious hardliners at the top.

“The Taliban are stuck now, and it’s their fault,” he said. “It will undermine the accomplishments of their freshman year, and people who care will feel betrayed and scared.”

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