Hours after an American drone strike killed the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, in downtown Kabul, Taliban security forces rushed to seal off the site. Green tarps were thrown over destroyed windows. Checkpoints were put up, and shops were closed.
But there was no hiding the damage that had been done to the Taliban’s nascent government, which had tried to shelter the world’s most wanted terrorist from the eyes of the American government.
The strike early Sunday morning — and the public revelation that the Taliban had sheltered a key plotter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the heart of the Afghan capital — was a watershed moment for the group’s new government. And it underscored the reality of their rule: The Taliban have not fundamentally reformed from their first regime in the 1990s, when their hard-line policies and relationship with Al Qaeda turned the country into a pariah state.
Retaliation against Al Qaeda and the Taliban allies who sheltered the terrorist group drove the United States to invade Afghanistan in 2001, beginning a two-decade-long war that ravaged the country. Now, the Taliban seem to be once more treading the same path, fueling criticism that their government should never be internationally recognized, and raising questions about whether a new era of U.S. strikes in Afghanistan has begun.
A statement from the Taliban condemned the American strike, without specifically mentioning al-Zawahri or Al Qaeda. “It is an act against the interests of Afghanistan and the region,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban government. “Repeating such actions will damage the available opportunities.”
The strike comes at an already tenuous moment for the Taliban. Since seizing power, the group has promised to moderate as it seeks international recognition and aid from Western diplomats abroad, even while staying true to its hard-line ideological beliefs at home.
In recent months, the government has enacted increasingly oppressive policies, including restricting women’s rights to travel and work. And it has reneged on an early promise to allow girls to attend secondary school, a stark echo of its first rule.
Those measures have increasingly turned international attitudes against the government and have cost the country millions in foreign aid, worsening its dire economic crisis. Now, the strike against Al Qaeda’s leader in the heart of Kabul has opened a new chapter for the Taliban government, seemingly cementing its international isolation.
The strike highlights what many analysts and experts have warned for months: that the Taliban have allowed terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, to exist freely on Afghan soil since the takeover despite an agreement with the United States in which the group pledged to keep Afghan territory from becoming a haven for terrorist plotting.
“No one is terribly surprised that the Taliban is playing footsie with Al Qaeda, and no one is terribly surprised the U.S. hit him with a drone,” said Graeme Smith, a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group who focuses on Afghanistan.
“The risk now is a slippery slope of ‘over the horizon’ strikes being a viable option dealing with very complicated threats that are coming from Afghanistan,” he added. “There is a rich history of airstrikes not having their intended consequences in Afghanistan.”
Sunday’s strike signals the first use of the Pentagon’s so-called “over the horizon” strategy in Afghanistan, in which the United States attacks targets with aircraft based outside the country.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, American officials have moved to reposition American forces in neighboring countries where they can launch strikes like the one on al-Zawahri. This strategy is still in its infancy, and talks about positioning forces in places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan are still in their early stages.
It remains unclear whether the strike over the weekend will be the first of many, or a one-off.
“The strike doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the over-the-horizon strategy because it was clear that al-Zawahri was a big enough fish to go after regardless of the general policy,” Mr. Smith added.
For many Afghans in Kabul, news of the U.S. airstrike in the heart of the capital stirred deep-seated fears of a return to the era of American military intervention, after a relatively peaceful stretch over the past year since the U.S. troop withdrawal and end of the devastating two-decade war.
American officials insisted that no one other than al-Zawahri was killed or hurt in the strike over the weekend. But just a year ago, in the chaotic final days of its withdrawal in August 2021, the United States carried out a drone strike based on bad information that killed 10 civilians in Kabul — an error American officials acknowledged only after reporting by The New York Times.
Shafiq, 25, said he was arranging fruit at his stand in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul when he heard a powerful explosion. For a moment he froze, he said, seized by the fear that once again hundreds of people had been killed in a deadly attack. In time, he came to fear that it could be the beginning of yet another bloody conflict.
“I am personally very worried about the future of our country,” said Shafiq, whose full name is being withheld for security reasons. “We want peace and security in our country after this, and we do not want war to start in our country again.”
The Taliban’s history with Al Qaeda stretches back decades. Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s first leader in the 1990s, was largely deferential to Al Qaeda’s expanding existence in the country’s east during those years. Some Taliban factions had a closer relationship with the terrorist organization than others — especially the Haqqani network, whose senior leadership fought alongside and aided Al Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, during the Soviet-Afghan war.
As its terrorist camps spread, Bin Laden issued a “declaration of jihad” in summer 1996 that called for attacks on the United States. Omar was at times clearly frustrated with the negative international attention that began focusing on his government, but he still refused to eject Bin Laden, even after Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks set the United States on the path to invasion.
Both Bin Laden and al-Zawahri pledged allegiance to the Taliban’s leaders over the years, though al-Zawahri’s most recent pledge — in 2016 after Haibatullah Akhundzada rose to become supreme leader of the Taliban — was never publicly accepted or rejected by the group.
Over the course of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, American forces periodically killed Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, despite the group’s having been mostly driven out of the country or into hiding in the mountainous border regions with Pakistan.
But a larger drift back into Afghanistan began in more recent years. In 2015, U.S. and Afghan commandos, backed by American air support, attacked an Al Qaeda training camp in the southern part of the country that military officials said was one of the largest ever discovered. One such camp sprawled over 30 square miles, and hundreds of Qaeda fighters were killed or injured in the battle, U.S. officials said at the time.
Less than a year before the United States left Afghanistan, and after U.S. and Taliban officials had signed the Doha agreement in 2020, Afghan government forces killed a senior Qaeda leader who was under the protection of the Taliban in southeastern Afghanistan. The raid was a clear indication that the Taliban had refused to sever ties with the terrorist group despite the commitments made in the Doha talks. Still, the American troop withdrawal continued.
Since the Taliban seized power, analysts and experts have warned that terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, have been able to operate more freely across Afghanistan.
Cross-border attacks launched by the Pakistani Taliban from Afghanistan more than doubled in the eight months after the Western-backed government collapsed, according to the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies. And this spring, United Nations monitors warned that the Taliban were providing “operating space for about 20 terrorist groups broadly aligned with Al-Qaida and Taliban objectives.”
The U.N. report added that Al Qaeda had found “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power and that al-Zawahri had been issuing regular video messages — a sign that he was feeling more comfortable since the Taliban’s takeover and his move back to Afghanistan.
Now, following al-Zawahri’s death at the hands of the United States, many are waiting to see how Al Qaeda and the Taliban will define their relationship.
“It’s interesting what happens next,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst with Crisis Group’s Asia Program. “If Al Qaeda chooses a leader that’s present in Afghanistan, then it doesn’t solve the Taliban’s conundrum.”
Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul and Eric Schmitt contributed from Washington.