Is the U.S.-Taliban Dialogue on Its Last Legs? | Opinion

We know in some detail how Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who took over Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's demise a decade ago, was found and killed last weekend. But how al-Zawahiri's death in a U.S. drone strike will impact the ongoing dialogue between the United States and the Taliban is still an open question.

The U.S. intelligence community picked up indications of al-Zawahiri's presence in a leafy Kabul neighborhood back in April, when the bespectacled ideologue moved himself and his family into a house in the Afghan capital. A pattern of life was established in the ensuing months; it turned out bin Laden's successor liked to spend time on his balcony, and he wasn't prone to moving around. Operational plans were drafted, and once President Joe Biden approved the mission, hellfire missiles rained down on the precise spot where al-Zawahiri was known to frequent. The operation was executed flawlessly.

For Washington, the death of the world's most wanted terrorist was an indisputable victory. Sure, Al-Qaeda will eventually settle on a successor and the organization will continue to operate as it has for over 30 years, but removing one of its founding members is still a notable accomplishment.

For the Taliban, however, al-Zawahiri's death is a major problem because it's likely to spoil whatever slim opportunity it had to pursue normal working relationships with the U.S., Europe, and perhaps Afghanistan's neighbors. There was always a deep-seated assumption within U.S. policymaking circles that Taliban promises weren't worth much. Concern about Taliban conduct is the primary reason why Afghanistan's foreign reserves remain locked up in U.S. banks, money the Afghan people sorely need as they struggle every day to stave off hunger. That al-Zawahiri's residence was located next to a home owned by Taliban interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is a public relations disaster for the Taliban government and only reinforces the notion of Taliban duplicity in the minds of U.S. officials.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken wasted no time bringing this up. "By hosting and sheltering the leader of al Qa'ida in Kabul," Blinken said, "the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries."

The Doha agreement, signed in February 2020, outlines a series of commitments the U.S. and the Taliban are obliged to meet. At the top of the list was the Taliban preventing any terrorist group, particularly Al-Qaeda, from using "the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies." The accord also committed the Taliban to cease cooperating with any group or individual threatening U.S. security. To state the obvious: allowing the leader of Al-Qaeda to shelter in an area of Kabul teeming with Taliban officials isn't exactly abiding by the terms of the accord.

It's important, however, to note that the Taliban isn't a monolith. While it's true the organization is internally disciplined, punishes dissidents, and follows the orders of its emir, Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban itself is also divided along regional and even ethnic lines. There is a rivalry between the Haqqani Network, which is historically close to Al-Qaeda politically and operationally, and a Taliban faction based in the group's traditional southern heartland. The rivalry is less about ideology or values and more about power and perks, but it's a rivalry nonetheless.

Taliban fighters keeping watch at an outpost in Tawakh village of Anaba district, Panjshir province. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Why is this significant? Because what one faction is doing may not be supported, or even known, by the other. It's plausible that while the Haqqani Network believed protecting al-Zawahiri was a sacred duty, the Taliban in the south would have preferred the Al-Qaeda chief stayed somewhere in the mountains, never to be heard from again. Naturally, this is conjecture; we don't have concrete evidence right now one way or the other. But there is some speculation that the Taliban leadership as a whole was unaware of al-Zawahiri's presence in Kabul.

"We do believe that senior members of the Haqqani Network, which is associated with the Taliban, knew that Zawahiri was in Kabul," national security adviser Jake SullivantoldCBS on Aug. 2. "There may have been other members who didn't."

Another question: Will al-Zawahiri's killing bleed over into the ongoing talks between the U.S. and the Taliban on issues like counterterrorism and mitigating Afghanistan's humanitarian catastrophe?

Unfortunately for the Afghan population, the chances are fairly good. Before the Al-Qaeda leader's discovery was widely known, U.S. and Taliban officials were discussing everything from humanitarian assistance to economic stabilization. The two sides were even trading proposals about how best to unfreeze $3.5 billion in Afghanistan's foreign reserves, and on July 27, U.S. envoy Thomas West led an inter-agency delegation in Uzbekistan to continue talks with the Taliban on Afghanistan's economy.

To say those discussions are much needed would be a vast understatement given the economic doldrums the Afghan people are living in; according to a recent report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, over 90 percent of Afghans face some level of food insecurity, teachers go months without pay, and hospitals are in short supply of medicines due to the complications of navigating U.S. sanctions against the Taliban.

The Biden administration will now feel compelled to cut off the dialogue, either to penalize the Taliban for harboring the terrorist, or out of concern that any arrangements struck will be immediately broken. If this is the direction the U.S. is thinking about going, then Washington should understand that it's the ordinary Afghan who will have to deal with the damage.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.