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Three Strikes

So. Ayman al-Zawahiri is killed at last. Ayman al-Zawahiri, mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, successor to Usama bin Laden at the helm of a limping version of the organization we chose to consider an existential threat 20 years ago, launching two ill-conceived wars that left millions of people worse off than they’d been before, tens of thousands of service-members injured, confused and embittered, and a handful of defense contractors immeasurably richer.

A closure, of sorts, I suppose.

Though… Doesn’t all that feel almost like ancient history now, at least from the American vantage- point — like rubble buried beneath new layers: a global pandemic, a full-blown tank and artillery war in Europe, a simmering civil war here at home…?

Still, it’s worth spending a few minutes with spade and brush, digging into the debris. We will surely make some finds.

Here’s a question to start us off. Where did that CIA Hellfire missile nose out the most wanted terrorist in the world? Was he hiding in uncharted territory around Lake Chad, for example, where extremist factions proclaim allegiance to al-Qa’ida? Had he returned to his native Egypt?

No, Zawahiri was taking his ease on a balcony in Kabul, Afghanistan. And not just in Kabul: in the Shirpur neighborhood, whose streets I walked dozens of times. Despite the dilapidation of the once-lush city park, Shirpur was swank, what you might call Embassy and NGO Row. Hulking compounds had sprung up like genetically engineered mushrooms, and were now home, according to the New York Times, to “high-ranking Taliban officials,” government buildings, too.

In other words, Zawahiri was living in a safe-house, under the protection of the Taliban government.

The Doha Agreement (“Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”), under whose terms the U.S. and its NATO allies pulled out their troops, was extraordinarily generous to the Taliban. Still, there were a few conditions the group and its terrorist leaders did have to fulfill. For example: the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is not recognized by the United States as a state…will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents to [individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida] who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies, to enter Afghanistan.” (How an entity that is not a state can issue a visa is a separate question.)

One could argue that, at 71, Zawahiri no longer posed a threat. Maybe. Vladimir Putin is only 69. Or, maybe the Taliban lawyers pounced on a loophole and waived the formalities of travel documents.

But let’s get real. Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul was just the latest and most egregious Taliban violation of an accord President Joe Biden insisted he had no choice but to honor to the letter.

With our archeologists’ tools, we can take stock of a pattern that goes far further back than the Doha negotiations.

On May 2, 2011, I was getting ready to board a flight in Kabul just as the news was breaking that Usama bin Laden had been killed in a night raid a few hours before. By the time I reached my little soap-making cooperative in Kandahar, photographs of the building in which he had been hiding had hit the internet. The whole boisterous gang of Afghan soap-makers gathered around my laptop, craning to see.

The gasp was audible. You didn’t have to look twice to recognize that was a safe-house.

Then we found out it was located in Abbottabad — less than a mile from the Pakistani military academy, the equivalent of West Point or Quantico, except under a military dictatorship. There is no way that Usama bin Laden and his suspicious entourage of Pashtu-speaking Arabs and Pashtun retainers occupied that well-wired fortress within its high double wall without government approval.

That was strike 2: May 2, 2011.

To fully understand strikes 1 and 3, it’s crucial to bear the following fact in mind. The Taliban did not arise spontaneously in the villages around Kandahar, as the propaganda would have it. I interviewed dozens of people from all walks of life — local leaders who had participated in the events as well as ordinary folk who inhabited those villages or lived as refugees just across the border. The stories were unanimous. The Taliban were stitched together, essentially out of whole cloth, by the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. The agency recruited from Afghan refugees trained in largely Saudi-funded fundamentalist religious schools (madrassas) crowded along the border. After some market testing and negotiations with Kandahar anti-Soviet commanders — which led to heated internal disagreements — the black-turbaned fighters were sent into Afghanistan to take power, in scenes similar to ones we saw last August.

The original Taliban government, in other words, was a proxy government, serving essentially, if not in every detail, at the beck and call of the ISI. Think of the pro-Russian administration of the so-called Donetsk Republic of Ukraine. The main difference between the two situations is that Islamabad has been cleverer than Moscow, refraining from directly attacking Afghanistan and leveling cities for all to see. Instead, the proxies are truly in the lead, and Pakistani military and intelligence personnel are sent over in numbers too small to attract attention.

Given this context, what are we to make of Usama bin Laden setting up shop in the Taliban’s de facto capital of Kandahar — which lies just west of the strategic Pakistani city of Quetta — in 1996? Are we truly to believe that the ISI did not know who he was and what he was up to? In fact, is it much of a stretch to consider the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a proxy strike by the ISI?

That was strike 1: September 11, 2001.

Let’s call strike 3 this most recent one: Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul. He reportedly traveled there from his previous home, where he had been serving as leader of an albeit weakened al-Qa’ida. Where was that previous home? Why, somewhere in Pakistan, naturally, though no open-source reporting has yet pinpointed the spot. (Remember: Usama bin Laden was not found crouching in some mountain cave; he was housed in considerable luxury in an elite garrison town.)

Given the ISI’s role reconstituting the Taliban after the U.S. toppled them in 2002, equipping and training them, warning them away from U.S. raids, even helping plan their campaign strategy — including, no doubt, the remarkably coordinated final push last summer — and given the breathtaking arrival in Kabul of then-ISI chief Faiz Hameed to sort out internal quarrels after the Taliban took power, is it possible to imagine that the savvy Pakistani intelligence agency was unaware of Zawahiri’s presence on its home soil presumably for years, and then under the protecting wing of its proxies, the Taliban?

The above astonishing pattern gives rise to some further questions, and associated policy considerations.

1) Why does the United States still consider Pakistan a “Major Non-NATO Ally?” (Italics mine.) Just how openly hostile to U.S. interests, over how many years, does a country have to be before it is recognized as a menace? How much damage does it have to do?

Allow me to list, again, a few key facts. The ISI has (at least):

— Engaged in transfers of nuclear materials and technology with Iran, Libya, North Korea, and other countries, from the late 1980s through at least 2003.

— Invented the Taliban;

— Harbored Usama bin Laden, at what proved to be a plausibly deniable distance, while he was planning and executing the 9/11 terrorist attacks;

— Reconstituted the Taliban starting 2003;

— Supported, equipped, trained, and protected them, including from U.S. raids, and helped plan their 18-year campaign against U.S., Allied and Afghan government forces, as well as countless Afghan civilians;

— Sponsored dozens of terrorist attacks inside India, via proxies similar to the Taliban;

— Harbored bin Laden adjacent to a heavily protected army base;

— Harbored Ayman al-Zawahiri;

— Applauded the Taliban victory over the United States and its allies.

2) Why has Congress not called U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad up for a grilling? Top military brass had their turn scarcely a month after last year’s chaotic withdrawal. But Khalilzad is the man who negotiated the Doha deal, which made that defeat inevitable. It freed 500 Taliban fighters in exchange for just 100 Afghan government and civilian prisoners; it effectively conferred sovereignty on the group, despite protestations to the contrary, giving Taliban personnel the perfect argument to negotiate the surrender of Afghan local commanders; it included classified annexes that neither American nor Afghan populations nor NATO officials have ever seen, but the Taliban, of course, have. In other words, it deprived our supposed ally, the Afghan government, of all leverage. According to two former Alliance officials I know, Khalilzad negotiated it in Pashtu, with no non-Afghan in the room who spoke the language. Khalilzad lobbied on behalf of the Taliban back in the 1990s. Why hasn’t Congress sought to discover in whose interests he was actually negotiating — or whether some whispered sweetener for him was perhaps included in the transaction?

Khalilzad applauded the July 31 drone strike as vindicating his approach to ending the conflict. “We can protect our interests against terror threats in Afghanistan without a large and expensive military presence there,” he told the New York Times. He has admitted that Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul represented a violation of the Doha Agreement. But no U.S. official has publicly pressed him on the significance of that violation, the latest example of the Taliban’s repeated, flamboyant contempt for their obligations under the agreement they signed.

3) Why, given these circumstances, is there so much pressure on the Biden Administration to release Afghan government assets that remain frozen? Khalilzad’s wife, Cheryl Bernard, has been among those agitating for the purse-strings to be loosened. And she’s not the only one. Russia, the United Nations, Pakistan, of course, and even my alma mater, NPR have added their voices to the chorus.

There is no doubt that Afghan people are suffering intense hardship: an extended drought plus the abrupt cut-off of international development assistance, lack of employment, houses damaged or destroyed in last year’s fighting…it’s a litany of misery. But what has received almost no coverage in the U.S. media or official statements is the role the Taliban themselves, as well as their Pakistani patrons, have played in exacerbating this misery.

The Taliban have:

— Imposed restrictions on the transfer of money to Afghan individuals or entities. Only a small percentage of formal wire transfers, via such services as Western Union or MoneyGram as well as bank-to-bank transfers, is available per month to their beneficiaries. Thus are Afghans deprived of access to the assistance from friends and family abroad that account for almost 9% of Pakistan’s GDP and more than a quarter of that of Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the north. The self-sabotaging limits also make it impossible for Afghan producers and traders to sell their goods across borders, since they can’t be paid. That is, the collapse of the Afghan economy is largely due not to international financial sanctions, but to deliberate Taliban policy.

— Made it impossible for women to work — as teachers, for example, or doctors, or accountants, or business leaders, or government officials or janitors or police officers, or any of the other vital functions they fulfilled over the past twenty years. Not only does this ban mean that the countless single-parent households left behind by half a century of war are without a means of income, but the country’s economy is further crippled.

— Increased the severity of these measures by forbidding women to travel, even around a single city, without a male relative accompanying them.

The Pakistani government has:

— Strategically closed its borders to Afghan produce — late last year, for example, at the height of pomegranate season. Southern Afghanistan’s most important cash crop, lovingly cultivated down the generations in cool walled orchards, lay rotting on the ground.

— Encouraged its businessmen to refuse payment to their Afghan counter-parties until sanctions are lifted.

— Turned down requests for meetings from Afghan business representatives to discuss these issues.

— Restricted Afghans’ travel to and through Pakistan.

— Maneuvered itself into position as a key interlocutor for international humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan.

What we are witnessing, in other words, is a hostage situation. The Pakistani leadership and its proxies the Taliban are deliberately tightening the screws on the Afghan population, then pointing to the resulting misery as a reason for releasing frozen assets and restarting the manna of development assistance. It is a cynical move, and I am surprised that so many American influencers are falling for it.

The United States does not normally pay ransom to hostage-takers, and it should not start now. And certainly not unconditionally. Instead, U.S. officials could use that money — and its delivery direct to those who need it — as leverage to require the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors to meet some basic standards and obligations:

— Removing strictures on international financial transactions;

— Keeping borders open to Afghan goods on a most-favored-nation basis;

— Allowing women to work, unfettered;

— Not harboring past or present international terrorists;

— Engaging in good faith in a truly representative process to form a government that reflects the glorious diversity of Afghan society, including religious and political orientation, professional experience as well as ethnicity.

It is, of course, up to the Afghan people to rise somehow from the ashes of this latest war inflicted on them from outside their borders, and strive at last to constitute a government they can be proud of. But the least we can do is not take steps that would actively reinforce the Taliban we claimed to be fighting for two decades.

Small wonder U.S. foreign policy is unintelligible to those on the receiving end.


Solomon Fakhri
Solomon Fakhri
May 16, 2023

Sarah, your so called "knowledge" of the Taliban is pretty hilarious and your fallback of relying on your "sources" doesn't do you justice. If you're after real facts, refer to "Historical and Political Who's who of Afghanistan" by Ludwig W. Adamec. The Taliban were not created nor controlled by the ISI, who certainly helped in terms of providing weapons, cash and intelligence during their fight against the US invaders, but so did some of the other neighbouring countries of Afghanistan and enemies of the US such as China, Iran, Russia etc. The Taliban are very much 100% Afghan who live and die for only Afghanistan and its people. Here's an article from someone who knows a little more about the…


My Dear Sarah, Once again you made me think by sharing your wisdom. I appreciate this gift. You conclude with, "Small wonder U.S. foreign policy is unintelligible to those on the receiving end." I offer this included me and my students as they went out to planning jobs in our forces. How can we work to make this better? What are your suggestions along those lines? Cheers! Kevin Benson

Aug 12, 2022
Replying to

Wow, Kevin, great to hear from you. I was actually thinking of you vividly as this was going down. As per the above, it is hard for me to concoct a way of driving home lessons that seem so utterly obvious. Perhaps what is needed is a serious PhD dissertation on the incentive structures within U.S. military and civilian security institutions that keep selecting for the same type of doomed policies.


Aug 08, 2022

I think you've diagnosed the situation accurately. I was "in the business" (working in the IC) until the "early oughts" and as early as the mid-80s, while covering the "Russian War," we knew the ISI was heavily involved with the Muj, and while we were uncertain where this might lead, we knew those particular Pakistanis were ideological to the point of being "radicalized." Your speculation about them knowing bin Laden's whereabouts is probably correct. I'm not sure the ISI can be tagged with foreknowledge of 9/11, but they were certainly the "godfathers" of al-Qaeda.

Aug 12, 2022
Replying to

Thank you so much for your corroboration. An important detail re the "Muj." is that there were a number of different groups, not all with the same ideological profile. I was good pals with a Kandahar Pashtun commander who was loosely in step with the Northern Alliance (!) Though a mullah, he was emphatically not radical. (Mullah Naqib.) And he got just about none of the US manna. That is, the ISI deliberately channeled US support for the Mujahideen to the most radical factions (such as Gulbudin Hikmatyar, a pal of Usama bin Laden).


Couple of points:

First, query, Sarah, if Pakistan was behind 9/11 (or am I misreading you), how does it correlate with Saudi involvement?

As for our huge tolerance for Pakistan, my old fart theory — subject to correction by anyone who knows better, not just opines differently — is that our foreign policy since the end of WWII has been to make the world safe for US capitalists, which is how one gets with overthrows of elected governments in Iran and Guatemala and corrupting elections in Italy for years to ensure the election of the preferred pols. (There are, of course, numerous other example.)

After that, foreign policy seems to be disproportionately based on what’s expedient or politically beneficial but…

Replying to

Failed to note that there’s an awful irony with the war on terror and over forty years of baseless aggression against Afghanistan on one hand and Republican’ literally deadly response to Covid which has resulted in a couple hundred thousand avoidable deaths (as opposed to 9/11’s ~4,000 only arguably avoidable).


Aug 04, 2022

Another authentic analysis with facts and figures from Sarah. As an Indian I may be termed "biased" but during my stay in Afghanistan, most of my American teammates was not happy with Zalmay Khalilzad, as US Ambassador. To them, America was riding on a wrong horse. I worked on a number of civil contracts throughout Afghanistan. It is a bare fact that this US aid has mainly benefitted immensely to contractors (both national and international) with or without little benefit to the common masses. Well I must admit India is not an exception, but some kind of auditing exists.

Thank you Sarah again.

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