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Did the US violate Doha accord by taking out Al Qaeda chief Zawahiri?

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri’s killing in Kabul has sparked a debate whether the Doha agreement, which paved the way for ending America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, will hold and ensure continuation of peace in the war-stricken country. 

The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed on August 1 that Zawahiri was struck by an American drone that killed him instantly. Calling the world “a safer place following the death of Zawahiri”, Blinken also accused the Taliban of violating its peace accord with the US, signed in 2020 in the Qatari capital of Doha, by hosting and sheltering the Al Qaeda supremo.

Was the Doha pledge violated? Here’s what experts say.

Obaidullah Baheer, lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan and visiting scholar at The New School in New York City, calls it a “chicken-and-egg problem”. 

“I think both sides violated the agreement. One in violating Afghanistan’s sovereignty with the attack, and the other by hosting Al Qaeda affiliates and leadership within Kabul,” he says. So, Baheer adds, “the Doha agreement is whatever both parties make it to be.”

The Doha agreement was signed as the US sought to end its 20-year war in Afghanistan, and a joint declaration, comprising four interrelated and interdependent parts, was made public. The declaration spoke about guarantees to prevent the use of Afghan soil by terrorists, timeline of the US withdrawal, intra-Afghan political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

While the deal explicitly mentions a key commitment on part of Afghanistan to prevent any international terror groups or individuals from using its soil, in the overall context of the agreement, the US drone strike could also be seen as a violation of the ceasefire and in extension a violation of the agreement.

“I guess the Taliban’s understanding was if they are not active militarily then it should be fine,” says Baheer, adding that it will have to be seen what the Taliban communicate to the American officials.

However, this isn’t the first occasion when an accusation has been levelled by one party against the other for not upholding the accord.

Consensual act? 

Zawahiri’s killing comes at a time when Al Qaeda has lost much of its operational capabilities due to several factors ranging from the loss of much of its senior leadership to lack of funding. 

Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, thinks it’s unlikely the Taliban were unaware of the US strike.

“I think the Taliban had direct knowledge about the American operation, and also, it had given its consent either directly or indirectly for it,” he says. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have waited for President Biden’s press conference to issue a formal and mild criticism of it.”

Baheer, too, thinks the messaging on part of the Taliban, which is not too aggressive and appears to be cautious, is worth reading into.

“The Taliban’s response really says a lot,” he says. 

“The fact that it hasn’t been too aggressive shows that there is willingness to work towards some sort of understanding and I guess we’ll have to see if both sides can sit down and maybe discuss the appendices to the actual Doha agreement — that were never released (and) had some mechanisms to enforce the deal.” 

However, he cautions and says it will have to be seen how both parties react moving forward, but doubts that this is the end of engagement between the US and the Taliban.

The reason Baheer says so is because of late the US and the Taliban have been quite satisfied with each other on the security front. “It’s just that this came very abruptly … so, if both sides do sit down and certain guarantees and mechanisms are provided, (then) maybe this is a one-off thing,” he says.

Swain, too, does not foresee the new-found peace between the two sides getting derailed. “I think it is business as usual,” he says. “Zawahiri was a big name but had been reduced to almost nothing. So, his killing is a win-win for everyone.”

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