A top U.S. official is on his way to Doha, Qatar to close a preliminary peace deal with the Afghan Taliban insurgent group. By coincidence or otherwise, U.S. officials are now claiming that senior al-Qaeda leaders are either dead or dying.
On Wednesday, unnamed U.S. officials told NBC News and the New York Times that Hamza bin Laden, the son of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, died some time in the past two years in an operation that had U.S. involvement. And on Thursday, CNN reported that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the present leader of the al-Qaeda network, has a “heart complaint” described as “potentially serious.”
These developments, which have not been confirmed by non-U.S. government sources, come as Trump’s special envoy for Afghan peace, Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, heads to Doha, Qatar, after stops in Kabul and Islamabad, to finalize a deal with the Afghan Taliban insurgent group.
Just got to #Doha to resume talks with the Taliban. We are pursuing a #peace agreement not a withdrawal agreement; a peace agreement that enables withdrawal. Our presence in #Afghanistan is conditions-based, and any withdrawal will be conditions-based.— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) August 2, 2019
According to the Washington Post, the United States and the Taliban are on verge of signing a preliminary deal that would involve the withdrawal of roughly half of 14,000-plus American forces in Afghanistan in exchange for a ceasefire and a renunciation of relations with al-Qaeda by the Taliban.
There are, however, complications along that road. The United States and the Taliban have yet to agree on a timetable for a withdrawal and whether a residual American presence would be allowed.
But Trump appears keen on a withdrawal from Afghanistan. This week, he told C-SPAN that “at some point” his administration would like to “get out” of Afghanistan. And on Friday, NBC News reported that Trump has told aides that he would like to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan before the November 2020 elections.
So what explains the reports on the death or poor health of two al-Qaeda leaders on successive days? Is the Trump administration trying to ameliorate concerns that its impending agreement with the Taliban would be a boon for groups like al-Qaeda and enhance threats to the U.S. homeland?
The timing of both reports is odd and they offer little in detail or evidence for the public. A fuller picture may come out next week, when the United States and Taliban are expected to come to an agreement on a pathway to end their nearly 18-year war, allowing for intra-Afghan talks to formally begin.
This August is set to become one of the most important months in the history of Afghanistan.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.