The US drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri has raised questions over Pakistan’s possible role in the raid amid reports suggesting that the country’s airspace could have been used for carrying out the precision strike on the al-Qaeda chief’s safe house in Kabul.
A drone strike in the Afghan capital this weekend killed Zawahri, who helped Osama bin Laden plot the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. It was the first high-profile US attack in Afghanistan since American troops withdrew from the country in August of last year.
The attack has sparked speculation in Pakistan about whether the CIA drone used Pakistani airspace to target Zawahiri in the neighbouring country.
“A US drone flew into Afghanistan from the Gulf region, assuming Pakistan hasn’t yet given bases (unless this government has done so covertly), but over which country’s airspace? Iran does not grant the US any airspace rights, so was Pakistani airspace used?” Shireen Mazari, a senior Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader, tweeted in response to media reports that the American drone that killed Zawahiri was possibly launched from an airbase in Kyrgyzstan.
According to reports, the attack was launched from Ganci Airbase in Manas, northern Kyrgyzstan, a US transit facility.
Ganci is a former American military base in Kyrgyzstan, close to the international airport in Bishkek. It was operated by the US Air Force until June 2014, when it was handed over to the Kyrgyz military.
However, the Biden administration continues to refuse to reveal where the drone took off and the route it took.
The US Department of Defense issued only a brief statement, stating that “Zawahiri was assassinated in an over-the-horizon operation in downtown Kabul, where he was staying as a Taliban guest. Two Hellfire missiles were fired at the house in a precision counterterrorism operation at 6:18 a.m. Kabul time on Sunday.”
According to Michael Kugelman, a South Asian affairs scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, the drone strike has sparked “a lot of debate” in the United States about “Pakistan’s possible role” in the raid.
“There has been a lot of speculation about Pakistan’s possible role in the Zawahiri raid. I wouldn’t exaggerate its importance, but I would take Pakistani officials’ claim that it played no role at all with a grain of salt. There are two types of assistance available: airspace and intelligence. Here are some thoughts on both “He tweeted about it.
“The geography does not deceive. This drone would be unable to fly over Iran if launched from a US base in the Gulf. Flying over Central Asia is difficult and time-consuming if you need to get somewhere quickly. Pakistani airspace is thus the most desirable option “He stated.
On the possibility of Central Asian neighbours providing that assistance to the US, he stated, “What about Afghanistan’s other neighbours? It’s not impossible that some Central Asian states assisted with intelligence. In the past, Iran provided some assistance to the US in Afghanistan, but that would not happen today, especially since Biden’s attempts at detente with Tehran have failed.”
He stated that, in terms of intelligence support, US officials stated that the planning and surveillance for this operation took months.
“Could it do that without any on-the-ground presence?” he wondered, adding that if not Pakistan, “some renegade Taliban members might have supplied that information to the US.”