US drone strike that killed Zawahiri raises questions over Pakistan’s possible role

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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.

In the first high-profile US attack in Afghanistan since American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August of last year, a drone strike in the Afghan capital this weekend killed Zawahri, who helped Osama bin Laden plot September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The attack has led to speculation here whether Pakistani airspace was used by the CIA drone to attack Zawahiri in the neighbouring country.

“A US drone flew into Afghanistan from the direction of the Gulf region – assuming Pak hasn’t given bases yet (unless this govt has done so covertly) – but flew over which country’s airspace? Iran does not give any airspace rights to the US only so was Pak airspace used?” senior Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Shireen Mazari tweeted after some media reports that the American drone that eliminated Zawahiri was possibly laun­ched from an airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

Reports claim that the attack was launched from Ganci Airbase, a US transit facility at Manas in northern Kyrgyzstan.

Ganci is a former American military base in Kyrgyzstan, near the Bishkek international airport. It was operated by the US Air Force, which handed it over to the Kyrgyz military in June 2014.

The Biden administration, however, is still refusing to disclose where the drone take-off from and what route it used.

The US Department of Defence only issued a brief statement, saying “Zawahiri was killed in an over-the-horizon operation in downtown Kabul, where he was residing as a guest of the Taliban. The house was struck by two Hellfires missiles in a precision, counterterrorism operation at 6:18 am Kabul time on Sunday.”

Michael Kugelman, a scholar of South Asian affairs at the Wilson Center, Washington, said that the drone strike has generated “lots of discussions” in the US on “Pakistan’s possible role” in the raid.

“Lots of discussion on Pakistan’s possible role in the Zawahiri raid. I wouldn’t overstate its role but also would take some grains of salt from Pak officials’ contention that there was no role at all. Two possible forms of support: Airspace and intelligence. Some thoughts on both,” he tweeted.

“The geography doesn’t lie. If this drone was launched from a US base in the Gulf, it wouldn’t be able to fly over Iran. Flying over Central Asia is circuitous and hard to pull off if you’re undertaking a rapid operation. This leaves Pakistani airspace as the most desirable option,” he said.

On the possibility of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours providing that support to the US, he said, “As for Afghanistan’s other neighbours. Can’t rule out the possibility that some Central Asian states helped on the intelligence side. As for Iran, in the past, it assisted the US a bit in Afghanistan, but that wouldn’t happen today and esp. with Biden’s attempts at detente Tehran having failed.”

He said that as for intelligence support, the US officials have indicated the planning and surveillance for this operation took months.

“Could it do that all alone, with no on-ground presence?” he asked, adding that if not Pakistan, “some renegade Taliban members might have supplied that information to the US”. aninews