Ayman Al Zawahiri's killing shows US needs a Pakistan long game

When news broke of the death of al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in Kabul by a US drone strike on July 31 , speculation soon began in neighbouring Pakistan over whether the drone that killed him took off from bases there or passed through the country’s air space. US-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation has been controversial since the early days of the War on Terror, triggering a backlash from Islamist politicians, Pashtun tribesmen, and formerly pro-state jihadist militants. It even fomented violent dissent from within the armed forces. Today, America remains unpopular in Pakistan. Sentiment toward the US is a long way away from the days when prominent American visitors would be greeted enthusiastically by Pakistani crowds.

And though the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship – including counterterrorism cooperation – is far more reduced in scope, it has become entangled with Pakistan’s domestic politics in ways unlike before, potentially becoming a major electoral factor in Pakistan’s main urban centres.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan was deposed through a vote of no confidence in April, he alleged that he was brought down through a US “regime change” conspiracy, which he claimed was motivated by his firm opposition to allowing the US to operate military bases in the country.

Many in Pakistan see recent events – including the army chief's unusual call with a top US diplomat last week purportedly to secure quicker approval of the release of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan tranche – as evidence of collusion with the US in ousting Khan as part of a quid pro quo. Even an anti-Khan talk show host speculated that Pakistan allowed a “one-time” strike in exchange for help with the IMF.