WASHINGTON: The American drone that eliminated Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul was possibly laun­ched from an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, some US media reports claimed on Wednesday.

The reports claimed that the attack was launched from Ganci Airbase, a US transit facility at Manas in northern Kyrgyzstan.

According to the US Department of Defence, 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 US administration, however, is still refusing to disclose where the drone take-off from and what route it used. The 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 6:18am Kabul time on Sunday.”

The National Public Radio (NPR), America’s largest radio news network, noted that US officials were not saying where they launched the drone from, “but the US no longer has any military bases in the immediate region, suggesting the aircraft may have flown a long distance before reaching its target”.

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

“I wouldn’t overstate its role, but also would take with some grains of salt the contention that there was no role at all.”

Mr Kugelman focused his attention on two possible forms of support: airspace and intelligence. “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,” he wrote.

“This leaves the Pakistani airspace as the most desirable option for intelligence support and 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”.

But Mr Kugelman does not rule out the possibility of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours providing that support to the US.

A BBC report explored the possibility of the CIA conducting the drone strike without any support from Afghanistan’s neighbours.

“When a missile is launched from a drone, a weapons operator — sometimes sitting in an air-conditioned control room as far away as the continental US — sees a live video stream of the target, which the drone’s camera sensors feedback via satellite,” the report pointed out.

“Using a set of targeting brackets on the screen, the camera operator is then able to lock up the target and point a laser at it. Once the missile is fired, it follows the path of that laser until striking the target.”

The report also noted that the US used drone-fired Hellfires air-to-surface missile that has become a fixture of US counter-terrorism operations overseas in the decades since the 11 September 2001 attacks.

“The missile can be fired from a variety of platforms, including helicopters, ground vehicles, ships and fixed wing aircraft — or, in Zawahiri’s case, from an unmanned drone.”

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2022

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