WASHINGTON — The Sunrise missile attack that tore al Qaeda leaders to shreds from the balcony of a house in Kabul finally confirmed President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Or, the strike could discredit it. Or maybe both.
The upcoming anniversary of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is sure to spark a round of debate over its wisdom, but a CIA drone hovering over the Afghan capital killed Ayman al-Zawahiri -Zawahri) articulates the argument in a visceral way.
For Mr. Biden and his allies, the precise actions of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which no civilians were killed show that war can be waged against terrorists without the need for large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground. To his critics, however, the startling realization that al-Zawahiri had returned to Kabul, apparently under the protection of the Taliban, made clear that Afghanistan was once again a safe haven for America’s enemies.
“The U.S. strike has proven right for those who advocate an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan,” said Kate Bateman, who helped the U.S. government write a report on corruption, drugs, gender inequality and other issues in Afghanistan. Bateman) in A seminar hosted by the American Institute of Peace“But al-Zawahiri’s finding of a port in Kabul could also mean a more serious threat than thought.”
The double conclusion of the strike, which saw a president just authorize action to wipe out one of the world’s most wanted men, complicates an otherwise heady moment. Chasing and killing al-Zawahiri may not have resonated with the public like the 2011 attack on Osama bin Laden, but it is still seen across the board as a victory for the United States.
However, the fallout from the victory is still being sorted out a day after Biden announced the drone strike in a nightly address to the nation over the weekend. The question now for the president is how he will respond to news that the Taliban is once again harboring the leader of a group dedicated to killing Americans.
The peace deal that led to last year’s troop withdrawal, negotiated by President Donald J. Trump before leaving office and executed by Mr. Biden, made it clear that the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to be a future al Qaeda target for the United States before the Sept. 11 attacks.
While the Biden administration says al-Zawahri’s presence is a clear breach of the agreement, known as the Doha accord in Qatar’s capital, some analysts say the Taliban can insist it is not in breach of the agreement because it shelters the fugitive leader’s base Organization is not equivalent to serving as a staging ground for new attacks.
The White House doesn’t see it that way. “The Taliban has a choice,” John F. Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, told reporters on Tuesday. “They can stick to their agreement” to bar terrorists from their territory, “or they can choose to continue on a different path. If they go a different path, there will be consequences.”
But neither Mr. Kirby nor other officials specified what the consequences Mr. Biden had in mind. There is no interest in the White House or much of Washington to return large numbers of military forces to Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership, which came to power after the U.S. withdrawal last year, has successfully resisted international pressure to re-impose an authoritarian regime, including repressing the rights of women and girls.
“We’re back to where we were before 9/11, which unfortunately means the Taliban and al-Qaeda are back together,” said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a Middle East and South Asian leader adviser to the president. A review of Obama’s Afghanistan policy when he took office. “Twenty years of hard work wasted.”
Al-Zawahri, who returned to Afghanistan earlier this year, moved with his family into a house in one of Kabul’s most exclusive enclaves, where U.S. and other foreign diplomats lived not long ago, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. It ended up handing the community back to Taliban figures. “He must have felt very safe, 100 per cent sure that nothing could harm him,” Mr Riedel said.
In fact, the Taliban knew al-Zawahri was there and protected him. He lives in the house of a top aide to Taliban interior minister Sirajddin Haqqani, who is part of a network of Haqqani terrorists with close ties to al Qaeda, according to two people familiar with the matter. After the strike, members of the Haqqani network tried to conceal that al-Zawahiri was at the house and restricted access to the site, senior U.S. officials said.
Mr Biden justified his decision to quit last year on the grounds that al Qaeda no longer exists. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan now after al Qaeda is gone?” he said at the time“We went to Afghanistan with the express purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden. We did it.”
Mr Kirby argued on Tuesday that the president meant al-Qaeda would no longer be a significant force in Afghanistan by then, pointing to a government assessment at the time that concluded the group’s presence was “small and not very strong” . Mr Kirby added: “We will still assess whether this is the case.”
So, he and other officials said, the attack on al-Zawahiri showed that even if the Taliban did not live up to their commitments, the United States still had the ability to neutralize the threat in Afghanistan by deploying troops elsewhere in the region, or on the horizon, as the strategy so called.
“It turns out that the president was right when he said a year ago that we don’t need a 20-year war in which thousands of U.S. troops have fought and died in Afghanistan to put terrorists at risk and defeat the threat to Afghanistan. America,” Mr. Biden’s national security adviser Jack Sullivan, on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Still, some counterterrorism experts expressed caution. “This strike is proof that an over-the-horizon ‘counterterrorism strategy’ can work — ‘could’ work — but not universally,” said Laurel Miller, who served as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama. Laurel Miller) said.
“Zawahri is a special case, and to that end we will go all out in terms of resources and level of effort,” added Ms. Miller, now with the International Crisis Group. “This action does not automatically erase the assessment that ‘operating abroad’ has significant limitations.”
Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University terrorism expert who served on the staff of the bipartisan committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, said al-Zawahiri’s attack proved that the U.S. can still operate without troops on the ground and without troops Next to wage war on the ground, Afghanistan will once again be a sanctuary for al Qaeda.
“They were both right,” he said of the president’s allies and critics.
But perhaps more concerning, he added, is that the flashy success of knocking down big men like al-Zawahri has only been so successful in dismantling terror networks.
“It does show impressive operational capability, according to reports,” he said. “However, much of America’s success against al Qaeda and the Islamic State has come from a brutal campaign of beheadings against trainers, recruiters, planners and other deputies. It seems quite difficult to fight such a protracted campaign in Afghanistan.”
At the same time, Mr Byman said whoever succeeds al-Zawahri will likely be more cautious, limiting communication and meetings and making it harder to truly lead a global organisation. “So even being able to threaten the highest echelons,” he said, “does have some value.”