September 27, 2022

Assassinations of key terrorist leaders are becoming more common as the attacks they used to plan or inspire diminish in their impact in the West and the West’s counterterrorism capacity grows.

But getting al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri out on a balcony in one of Kabul’s fanciest neighborhoods — a city from which the U.S. withdrew amid chaos a year ago — is not an everyday feat. . It is a shocking demonstration of what twenty years of experience hunting terrorists has left the US capable of.

But it leaves a predictable lesson in its wake: Afghanistan has remained a safe haven for terrorists for the past decade — they just haven’t launched attacks from where it meant we were paying attention. But the fact that Zawahiri lived there in plain sight belies the feverish spin that continued in the run-up to the US withdrawal.

For years, the U.S. perception of the al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan seemed to fluctuate depending on the footprint the U.S. sought. In years when they wanted to push harder during their longest war, I remember being informed that a strong hardline threat — perhaps a few hundred key al Qaeda operatives — remained and could be reconstituted.

Then, as the US rushed the exits, the threat posed by Al Qaeda diminished. The raids in Afghanistan against al Qaeda leaders showed how well the problem was being dealt with, the US seemed to imply, despite the fact that the group was still there and large enough to strike.

Images show the house in Kabul where the al-Qaeda leader was killed by a US strike

Now — ironically because of this American success — there is incontrovertible evidence of the problem that Washington has wanted to go away for years.

Al Qaeda is “cooking something up,” said a former Afghan government official with an intimate understanding of counterterrorism.

He suggested that Zawahiri was not the only major al-Qaeda figure in the country and that his potential successor, number two Saif al-Adel — said by the UN to be in Iran — may have recently entered Afghanistan.

In May last year, shortly before the terrifying fall of Kabul, it was estimated by Afghan intelligence officials that it would take al Qaeda between six and 12 months to carry out attacks in the region and perhaps 18 months to do the same in the West. .

It is not clear how this timetable has been affected by Zawahiri’s death, but we can be sure that its symbolic impact means that it is unlikely to have accelerated it.

So where does this leave the Taliban? Actually, not much has changed.

The Haqqani network, which has a tight grip on Kabul, has long been accused of having strong ties to al-Qaeda. It may well be their infrastructure that sheltered and supported Zawahiri during his time in the city.

As such, his death may highlight any splits within the Taliban. The group’s moderates may wish that its efforts to acclimate to the world stage had not been hampered by this incident. But don’t count too hard on it.

The Haqqani remain perhaps the most confident and powerful wing of the group, and are unlikely to suddenly change course after this embarrassment.

For the ordinary people of Afghanistan, struggling with the impact of sanctions, isolation and the struggle they were always going to face with an insurgency when they suddenly had to provide government services, it’s even worse news.

It is harder to argue for improving the West’s relationship with Kabul after that.

And it’s not like this strike does much to change the reality Al Qaeda faces on the ground: their brand has spun into a series of global franchises that inflict local terror — usually by locals on locals. However, they remain a team that hasn’t made the world headlines for quite some time.

Zawahiri appears, according to a senior counterterrorism analyst, to have become more relaxed and confident in his messages to the outside world, referring to more recent world events. complacency, either on his part or on the part of his hosts, may have led to this successful strike.

Al Qaeda needs a new leader after Zawahiri's assassination.  His bench is thinner than it once was.

Zawahiri is still believed to have been directly involved in planning al-Qaida operations, but the world has changed since the sudden shock and seismic sadness of September 11, 2001. His death is unlikely to stop any attacks already in the works.

It does teach us, however, two lessons: First, that despite its humiliating but strategically inevitable withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US retains great reach and great memory. He is still seeking justice for a twenty-year-old crime. There is a determination here, and given the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine, it cannot go unnoticed by US adversaries.

But the second lesson is darker: That people don’t always change. That even after the devastation of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, and the damage and chaos brought to that country by the Taliban’s decision to allow al-Qaeda to take refuge there decades ago, some part of the Taliban chose to give them back a house there.

The scene still baffles me: that in an area where for twenty years Western and allied Afghan officials have found comfort behind secure walls, a US drone strike killed the al Qaeda leader — who thought he could relax on a balcony in the light of dawn.

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