WASHINGTON — The sunrise missile strike that killed al Qaeda’s leader on the balcony of a home in Kabul finally validated President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Or maybe the strike discredited her. Or maybe some combination of both.
The upcoming anniversary of the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan was already certain to prompt a round of arguments about its wisdom, but the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahri by a CIA drone hovering over the Afghan capital has crystallized the debate in a visceral way.
For Mr. Biden and his allies, the precision operation that took out one of the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks without civilian deaths showed that a war on terror can be waged without large deployments of American troops on the ground. To his critics, however, the startling realization that al-Zawahri had returned to Kabul apparently under the protection of the Taliban made it clear that Afghanistan has once again become a haven for America’s enemies.
“The successful US strike vindicates those who advocated an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan,” said Kate Bateman, who has helped write reports for the US government on corruption, drugs, gender inequality and more issues in Afghanistan. a discussion organized by the US Institute of Peace. “But finding Zawahri’s port in Kabul may also indicate a more serious threat than assumed.”
The double takeaways from the strike complicated an otherwise heady moment for a president who had just approved the operation that took out one of the world’s most wanted men. The hunt and killing of al-Zawahri may not have resonated with the public in the same way that the 2011 raid that dispatched Osama bin Laden did, but it was still widely seen as a victory for the United States.
The fallout from that victory, however, was still being sorted out the day after Mr. Biden’s late-night address to the nation announced the weekend drone strike. The president now faces the question of what, if anything, he will do in response to the revelation that the Taliban were 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 he left office and then carried out by Mr. Biden, made it clear that the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to become a base for future violence against al-Qaeda. the United States as it was before the 9/11 attacks.
While the Biden administration characterized al-Zawahri’s presence as a clear violation of that agreement, known as the Doha Agreement for the Qatari capital where it was sealed, some analysts said the Taliban could argue that they were not out of compliance because they harbored the Al Qaeda’s head on the run was not the same as serving as a base for new attacks.
The White House didn’t see it that way. “The Taliban have a choice,” John F. Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, told reporters Tuesday. “They can abide by their agreement to ‘ban terrorists from their territory’ or they can choose to continue down a different path. If they take a different path, that will lead to consequences.”
But neither Mr. Kirby nor other officials would specify what kind of consequences Mr. Biden had in mind. There is no appetite in the White House, or for that matter in most of Washington, for returning significant military force to Afghanistan. And the Taliban leadership that came to power after the US withdrawal last year successfully defied international pressure as it reimposed a repressive regime, including a renewed crackdown on women’s and girls’ rights.
“We’re back to where we were before 9/11, and unfortunately that means the Taliban and al Qaeda are back together,” said Bruce Riddell of the Brookings Institution, an adviser to several presidents on the Middle East and South Asia who conducted a review. of Afghanistan policy for President Barack Obama when he took office. “Twenty years of effort wasted.”
Al-Zawahri returned to Afghanistan earlier this year, according to US intelligence reports, moving with his family to a house in one of Kabul’s most exclusive enclaves where American and other foreign diplomats lived only a short time ago to deliver the neighborhood to Taliban Figures. “He must have felt very safe, 100 per cent sure nothing could harm him,” Mr Riddell said.
Indeed, the Taliban clearly knew al-Zawahri was there and were protecting him. He lived in a house owned by a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister and a member of the Haqqani terror network with close ties to al-Qaida, according to two people with knowledge of the residence. After the strike, members of the Haqqani network tried to hide that al-Zawahri was at the home and to limit access to the site, senior US officials said.
Mr Biden justified his decision to leave last year on the grounds that Al Qaeda was no longer there. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al Qaeda gone?” he said then. “We went to Afghanistan with the specific purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as well as getting Osama Bin Laden. And we did.”
Mr. Kirby argued on Tuesday that the president meant that al-Qaeda was no longer a significant force in Afghanistan by then, noting that government assessments at the time concluded that the group’s presence was “small and not incredibly strong.” . Mr Kirby added: “We would still consider that to be the case.”
As a result, other officials said, the strike on al-Zawahri showed that even without the Taliban honoring its commitments, the United States retained the ability to address threats in Afghanistan using military forces based elsewhere in the region. or over the horizon, as the strategy is called.
“He has proven the President right when he said a year ago that we didn’t need to keep thousands of American soldiers in Afghanistan fighting and dying in a 20-year war so we could keep terrorists at bay and defeat threats to the United States,” Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
However, some counterterrorism experts expressed caution. “The strike proves that the over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy ‘can work — emphasis on the ‘can’ — but not that it will generally work,” said Laurel Miller, former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. under Mr. Obama.
“Zawahri was a special case, one that would pull out all the stops in terms of resources and level of effort,” added Ms Miller, who is now with the International Crisis Group. “This operation does not automatically delete the assessment that the operation outside the country ‘has significant limitations.’
Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University who served on the staff of the bipartisan commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks, said the al-Zawahri strike proved that the United States could still wage war without troops on the ground and that without troops on the ground, Afghanistan would once again become a haven for al-Qaeda.
“They’re both right,” he said of the president’s allies and critics.
But what might be more worrying, he added, was that the flashy success of toppling a figure like al-Zawahri only goes so far in dismantling terrorist networks.
“From what has been reported, it shows impressive operational acumen,” he said. “However, much of the US success against al Qaeda and ISIS has come from decapitation campaigns that go after trainers, recruiters, planners and other lieutenants. Running such a sustained campaign in Afghanistan seems quite difficult.”
At the same time, Mr. Baiman said, whoever succeeds al-Zawahri will likely be more circumspect, limiting communications and meetings, making it more difficult to effectively lead a global organization. “So even being able to threaten the top,” he said, “has some value.”