Over the weekend, a US drone fired a Hellfire missile that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al Qaeda leader who had served as one of the strategists behind the terror group’s targeting of American civilians around the world. The strike, which the US says killed no civilians, was months in the planning.
It was the first known US strike in Afghanistan since August 2021, when a drone fired a missile that killed 10 civilians, including the aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and his seven children.
The two strikes cannot be separated. Together they represent the arc of the war on terror and its enduring dangers. The US has so depleted al-Qaeda’s leadership that the terrorist network is a different and weaker organization than it was two decades ago. But along the way, the US killed more than 900 civilians 14,040 confirmed drone attacks in the 2010s and estimated 47,245 Afghan civilians were killed in the last two decades of the war.
So it has to be asked: Is it worth killing a family every once in a while to get a Zawahiri or an Osama Bin Laden every two years?
In his remarks to the nation on Monday, President Joe Biden it meant that the war on terror would continue. “We’re reaffirming tonight that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you’re a threat to our people, the United States will find you and get you out,” he said. he said.
The legal authorization from 2001 used to justify a generation of drone strike deaths remains in effect. And while the Biden administration has scaled back drone strikes significantly compared to the terms of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it continues to launch attacks in Iraq. Somaliaand Syria. US does not ship hundreds of thousands troops in Afghanistan now. However, it maintains a base in Qatar to conduct what it calls “over-the-horizon” operations in Afghanistan as needed, and has small presence of troops in a number of other countries.
Biden as a candidate had pledged to end the endless wars and actually withdrew the US military from Afghanistan last year. But ending the war on terror would mean stripping away the capabilities of the legal framework and architecture of drone warfare to ensure that a returning President Donald Trump, or a future Trump-like leader, would not unattended program acceleration.
If the war on terror, as Biden suggests, continues, it will not be “won,” just as George W. Bush’s Middle East freedom agenda never won hearts and minds. The way to win the war on terror is simply to end it — and this week is as good as any.
Is the war on terror over now?
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, Congress authorized the use of military force (AUMF) that allowed the president to deploy the “Armed Forces of the United States against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” For national security experts who supported the sunset of the authorization, Biden’s assassination of Zawahiri is a natural playbook, although they had been pushing for the repeal of the AUMF long before this strike.
This AUMF has been broadly interpreted to go after al Qaeda forces around the world that may not pose an immediate threat to the US homeland. In recent years, it has been the basis for US military activity 85 countries. Its existence gives the president powers to initiate strikes without seeking congressional approval. With these powers, four subsequent US presidents have hollow the leading players of al Qaeda and other related groups in targeted killings — and killed countless civilians.
Zawahiri was a legitimate target under this AUMF, but he was also the last major planner of the 9/11 attacks in general, making it time to end the AUMF. “This sort of closes the chapter on the relevance of this principle on its own terms,” said Kathryn Bright, a consultant at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The purpose of this power is really exhausted.”
Zawahiri’s death, in some ways, suggests that the era of fighting rogue non-state actors has faded with a new focus on US conflicts with major powers like China and Russia. “The reality is that the United States has decided that terrorism, as many have argued for decades, is a threat to be managed, not an all-consuming threat as it was in the years after 9/11,” Karen said. Greenberg, director of Fordham Law School’s national security center, told me. “But that doesn’t answer other questions about the use of the strike and how we will use it in the future.” According to Greenberg, the use of the AUMF was questionable before this and should be blocked.
Many progressive members of Congress have pressed to terminate the AUMF, and now there is talk of replacing it with something narrower. Meanwhile, it could continue to justify killing Zawahiri — or a target that ends up being an unrelated family. The AUMF is the US domestic legal basis for drone strikes, but Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor and author of Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reigned Warsaid it may also have violated international law, given that experts believe it is unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban government would have consented to the attack.
There are global implications in maintaining these powers. Moyne is concerned that the Biden administration is reserving the “illegal right” to pursue terrorists indefinitely, in a way that is illegal under international law. “The normalization of targeted killings, which is the killing of people on the hot battlefields, is the most awful thing,” he told me. “The US has normalized it and claimed it is legal. This means that any other state, such as Russia that poisons people, can claim that it is merely acting in self-defence.”
It can lead to what the Israeli military called “mowing the grass”: a tactic of conducting semi-regular attacks on alleged terrorist hotbeds—in their case, Gaza—to eliminate leaders and young fighters, killing noncombatants and destroying urban infrastructure in the process. But Mowing the grass it almost by definition does not address the root causes of terrorism. The grass grows again, endlessly.
The effects of an ongoing war on terror
Al Qaeda is now a weakened version of itself, but in a troubling aspect of Biden’s remarks, he suggested the U.S. sees al Qaeda as a legitimate combatant, on par with a superpower in an ongoing war. Biden said he “authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all.” By saying Zawahiri was on the “battlefield,” Biden, perhaps unwittingly, handed al-Qaeda a symbolic, propaganda victory for a group with less and less power to threaten the US.
The political and socioeconomic conditions in Afghanistan and many other countries in the wider region not addressed by Biden have not improved — and in some cases worsened — since the two-decade-long US war on terror.
These conditions have consequences. The Guardian has detailed “the traces of torture until 9/11.” Zawahiri grew up in Cairo and joined a terrorist group as a teenager. He was caught in a sting following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, for which a terrorist group with which Zawahiri was associated claimed responsibility. One question that remains is whether his time in an Egyptian prison and the torture that Zawahiri allegedly experienced contributed to his further radicalization.
Today, tens of thousands of political prisoners are in Egyptian prisons, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood political operatives and anyone vaguely associated with them, with harsh mass trials, mass executions and widespread torture. prisons.
These are exactly the circumstances that can help lead to a new generation of Zawahiris.
There are other conditions, too, that perpetuate the growth of groups like al-Qaeda. Longtime Middle East journalist Rami Khouri says that even without Zawahiri, it is inevitable that terrorist groups will splinter and regroup due to deeper societal issues that have not been addressed. “The problem is that you have millions and millions, tens or hundreds of millions, of people living in unacceptable conditions of poverty, destitution, authoritarian governments and they have no hope,” he said. he told Al-Jazeera. “The people who suffer from these groups [like al-Qaeda] they are the people of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.”
For Arash Azizzada, an Afghan-American filmmaker who co-founded the progressive advocacy group Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, the drone strike is a sign that America is caught in a cycle of continuous counterterrorism that ignores the people of Afghanistan.
The following is our statement in response to the latest reports of a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. We will continue to monitor the situation.
— Afghans for a Better Tomorrow (@AfghansTomorrow) August 1, 2022
“Americans need to realize that there is a cost to continuing to engage in the war on terror,” he told me. “After years of heavy US occupation and involvement – spent 20 years investing in a place like Afghanistan and the country is worse off than it was in 2001.”
Since the US withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban government, the country has struggled with famine conditions and an economic crisis exacerbated by the freezing of US assets in Afghanistan’s central bank.
As Azizzada told me, “America and the Biden administration can and must do more to alleviate the pain and suffering in a place like Afghanistan.”