Assassination of Qaeda Leader Crystallizes Debate Over Biden’s Afghanistan Strategy


WASHINGTON — The sunrise rocket attack that tore the Al-Qaeda leader on the balcony of a house in Kabul ultimately confirmed President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Or maybe the strike has discredited it. Or maybe a combination of both.

The coming anniversary of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan is sure to spark a round of arguments about its wisdom, but the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahri by a CIA drone hovering over the Afghan capital has turned the debate on a visceral basis. crystallized way.

Biden and his allies, the precision operation that took out one of the 9/11 protectors’ strikes with no civilian deaths, showed that war can be waged against terrorists without a major deployment of US troops on the ground. But to his critics, the startling realization that al-Zawahri had returned to Kabul, clearly under the protection of the Taliban, made clear that Afghanistan has once again become a haven for America’s enemies.

“The successful US attack justifies those who have advocated an over-the-horizon counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan,” said Kate Bateman, who helped write reports for the US government on corruption, drugs, gender inequality and other issues in the US. afghanistan. a discussion hosted by the US Institute of Peace. “But finding a Zawahri port in Kabul may also indicate a greater threat than previously believed.”

The twin conclusions that emerged from the strike complicated an otherwise tumultuous moment for a president who had just authorized the operation to take out one of the world’s most wanted men. The pursuit and killing of al-Zawahri may not have resonated with the public as Osama bin Laden’s raid in 2011, but it was nonetheless viewed across the board as a victory for the United States.

However, the implications of that victory were still being resolved the day after Mr Biden’s overnight address to the nation announcing this weekend’s drone strike. The president now faces the question of what he will do in response to the revelation that the Taliban has once again housed the leader of a group committed to killing Americans.

The peace accord that led to the withdrawal of troops last year, negotiated by President Donald J. Trump before leaving office and subsequently implemented by Mr. Biden, stipulated that the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to use a launch pad. for future Al Qaeda violence against the United States as it was before the September 11 attacks.

Although the Biden administration called al-Zawahri’s presence a clear violation of that deal, known as the Doha Agreement for Qatar’s capital, where it was sealed, some analysts said the Taliban could maintain it was not in violation. with compliance for sheltering the fugitive head. of Al Qaeda was not the same as serving as a stopping place for new attacks.

The White House didn’t see it that way. “The Taliban have a choice,” John F. Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, told reporters on Tuesday. “They can keep their promise ‘to keep terrorists off their territory’ or they can choose to take a different path. If they take a different path, there will be consequences.”

But neither Mr Kirby nor other officials wanted to specify what kind of consequences Mr Biden had in mind. There is no appetite for the White House, or most of Washington for that matter, for a return of significant military force to Afghanistan. And the Taliban leadership, which came to power in the wake of last year’s US withdrawal, has successfully defied international pressure by re-establishing a repressive regime, including a renewed crackdown on women’s and girls’ rights.

“We’re back where we were before 9/11 and unfortunately that means the Taliban and Al Qaeda are back together,” said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, an adviser to multiple presidents in the Middle East and South Asia who led an investigation. review of Afghanistan policy for President Barack Obama when he took office. “Twenty years of effort have been wasted.”

Al-Zawahri returned to Afghanistan earlier this year, according to US intelligence reports. Taliban figures. “He must have felt very safe, 100 percent sure that nothing could hurt him,” said Mr. Riedel.

Indeed, the Taliban clearly knew al-Zawahri was there and protected him. He lived in a house owned by a top employee of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister and part of the Haqqani terror network with close ties to al-Qaeda, according to two people with knowledge of the home. After the strike, members of the Haqqani network tried to hide that al-Zawahri had been in the house and restrict access to the site, senior US officials said.

Mr Biden justified his decision to pull out last year because Al Qaeda was gone. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan now that 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 getting Osama bin Laden. And we have done that.”

mr. Kirby argued Tuesday that the president meant that Al Qaeda was no longer a major force in Afghanistan at the time, noting that the government’s assessments at the time concluded the group’s presence was “small and not incredibly powerful.” Mr Kirby added: “We would still assess this to be the case.”

As a result, he and other officials said, the attack on al-Zawahri showed that the United States, even without the Taliban fulfilling its commitments, retained its ability to counter threats in Afghanistan by deploying forces deployed elsewhere. were stationed in the region. or over the horizon, as the strategy is called.

“It proved the president right when he said a year ago that we don’t have to let thousands of American troops fight and die in Afghanistan in a 20-year war to keep terrorists at risk and threats to the United States,” Jake said. Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Still, some counterterrorism experts expressed caution. “The strike proves that an over-the-horizon counter-terrorism strategy ‘can work — emphasis on ‘can’ — but not that it will work in general,” said Laurel Miller, a former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Mr Obama.

“Zawahri was a special case, where every effort would be made in terms of resources and effort,” added Ms Miller, who now works at the International Crisis Group. “This operation did not automatically clear the assessment that “operating from outside the country” has significant limitations.”

Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University who served on the staff of the bipartisan commission investigating the September 11 attacks, said the al-Zawahri strike proved the United States can still wage war without troops on the ground. 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 allies and critics of the president.

But perhaps more worrisome, he added, was that the flashy success of repelling a major figure like al-Zawahri only goes so far in dismantling terror networks.

“From what has been reported, it shows impressive operational capability,” he said. “However, much of the US’s success against Al Qaeda and ISIS came from grueling beheading campaigns that went after trainers, recruiters, planners and other lieutenants. Conducting such a sustained campaign in Afghanistan seems quite difficult.”

At the same time, Mr. Byman, who succeeds al-Zawahri will likely be more cautious and limit communication and meetings, making it more difficult to actually run a global organization. “So even the ability to threaten the summit,” he said, “has some value.”

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