Biden’s attack on al-Qaeda reveals an inconvenient truth about America’s war on terror

The murders of the main terrorist leaders have become increasingly commonplace, as the attacks they used to plot or inspire diminish their impact on the West, and the West’s counterterrorism capability grows.

But eliminating al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on a balcony in one of Kabul’s swankiest neighborhoods – a city from which the US retreated in chaos a year ago – n is not an everyday feat. It’s a shocking demonstration of what twenty years of terrorist-hunting experience has made the United States capable of.

Yet it leaves a predictable lesson in its wake: Afghanistan has remained a safe haven for terrorists over the past decade – they simply haven’t carried out attacks from there, which means we we paid attention to it. But the fact that Zawahiri lived there in plain sight debunks the feverish turn that unfolded before the US withdrawal.

For years, the United States’ perception of the threat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan seemed to waver depending on the footprint the United States was seeking; in the years when they wanted to push harder in their longest war, I remember being told that a solid hardcore threat – perhaps a few hundred key al-Qaeda figures – remained and could reconstitute.

Then, as the United States rushed for the exits, the danger posed by al-Qaeda was minimized. The Afghan raids on al-Qaeda leaders showed how well the problem was being handled, the US seemed to imply, rather than that the group was still there and big enough to strike.

Footage shows Kabul home where al-Qaeda leader was killed by US strike

Today – ironically because of this American success – there is undeniable evidence of the problem that Washington has wanted to eliminate for years.

Al-Qaeda is “up to something,” said a former Afghan government official familiar with counterterrorism.

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

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

It’s unclear how this timeline was affected by Zawahiri’s death, but we can be sure its symbolic impact means it’s unlikely to have sped it up.

So where does that leave the Taliban? In truth, little has changed.

The Haqqani network, which has a grip on Kabul, has long been accused of close ties to al-Qaeda. Perhaps it was their infrastructure that hid and supported Zawahiri during his stay in the city.

His death could therefore accentuate possible splits within the Taliban; the group’s moderates might wish that its efforts to acclimatize to the world stage had not been hampered by this incident. But don’t count on it too much.

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

For the ordinary people of Afghanistan, grappling with the impact of sanctions, isolation and the struggle that an insurgency was always going to face when it suddenly had to provide government services, this is even more bad news.

It’s harder to argue for better Western relations with Kabul after that.

And it’s not like this strike dramatically changes the reality al-Qaeda faces on the ground: Their brand has morphed into a series of global franchises that inflict local terror – usually by locals on locals. . Yet they remain a band that hasn’t made global headlines for 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 murder.  His bench is thinner than it once was.

Zawahiri is still believed to have been directly involved in planning al-Qaeda operations, but the world has changed since the brutal shock and seismic heartbreak of 9/11, 2001. His death is unlikely to stop the attacks already planned. .

It does, however, teach us two lessons: First, that despite its humiliating but strategically inevitable withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States retains a long reach and a long memory. He is still pursuing justice for a twenty-year-old crime. There is a will 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 of the Taliban chose to give them a home there.

The scene still baffles me: In an area where for twenty years Westerners and connected Afghan officials have been comfortably lounging behind secure walls, a US drone strike has killed the leader of al-Qaeda – who thought he could relax on a balcony in the Light of dawn.