The Lessons of the Zawahiri Strike
Don’t trust the Taliban. Trust that they will follow their interests.
On July 31, the United States government announced that a successful drone-strike operation had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the architects of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group since the death of Osama bin Laden.
When the news of Zawahiri’s killing in Afghanistan broke, those who'd wished we’d never left the country instantly declared it proof the Taliban is once again in cahoots with al-Qaeda, doubling down that American troops should have stayed. But taking out Zawahiri in that hellish backwater proves that America does not need boots on the ground to protect its national interests and security in Afghanistan. While realists and restrainers should remain vigilant about the Taliban's relationship with terrorist organizations in the region, it's not in the Taliban's interests to risk further devastation by becoming heavily complicit in these terrorists' schemes. Policymakers shouldn't trust the Taliban, but they should trust that they will follow their interests. Furthermore, though this successful strike vindicates those who wanted to see an end to America's war in Afghanistan, we must avoid a return to the Obama doctrine of drone strikes.
President Joe Biden informed the nation of Zawahiri’s death in an address given from the White House balcony, telling the American people, “now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more.”
“I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm,” Biden said. “And I made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that.”
Though it’s not quite “Got Him” 2.0, Zawahiri’s death is considered a much-needed victory for Biden as his approval rating continues to suffer due to a recession, high inflation, and a porous border. It also substantiates one of Biden’s main justifications for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan last August after two decades of war: U.S. over-the-horizon capabilities mean a presence on the ground is not needed to carry out necessary counter-terrorism operations.
The operation that led to Zawahiri’s death was spearheaded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). For months, the CIA and other agencies in the intelligence community were able to locate the safe house where Zawahiri was hiding in Sherpur, a wealthy neighborhood in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, after receiving intelligence that Zawahiri and his family had moved into the area. Sherpur, a neighborhood dominated by Western embassies prior to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, has become a popular place for Taliban leaders to take residence since they took back Kabul nearly a year ago.
The safe house where Zawahiri spent his last days was reportedly owned by an aide to senior Taliban official Sirajuddin Haqqani, who currently serves in Afghanistan’s Taliban-controlled government as the acting interior minister and deputy head of state.
Sirajuddin, son of the late commander of the insurgency during the anti-Soviet war and founder of the Taliban-allied Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani, has led the Haqqani network since at least the death of his father in 2018, though most expect Sirajuddin took the reins well before that.
Though the Haqqani Network is associated primarily with Pakistan, specifically the North Waziristan territory to the southeast of Kabul, it has conducted cross-border operations into Kabul and Afghanistan more broadly for years thanks to the relationship the Haqqanis have established with the Taliban.
The aforementioned U.S. official said that senior Haqqani Taliban members were aware Zawahiri had taken up residence in the area, which the official added was in "clear violation of the Doha agreement.”
The CIA tracked Zawahiri’s movements until they received the green-light to carry out the strike. A senior U.S. official told reporters, “The president received updates on the development of the target throughout May and June,” and received a briefing about a potential operation in the White House Situation Room on July 1 with CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, national-security advisor Jake Sullivan, and other high-ranking members of government. Biden ultimately gave his approval for the strike on July 25, and the CIA waited five days for the right opportunity to take Zawahiri out. Two Hellfire missiles reportedly rained down on the 71-year-old terrorist leader as he stood on the balcony of his Kabul residence on Sunday at 6:18 a.m. local time in Kabul.
As it stands now, the U.S. government believes no one else, including members of Zawahiri’s family or civilians, was killed in the attack.
In the immediate aftermath of the strike, Taliban forces quickly locked down the surrounding area, and a Taliban spokesman confirmed that a U.S. airstrike had been carried out and accused the U.S. of violating the Doha Agreement by striking a residential neighborhood in the country’s capital city. "Repeating such actions will damage the existing opportunities" for increased cooperation, the Taliban spokesman warned.
The Taliban also said on Aug. 2 it had ordered "investigative and intelligence agencies to conduct serious and comprehensive investigations on various aspects of the mentioned event.” On Thursday, the Taliban claimed it had “no knowledge of the arrival and residence" of Zawahiri in Kabul, despite the safe house’s connection to high-ranking members of the Taliban.
Whether this was a one-sided Doha Agreement violation, however, is less clear than it seems. Both sides made broad promises. For the Taliban’s part, it promised to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies," to "send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan," to "instruct members… not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies,” and "prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.” Meanwhile, the U.S. promised to “refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan or intervening in its domestic affairs," among other things.
Clearly, Zawahiri’s presence on Afghan soil proves that al-Qaeda has a continued presence in the country, not to mention other reports of al-Qaeda members making their way back into Afghanistan. But the agreement’s broad language meant that some vagueness was built in. While the Taliban promised not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists explicitly seeking to harm the U.S., the agreement did not require the Taliban to turn their backs on fellow jihadis. Add in the fact that several al-Qaeda leaders have sworn their allegiance to Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, and the political circumstances become much more complex.
“Both sides have claimed that the other has violated the Doha agreement in relation to the al-Zawahiri strike, but the agreement uses vague enough language that allows for both sides to make their case,” Will Ruger, former Trump nominee for Ambassador to Afghanistan and president of the American Institute for Economic Research, told The American Conservative. “Naturally, the U.S. can claim that the Taliban violated the hosting and cooperating parts of the deal while the Taliban argues the U.S. violated its pledge to refrain from using military force in Afghanistan.”
But regardless of who is right about what the parchment means and requires, U.S. national interests demand that we unilaterally, if necessary, strike high-value targets in countries that aren’t appropriately cooperative with our counterterrorism needs. In this case, the value of the target was sufficiently important that we had to take the shot, especially when we could do so with minimum risk of civilian casualties or of pushing the Taliban to significantly and negatively change their behavior vis-à-vis the U.S. and support for anti-American terrorist groups.
Zawahiri, through his previous involvement in plotting the 9/11 terror attacks and current position as the terrorist group’s leader, has demonstrated both the intent and capability to attack the homeland. The U.S. was justified in taking him out. Further, a recent United Nations report suggests that al-Qaeda’s numbers have been growing in Afghanistan, and with it likely the rise of terrorist plots hatching in Afghanistan, though it remains to be seen if the groups' targets are currently the U.S. or Western allies. While the definition of what constitutes “cooperation” between the Taliban and other groups or individuals that threaten the security of the U.S. and its allies remains unclear in the Doha agreement, even the lack of Taliban cooperation with al-Qaeda does not rule out the potential for a strike.
But it’s not so much trusting the Taliban itself, it’s about trusting the Taliban’s self-interest. Ruger claimed that it’s still very much in the interest of the Taliban not to provide shelter to terrorist groups that could make them “significantly complicit with any attacks on the U.S. and to find a path to reducing its economic woes.”
While the Taliban may continue to protest the strike and the alleged U.S. violations of the Doha Agreement, Ruger believes that noise will not be backed by any significant action against the U.S.. Nevertheless, “al-Zawahiri’s presence there in Afghanistan has obviously raised concern in the U.S. about how risk-acceptant the Taliban is about its relationship to individuals and groups like al-Zawahiri and Al Qaida,” Ruger said.
Indeed, Zawahiri’s death in Kabul raises important questions for U.S. policymakers about just how risk-averse the Taliban will be in pursuit of its own interests. But it is not evidence that we should re-intervene in Afghanistan.
The bitter truth is that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban was ultimately able to withstand two decades of being removed from power. Meanwhile, almost 2,500 members of the U.S. military lost their lives and more than 20,000 more were wounded in action for the sake of a nation-building project with the vague end goal of creating a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan—a form of government the people of that country clearly did not want.
The United States spent over $2 trillion over the course of the war. About $1.5 trillion went to actually fighting the war, $10 billion was spent on counternarcotics operations, $90 billion went to recruiting and training Afghanistan’s security forces, another $25 billion shelled out for the country’s economic development, and another $30 billion went to other various aid programs. Most of these programs, as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports explain, were rife with corruption. Taxpayer treasure for training the security forces and development dollars lined the pockets of pseudo-warlords. No wonder the security forces collapsed in a matter of days as the Taliban waltzed into Kabul.
What makes those pining for a return to Afghanistan think it will end differently this time?
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“U.S. withdrawal still makes sense as our military presence there in Afghanistan no longer served U.S. national interests and we are still better off for having signed the agreement and ultimately left,” Ruger claimed. “This strike actually strengthens the case that they and advocates of withdrawal made at the time. Our ability to find and successfully target al-Zawahiri substantially undermines the argument that intelligence and kinetic requirements necessitated continued boots on the ground. Of course, we should remain vigilant about possible threats from terrorist organizations with the intent and capability to harm us that could emanate from there in Afghanistan or any other part of the world for that matter. So this requires continued intelligence and policing work as well as maintaining our over-the-horizon capabilities.”
Nevertheless, while it’s more desirable than having troops on the ground, there are clear risks associated with an over-the-horizon approach to protecting U.S. interests in Afghanistan. The last drone strike carried out by the United States before the Zawahiri strike was on Aug. 29, 2021. The U.S. killed an aid worker and nine members of his family because U.S. intelligence believed the aid worker was a member of ISIS-K planning to attack the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Ruger told TAC that the U.S. must "make sure that we don’t get into a situation where we are cavalier about using drone strikes and create negative unintended consequences in the process.” If we’re not, despite our improved strike technology, we could end up with the old Obama doctrine—trying to strike terror from above while creating more terrorists below.