But removing al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri from the balcony of one of the hippest neighborhoods in Kabul, the city that the United States left in chaos a year ago, is no ordinary task. This is a shocking demonstration of what the US is capable of with twenty years of experience hunting down terrorists.
However, he leaves behind a predictable lesson: Afghanistan has remained a safe haven for terrorists for the past decade – they just haven’t launched attacks from there, which meant we were paying attention. But the fact that Zawahiri lived there in plain sight debunks the feverish spin that has been going on in the run-up to the US withdrawal.
For years, US perceptions of the al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan seemed to fluctuate depending on which trail the US was pursuing; during the years when they wanted to act stronger during their longest war, I remember being informed that the real real threat – perhaps a few hundred key al-Qaeda figures – remained and could rebound.
Then, as the US rushed to the exit, the danger posed by al-Qaeda was downplayed. The Afghan raids against al-Qaeda leaders showed how well the problem was being tackled, as the US seemed to mean, not that the group still exists and is big enough to strike.
Now—ironically because of this American success—there is overwhelming evidence of a problem that Washington has wanted to get rid of for years.
Al-Qaeda is “preparing something,” said a former Afghan government official well versed in the fight against terrorism.
He suggested that Zawahiri was not the only major al-Qaeda figure in the country, and that his potential successor, number two Saif al-Adel, who the UN says is in Iran, may have recently entered Afghanistan.
Last May, shortly before the astonishing fall of Kabul, Afghan intelligence officials estimated that it would take al-Qaeda six to 12 months to carry out attacks in the region, and possibly 18 months to do the same in the West. .
It’s unclear how Zawahiri’s death affected this timeline, but we can be sure that its symbolic impact means it’s unlikely to hasten it.
So what is left for the Taliban? In truth, little has changed.
The Haqqani network, which firmly controls Kabul, has long been accused of close ties to al-Qaeda. It is possible that their infrastructure hid and supported Zawahiri during his stay in the city.
Thus, his death could exacerbate any divisions within the Taliban; moderate groups may wish that this incident does not interfere with her efforts to acclimate to the world stage. But don’t count on it too much.
The Haqqani remain perhaps the most confident and assertive wing of the group, and it is unlikely that they will suddenly change their tactics after this embarrassment.
For ordinary Afghans grappling with the effects of sanctions, isolation, and the struggles that insurgents have always had to face when suddenly forced to provide public services, this is even worse news.
After that, it is harder to argue for better Western relations with Kabul.
And it’s not that this strike greatly changes the reality that al-Qaeda faces on the ground: their brand has become a series of global franchises that cause local terror – usually locals against locals. However, they remain a group that hasn’t made world headlines for some time.
Zawahiri appears, according to one senior counterterrorism analyst, to have become more relaxed and confident in his messages to the outside world, referring to recent world events; complacency on both his and his masters’ part may have led to this successful strike.
It is believed that Zawahiri was still directly involved in the planning of al-Qaeda operations, but the world changed after the sudden shock and seismic grief of September 11, 2001. His death is unlikely to stop any terrorist attacks that are already being planned.
However, this teaches us two lessons: First, despite the humiliating but strategically inevitable withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US retains great capability and a long memory. He’s still seeking justice for a twenty-year-old crime. There is determination here, and given the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine, it cannot go unnoticed by US adversaries.
But the second lesson is darker: people don’t always change. That, even after NATO’s devastating presence in Afghanistan and the damage and chaos caused to that country by the Taliban’s decision to allow al-Qaeda to take refuge there decades ago, some part of the Taliban decided to give them a home there again.
The scene still baffles me: in an area where for twenty years Westerners and affiliated Afghan officials basked comfortably behind secure walls, a U.S. drone strike killed an al-Qaeda leader who thought he could relax on balcony in the dawn light.