TE24 International Desk:
The CIA drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri delivered a long-sought victory for US President Joe Biden’s counterterrorism strategy, officials and experts said Tuesday, but also sharpened concerns about the militant presence in Afghanistan.
As the last U.S. troops and intelligence officers left Afghanistan last August after a 20-year war, Biden called for an “over-the-horizon” plan to rely on drones and spy planes to track and strike al Qaeda and Islamic State militants inside the country.
Sunday’s CIA strike in central Kabul, the first publicly known of its kind since the withdrawal, gave Biden a rare victory less than a month after the anniversary of the chaotic exit that saw the Taliban return to power, killing 13 US troops and leaving tens of thousands of Afghans vulnerable. .
It’s a very straightforward success story, says Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center think-tank.
The U.S. failed to kill Zawahiri, who helped coordinate the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. and was Osama bin Laden’s successor, while U.S. forces were on the ground, but proved it could hit him nearly a year after the withdrawal, Kugelman said. Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski tweeted, “While I have criticized President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, this strike demonstrates the ability and willingness to act locally to protect our country.” Yes, he said.
But a US official said on condition of anonymity that the strategy is still flawed. They noted that without basic agreements with neighboring countries, it would be difficult for US drones to monitor long-term targets in remote areas of landlocked Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said it would be difficult to repeat the Zawahiri attack without the human intelligence network maintained in Afghanistan during the 20-year U.S. presence. It was a pattern attack, said Neha Ansari, a Washington-based counterterrorism analyst who focuses on drone warfare.
Ansari said the operation requires good intelligence, with countries likely to give the US the right to fly drones in its airspace and specific locations. But whether these perfect conditions will last is an open question, he added. The forces were on the ground when they were surprised to discover a large al-Qaeda training camp in southern Kandahar.
We don’t know what we don’t know, the US official added. Its use of CIA drones in attacks Zawahiri pointed to secret air deals with neighboring countries that the US military does not have. The CIA declined to comment on the operation.
Alarm bells are ringing
Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, just a few blocks from the abandoned US embassy, calls into question the existence of the Taliban-controlled Islamist extremist group.
The strike highlights flaws in the US withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in 2020. The agreement allows al-Qaeda and other extremist groups to remain in Afghanistan unless they train, finance or plan attacks. A local branch of the Islamic State, known as IS, has assessed the possibility of an attack on the United States in just six months, despite the country being an enemy.
Before last year’s withdrawal, senior US military leaders said groups like al-Qaeda would be forced out of Afghanistan by 2023, citing the Taliban’s close ties to Islamist extremists. It could pose a threat to its allies.
US military officials say al-Zawahiri has largely become the focus of attention in recent years, but there are still concerns that the group could grow if the Taliban provides them with safe haven.
Former CIA senior covert operations officer and director Daniel Hoffman said the presence of Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan should raise alarm bells. Afghanistan is a clear and present threat. Sorry, it wasn’t more dangerous than that.