The al-Zawahiri strike can spark a revival of US intelligence in Afghanistan

The Biden administration’s counterterrorism efforts bore fruit yesterday with the targeting and killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri — al Qaeda’s leader — in a drone strike in Afghanistan.

But the U.S. government’s next counterterrorism steps should build on this success. An ongoing shadow war in Afghanistan provides the best opportunity to prevent a major terror attack on the U.S. homeland, and Panjshiri tribal spies can help.  

In many ways, history has come full circle in Afghanistan, with opposition fighters based in the Panjshir Valley combatting the Taliban. The United States should reinvest in new ways to develop human intelligence in order to counter resurgent jihadists in Afghanistan. Importantly, that is precisely what the U.S. is signaling it might do next, and what is necessary, given both the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and worries of a rising jihadist threat left behind to metastasize — despite the death of al-Zawahiri.

This month marks a year since the United States departed from Afghanistan, and relevantly, this Sept. 11 will commemorate 21 years since the devastating terrorist attacks. But for Panjshiris, September is another important anniversary, the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud — two days before al Qaeda’s devastating 9/11 attacks. Deceitfully, an al Qaeda assassination team posed as journalists to interview the charismatic Massoud, a respected guerrilla commander, and then they subsequently detonated their explosives killing him. Two days later, al Qaeda executed their self-proclaimed “Manhattan Raid” on Sept. 11, 2001. There is a renewed significance of next month’s 9/9 anniversary because the anti-Taliban movement is now being led by Ahmad Massoud — the son of assassinated resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Panjshir has long been an anti-Taliban stronghold. Massoud’s mujahedeen fighters are known as the National Resistance Front (NRF)  and are mostly made up of former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Their localized insurgency against the Taliban is making progress this “fighting season.” In June, for example, a senior Taliban commander named Azizullah Asifi and eight of his fighters reportedly defected from the Taliban and joined the NRF.  Defectors are often valuable sources of human intelligence. By the NRF deftly publicizing Asifi’s claims of Taliban oppression and cruelty, the resistance helps further erode Taliban legitimacy.  

All of this leaves a key policy option for the U.S. that opportunistically springs from this ongoing secret war and could help prevent the resurgence of jihadists in Afghanistan because the Taliban cannot be trusted. By providing sanctuary to al-Zawahiri, the Taliban violated their pledge not to allow international terrorist groups to operate within their territory. This means the United States is going to need to increase its human intelligence-collection capabilities in Afghanistan. Put simply, the United States must throw its weight behind a partnership with the National Resistance Front and other anti-Taliban partners. 

First, human intelligence is the harvest and byproduct of any insurgency. With or without the U.S., the NRF will wage a local insurgency in Afghanistan against the Taliban, and the U.S. needs to tap into their intelligence. This means supporting the anti-Taliban insurgency, if only by replicating the kind of special operations unconventional support that is apparently happening in Ukraine, whereby a network of spies is reportedly coordinating the flow of intelligence.  

Second, the Panjshiris in the NRF that I’ve talked to are hopeful that down the line they will be positioned to make positive political changes in Afghanistan. More importantly, local NRF insurgent gains on the ground could provide geographical contiguous space in Afghanistan for internal migration — a safe zone — that can offer alternatives to draconian Taliban rule, and perhaps even a new social contract with the Afghan people. 

It’s worth recalling that early in the Trump administration when the Afghanistan strategy was unveiled in August 2017, it reflected an approach that was very much seen through a counterterrorism lens. The key theme for counterterrorism options at the time necessitated a strategic framework to protect the U.S. homeland by attacking terrorists like ISIS and al Qaeda in their safe havens. In policy circles, it was viewed as an article of faith that preventing the Taliban from taking over the government by force in Kabul would be baked into any future strategy on Afghanistan. Preventing mass terror attacks against Americans prior to their emergence was the overarching driver for U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Since there is zero evidence that the Taliban have taken measures to limit the activities of foreign terrorists in Afghanistan, it’s necessary to re-scope human intelligence to support counterterrorism efforts. Even though the drone strike on Ayman al-Zawahiri took place without U.S. troops on the ground to collect human intelligence, the operation validated that an “over the horizon capability” can be effective. Still, a long-term intelligence partnership with anti-Taliban insurgents hedges U.S. bets for tracking and reporting on terrorists when the Taliban won’t do it.

Having spent several years both executing and overseeing human intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and also serving at U.S. Central Command and its sub-unified command, Special Operations Command Central, my take away from those experiences is straightforward: The very manner in which the U.S. manages its human intelligence activities is crucial for preventing terrorist attacks. I observed firsthand in Afghanistan that tribal-indigenous partners like the NRF can be cultivated into successful and discreet intelligence partners that support U.S. counterterrorism objectives.

It’s quixotic to expect that the resistance in Afghanistan will overthrow the Taliban militarily in the short term, but they may very well satisfy concessions like power sharing and providing more space for greater political autonomy for the Panjshiris and other tribes, similar to what the Kurds are still fighting for in Syria.  Compounding Taliban rule is infighting and ideological splits that are beginning to show. Still, this insurgency could eventually lead to some kind of coexistence between Panjshiri insurgents and the Taliban.

The U.S. cannot weaken its counterterrorism resolve, even with the success of the drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri. The United States must remain relentless in its pursuit of intelligence on al Qaeda’s next generation of leaders in Afghanistan — wherever their hiding or being protected by the Taliban.

Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s, School of Foreign Service. He is a former career intelligence officer and was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.