A U.S. drone strike that killed al Qaeda’s leader has underscored both the capabilities and the consequences of ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan nearly one year ago.President Biden and his team hailed the drone strike that took out a key planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as proof that the U.S. can conduct “over the horizon” strikes in Afghanistan and eliminate terrorists without having boots on the ground.
But al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul — seemingly in plain sight in the country’s capital — also raises questions about whether al Qaeda leaders and other terrorist group members might be able to find safe harbor in Afghanistan once again under Taliban rule.
The killing of al-Zawahiri comes just a few weeks before the anniversary of the complete U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which led to massive criticism of Biden over the chaotic departure of civilians and the Taliban’s overrunning of the government.
“Zawahiri’s presence in downtown Kabul — and the Taliban’s knowledge of it — shows elements of the Taliban continue to protect al Qaeda. It’s no secret that Afghanistan has become safer for al Qaeda members under the Taliban. That’s why Zawahiri was in Kabul, with his family, in the first place,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow focused on counterterrorism at the American Enterprise Institute.
Zimmerman said the U.S. showed its reach with the drone strike but noted that al Qaeda has survived such strikes against its leadership before. The difference now is the lack of boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
“What has changed is the U.S. can no longer exploit intelligence from the ground, something that the U.S. ground presence brought, making it harder for the U.S. to compound the effect of the strike by taking out other key leaders,” she said.
A senior administration official said the strike that killed al-Zawahiri followed months of careful planning and intelligence gathering. Officials were able to develop a model of the safe house where the terrorist leader was living and “build a pattern of life” that determined he spent extended periods on a balcony.
The time and energy put into gathering information ahead of the strike allowed it to be completed without civilian casualties, officials said.
The precise nature of the strike, according to the official account, stood in contrast to the havoc seen in the wake of the American military withdrawal, in which the U.S., in one of its last missile strikes in the country after 20 years of war, claimed it had thwarted a terrorist operation but later acknowledged it had mistakenly killed 10 civilians.
Biden on Monday said that killing al-Zawahiri will help prevent Afghanistan from becoming a “terrorist safe haven.”
“When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago … I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond,” Biden said. “We’ve done just that.”
White House national security spokesman John Kirby argued on Tuesday that the strike proves that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists, adding that the U.S. is mindful of the Taliban’s moves.
“We’re going to stay vigilant to the threat. We’ve made it clear to the Taliban that we know what they did. And we know who they harbored. And we know some steps they tried to take after the strike to cover up the evidence of it. So we’re mindful of it,” he said.
Kirby argued that if the Taliban is serious about its desire for financing and a relationship with the United States, “it would behoove them to pay close attention to what we just did over the weekend.”
Still, some lawmakers have expressed concerns about what al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul could mean for Afghanistan under Taliban leadership.
Sen. James Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the strike against al-Zawahiri the right move but argued that surveillance of terrorist groups like al Qaeda is weakened because of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“Visibility on terror threats in Afghanistan remain greatly diminished after the Biden Administration’s hazardous withdrawal last year. Only through continued pressure will we keep al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan from threatening Americans,” Risch said in a statement.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul is a blow to the credibility of the Taliban and violates the Doha agreement established under the Trump administration.
“You can’t have al-Zawahiri, No. 1 al Qaeda, residing in the capital city and say you didn’t know it. So we have to treat the Taliban as what they are, which is allowing al Qaeda elements to be in their country,” Menendez said.
But other Republicans agree that the nature of the withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to terrorist leaders like al-Zawahiri attempting to find a safe haven there.
Eric Ueland, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights under former President Trump, argued that Biden needs to give a clear warning to the Taliban that it will pay a price if it is hosting or supporting such individuals.
“I’m not talking about bluster from the podium, as I’m talking about direct engagement with … a full suite of tools to engage to make crystal clear to the Taliban leadership that resuming the former habit of using Afghanistan as a refuge for groups and individuals who want to target the United States and its citizens would be viewed with grim dimness by the United States,” he said.
Experts and lawmakers credited the Biden administration with carrying out the strike, saying at minimum it carries symbolic importance, even if al Qaeda is not the operational terrorist threat it once was.
Anthony Cordesman, who previously served on the National Security Council and as national security assistant to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said a broader issue in Afghanistan is a consequence of the United States’ publicly telegraphed desire to withdraw, a plan first devised during the Trump administration.
“In some ways since the Taliban took over you still don’t have any clear structure of Taliban governance,” he said. “You basically don’t have the idea that they have some clear concept of what they intend to do about the economy, which is in near collapse. They have not established a clear or stable structure of governance.”
Mychael Schnell contributed.