On July 31, 2022, the United States launched a missile strike that killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. US military sources say that this was the biggest blow to the Al-Qaeda leadership since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Al-Zawahiri was a 71-year-old Egyptian physician who succeeded Bin Laden in leading the jihadist terror group. The drone missile attack was the first known US strike in Afghanistan since the US withdrew its assets in 2021. In addition, the strike was quite personal as Al-Zawahiri helped coordinate the September 11, 2001, attacks. The precision strike, nonetheless, is an impressive demonstration of the United States’ intelligence and operational capacity, which affirms the state’s ability to remain effective against terrorism remotely.
Implications for Afghanistan
Al-Zawahiri’s death raises questions about whether he received sanctuary from the Taliban, who overthrew the Afghan government in 2021, after the US withdrawal. It should be mentioned that al-Zawahiri’s home was in an upscale neighborhood in Kabul, where many Taliban leaders also live. According to the Financial Times, a senior US administration official said that top Taliban officials knew about al-Zawahiri‘s location; Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the Taliban had “grossly violated” the Doha Agreement. This agreement, signed between the U.S. and Taliban in 2020, stipulates that the Taliban end support for U.S.-deemed terrorist organizations, which include Al-Qaeda. However, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have deep, historical ties, as the latter sheltered Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks.
The Taliban have retorted by mentioning that the U.S. violated the Doha agreement by carrying out a precision drone strike in Afghanistan. According to the Taliban’s chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, “such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the US, Afghanistan, and the region.” Despite criticism from both sides, it is evident that the US intelligence community was able to predict the outcome of the Taliban’s own relationships with terror groups. Within a year, the number of operatives of the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) and the smaller Al-Qaeda organization doubled.
As a result, the Taliban are already feeling the effects of international pressure and isolation and will face even greater pressure if the Taliban do not change its foreign, and internal policies. What will this additional pressure look like from the international community? Blinken, for one, has said the US will continue to support the Afghan people with humanitarian assistance and human rights advocacy. However, the strike has dealt a significant setback to the Taliban’s hopes of gaining international legitimacy. Since taking power, the Taliban have said they want to engage with foreign states, in order to end crippling international sanctions and revive Afghanistan‘s economy. This will not be possible until the Taliban act according to the Doha agreement, which many political analysts doubt will be the case.
Implications for the US
The drone strike against Al-Zawahiri has undoubtedly bolstered the United States’ morale after the chaotic withdrawal which had reportedly weakened U.S. cooperation with partners on the ground, undermined a sustainable foundation to collect intelligence, and eliminated in-country bases of operation.
Though the killing assures Washington’s ability to address threats from a state without having soldiers stationed, the death of Al-Zawahiri is insignificant when we consider the breadth of jihadist terrorism. Groups such as Hurras al-Din in Syria, al-Shabab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen are far more capable of carrying out operations against US interests in the areas in which they operate, and they’re perhaps a longer-term threat to planning operations against the United States than al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. As the Taliban have regained control of a ruined Afghanistan, and now have to deal with improving its liberalist strategies to cooperate with the international community, Afghan terror groups are no longer as great a threat when compared to the aforementioned Middle-Eastern terror groups.
While the threat from these jihadist groups demands a robust counterterrorism strategy, it does strengthen the argument that the presence of US forces and bases on the ground, which comes at a severe cost [as seen through the Afghanistan withdrawal], may well be the best way to guarantee maximum protection of the United States, but it is not necessarily the only way. If the US decides to invest in remote warfare to the point where most of its military power will be concentrated in Washington, it may change US intervention in the Middle East as well as the way other states pursue hard and military power in the future.