But eliminating al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri from a balcony in one of Kabul’s trendiest neighborhoods – a city the United States retreated to chaos from a year ago – is not an everyday undertaking. It is a shocking demonstration of what twenty years of terrorist hunting experience has left the United States capable of doing.
Yet it leaves a predictable lesson in its wake: Afghanistan has remained a safe haven for terrorists for the past decade – they simply haven’t carried out attacks from there, which means we’ve been paying attention. But the fact that Zawahiri lived there in plain sight belies the feverish spiral that occurred prior to the US withdrawal.
For years, the US perception of al Qaeda’s threat in Afghanistan seemed to waver depending on the footprint the US was pursuing; in the years they wanted to push harder during their longest war, I remember being informed that a solid hardcore threat – perhaps a few hundred key al Qaeda figures – remained and could reconstitute itself.
Then, as the United States rushed out, the danger posed by al Qaeda was downplayed. The Afghan raids on al Qaeda leaders showed how well the problem was handled, the United States seemed to suggest, rather than the group was still there and big enough to strike.
Now – ironically due to this American success – there is undeniable evidence of the problem Washington has longed for for years.
Al Qaeda “is making something up,” said a former Afghan government official with an intimate knowledge of counterterrorism.
He suggested that Zawahiri was not the only leading figure of al Qaeda in the country and that his potential successor, number two Saif al-Adel – reported by the United Nations to be in Iran – may have recently entered Afghanistan.
In May of last year, just before the surprising 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 perhaps 18 months to do the same in the West.
It’s unclear how that timeline was affected by Zawahiri’s death, but we can be sure its symbolic impact means it’s unlikely to have accelerated it.
So where did the Taliban come from? In truth, not much has changed.
The Haqqani network, which has a tight grip on Kabul, has long been accused of strong ties to al Qaeda. It could very well be their infrastructure that hid and supported Zawahiri during his time in the city.
His death could therefore accentuate any rifts within the Taliban; the moderates of the group may wish that its efforts to acclimate to the world stage were not hampered by this incident. But don’t rely on it too much.
The Haqqani remain perhaps the safest and most assertive wing of the group, and are unlikely to suddenly change course after this embarrassment.
For the common people of Afghanistan, grappling with the impact of sanctions, isolation and the struggle that an insurgency would always face when it suddenly had to provide government services, it is still bad news.
After this, it is more difficult to make a case for improving the West’s relations with Kabul.
And it’s not that this strike greatly alters the reality al Qaeda faces on the ground: their brand has morphed into a series of global franchises that inflict local terror, usually from locals against locals. Yet they remain a group that hasn’t brutally made its way into the front pages of the world for some time.
Zawahiri appears, according to a senior counter-terrorism analyst, to have become more relaxed and confident in his messages to the outside world, referring to more recent world events; complacency, either from him or from his guests, may have led to this winning blow.
Zawahiri is still believed to have been directly involved in planning al Qaeda’s operations, but the world has changed since the sudden shock and seismic pain of September 11, 2001. His death is unlikely to stop the already planned attacks.
However, it teaches us two lessons: First, that despite their humiliating but strategically inevitable withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States retains a long reach and a long memory. He is still pursuing justice for a 20-year crime. There is a determination here, and given the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine, it cannot go unnoticed by US adversaries.
But the second lesson is darker: that people don’t always change. That, even after the ravages of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, and the damage and chaos brought to that country by the Taliban’s decision to allow al Qaeda to take refuge there decades ago, some of the Taliban have chosen to give them a new house there.
The scene still puzzles me: that in an area where Western and connected Afghan officials would have basked comfortably behind secure walls for twenty years, a US drone strike killed the al-Qaeda leader, who thought he could relax on a balcony in the dawn light.