The killing of al-Zawahiri is a triumph of US intelligence but a failure of Biden’s foreign policy

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 2 August 2022. © Richard Kemp

Few things could be more emblematic of US foreign policy failure than Bin Laden’s successor and the coordinator of 9/11 living comfortably in the heart of Kabul 21 years after US forces invaded Afghanistan to eliminate Al Qaeda. Killing Ayman al-Zawahiri was a triumph of US intelligence collection and operational capability. Biden was right to agree to the strike: although partially eclipsed by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, Al Qaeda remains a threat to America and the world, with its global network of terrorist operatives in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Europe, the US, North and East Africa and many other places.

The whole reason US and allied forces entered Afghanistan in 2001 was to deny Al Qaeda and other terrorists the freedom to operate in ungoverned space and to prevent the Taliban from giving them safe haven and support. But thanks to Biden’s disastrous foreign policy decisions, two decades later we are full circle, with the Taliban back in control and again harbouring Al Qaeda terrorists. Zawahiri and his family were not living anonymously in some remote area but in a wealthy district of central Kabul, close to several foreign embassies, in a house reportedly owned by a top aide to Afghanistan’s interior minister. It is inconceivable that the Taliban leadership did not know he was in their midst, churning out videos to incite terrorist attacks against the West and issuing directions to his network.

When Nato forces left Afghanistan, we were assured that the Taliban had changed — that they would no longer allow terrorist groups to operate there. The US even signed an agreement to that effect with the Taliban at Doha, and now Secretary of State Blinken professes outrage that they have not honoured it. Of course they were never going to honour it; they are terrorists with a long-established track record of lies, deception, duplicity and unrestrained violence.

Biden insisted last night that the strike on Zawahiri proves he was right when he said last year that taking all troops out of Afghanistan would not undermine US ability to deal with threats from there. That is not the reality. His unconditional withdrawal, refusing to leave behind any military capability, has virtually blinded the West to what is going on in the region. Clearly the CIA could identify and target Zawahiri, but he was classified as one of only 25 ‘most wanted’ terrorists on the FBI list worldwide, with immense resources allocated to track him down.

Zawahri’s presence in Kabul is a clear indicator that there are other senior terrorists there and we know there are many lower level, but also highly dangerous, Al Qaeda operatives in the country. We should be doing all we can to eliminate them, before they get to the stage of launching attacks against the West, which remains Al Qaeda’s goal. The overwhelming majority, or perhaps all, of these terrorists will not have the priority that was afforded to Zawahiri.

Nor can remote tools like electronic surveillance and drones fill every gap in the extensive capability that was removed when the withdrawal was completed. Opportunities for human intelligence collection and special forces operations, which will sometimes be the only way to identify and strike some targets, have now been severely curtailed.

There is also the question of Biden’s tolerance levels for airstrikes against terrorists. During the decision-making process on taking out Zawahiri, he was reportedly concerned about how the strike might affect US relations with the Taliban. How likely is he to authorise further operations against lesser figures whose names are unknown to the US electorate but still represent a real threat? Let us not forget that he blasted President Trump for authorising the killing of Iranian terrorist supremo Qasem Soleimani, casting it as a ‘dangerous escalation’.

The operation against Zawahiri has reminded us how much danger we face from the Taliban since the West’s withdrawal. Even those who didn’t recognise it before can now see clearly that this is not just a regime committed to brutalising the Afghan population, but prepared to shelter threats to our populations too. As they continue to cooperate with Al Qaeda they will also be willing to cooperate with other jihadist groups who want to attack the West, including the Islamic State, despite their current differences. The fact that this killing even took place shows the folly of the idea that the US could detach itself from the region.

Image: Wikimedia Commons