A little more than a month ago, in the early morning of July 31, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a U.S. Reaper drone over Kabul. At the time, he was taking in the morning airs upon a balcony with stunning views located in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood—(named after a leader of the attack against the British Indian mission to Afghanistan in 1841 that led to the first Anglo-Afghan war and his short-lived rule). It is a neighborhood familiar to many who served in Kabul, in a variety of capacities, during the war (2001-2021), and to those who have either fled, returned, or remain. The strike came as a bolt from the blue, and belies claims that war is over in Afghanistan; it continues with or without the U.S. or NATO-led troop presence.
The pretext for drone strike—a “violation of the Doha agreement”—is incongruous given numerous earlier violations, not least the Taliban’s humiliating seizure of Kabul on August 15, 2021, and its strengthening of ties with terrorist groups during and since. Predictably, the Taliban have twisted this, and are, in feint denial, allegedly unable to find his body. Their investigation into the matter has yet to be completed, however, on September 7 their foreign minister asserted “The United States has so far not presented the Afghan government with any evidence or documents proving the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.” Privately, the Taliban acknowledge his presence and death. Their attempt to shift the burden of proof and contribute to Zawahiri’s mystique will do little to establish trust with the United States or its allies.
President Joe Biden’s claim following Zawahiri’s death that “Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more” brings neatly into focus the issue of the relationship between leadership decapitation, wider conceptions of justice, and the broader context of the conflict at hand. Moreover, as Afghanistan remains in the grip of what many regard as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in part due to the precipitous U.S. and NATO-led troop withdrawal and the Taliban regime’s rule. Thus, the question arises: “what next?” Answers to this are not necessarily as reassuring as Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statements assert.
The strike’s unexpectedness and the use of novel R9X “Ninja” missiles launched from the CIA-operated Reaper drone reflect a grim determination and how surreal the whole affair is. It is almost as though both the strike and preceding events arose directly from the pages of a sensational political thriller; ghostly images of the drone have added to this impression. Not to overstate matters, the strike possesses all these qualities, and more besides, and therein lies the rub: with Zawahiri’s killing the threats have become more real, rather than less: his presence confirms fears and analyses that the Taliban and Al Qaeda remain closely aligned.
As precise and “surgical” as the strike may be, it is in its wider effects—including in context and its implications—that the strike is better understood and weighed. Al Qaeda’s efforts against the United States and its allies (and others) will not yet cease. It is also now patently clear that the Taliban have been providing succor to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups (amid considerable previous uncertainty for some). This adds—not reduces—pressure on the United States and its allies as to what to do about the Taliban regime and its supporters in and outside Afghanistan, and about Afghanistan itself.
Afghanistan remains a foreign policy issue that will not “go away,” despite hopes by some that it would. Closely linked with this is Pakistan, which is in dire economic straits and has recently appealed—including via the Pakistan chief of the army staff, General Qamar Bajwa—to the United States for financial assistance. This is despite Pakistan having aided the Taliban for many years and with several sources plausibly claiming it did so during the Taliban’s August 2021 lightning offensive. The now former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) appeared in Kabul in celebration soon after the Taliban took Kabul in August 2021, and former Prime Minister Imran Khan praised the Taliban’s victory against the United States.
Biden is clearly enthused by the Zawahiri strike that he authorized. He has long claimed such capabilities should be used to address threats posed by militant groups, with Al Qaeda at the fore, and against figures such as Zawahiri. The United States has a contemporary history of targeting militant leaderships using drone strikes, however, these have had highly questionable results that remain debated. It is helpful to recall that Biden advocated such an approach as vice-president in the Obama administration (“counter-terrorism-plus”) instead of a broader-based one in 2010, largely because drones do not expose U.S. troops (at least immediately). Since his decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he has recast this as the “over the horizon” approach/capability, a concept first coined by Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman in their 2010 book Cutting the Fuse. Concerns abound that it will neither “cut the fuse” nor will the threats emanating from Afghanistan remain “over the horizon.” The Taliban’s actions have so far done little to alleviate these.
Paradoxically, the appeal to not expose U.S. troops informed Biden’s decision to rapidly withdraw U.S. (and thus NATO-led) troops from Afghanistan in April 2021, which resulted in the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan in August and the ensuing debacle involving multiple U.S. troop, allied, and civilian deaths. Since then, it has become increasingly evident that more needs to be done to address the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda (and other terrorist groups). However, the “over the horizon” approach, including the Zawahiri strike, has implications for and imposes constraints on what the United States and its allies may do to address the wider state of and the situation in Afghanistan. This includes urgent support to stave off further economic contraction and humanitarian hardship in Afghanistan. This refocuses attention on the efficacy of the Zawahiri drone strike, as the implications of economic support and aid provision are becoming increasingly complicated in its wake.
The loss of Zawahiri, while highly symbolic, is not as great as is often claimed. Zawahiri failed to prevent splits in Al Qaeda resulting in ISIS’s formation; he was neither a strong nor a particularly effective leader. Furthermore, Al Qaeda has increasingly developed regional leaderships since the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, that, with their cadres, carry out many of its endeavors and carry much of its potency. Consequently, a leader of one of these regional leaderships is likely to come to the fore with more concerning implications: a desire for revenge, to prove their mettle, and to consolidate efforts.
Meantime, fissures are emerging in the Taliban given suspicions members may have betrayed Zawahiri’s presence. While the strike exacerbates pre-existing internal tensions, far from weakening the Taliban it may strengthen its determination to resist the United States and what it sees as Western pressure on issues such as cutting ties and support to terrorist groups (per the Doha agreement); institutionalizing reforms that could enable urgently needed financial liquidity in Afghanistan and aid funding and delivery; girl’s education; and the release of U.S. hostage Mark Frerichs (kidnapped by the Taliban in February 2020), and recently detained U.S. filmmaker Ivor Shearer as well as Afghan colleague Faizullah Faizbakhsh. It is worth recalling that alleged Taliban “splits” and efforts to deepen these did not stop the group from audaciously retaking Afghanistan. Therefore, it is unlikely that Zawahiri’s assassination will seriously affect its well-established unity, despite differences and tensions within it.
Post Zawahiri’s “droning,” in addition to continuing Taliban-Al Qaeda ties, the question of ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province) remains increasingly acute as it strengthens and prepares to attack the West. After the Zawahiri strike, ISIS-K may be further empowered given its considerable rivalry with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the threats and challenges emanating from Afghanistan are sharpening, and the United States and its allies’ options to address this have neither substantially increased nor improved.
Indeed, while drones can conduct strikes with remarkable precision, these are dependent upon quality intelligence. Although the United States conducted painstaking “pattern of life” analysis for this strike, it has been indicated that key intelligence was received from on-the-ground sources in addition to signal intercepts. This aspect is now coming under closer scrutiny, with several analyses contending that the United States received assistance from Pakistan in a quid pro quo (not for the first time). It is hard to overlook the alignment of interests and the timing of the strike. Pakistan has been attempting to reset relations with the United States (post-Imran Khan) as it faces economic turbulence, and as Taliban support to the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban or TTP, which has been attacking Pakistan) has become increasingly problematic for Pakistan. Meantime, the approach of the U.S. midterm elections means that these positive developments are especially welcome in the White House.