The strike last month on al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri showed at first glance that U.S. forces can still carry out military and intelligence missions in Afghanistan without American boots on the ground.
Beneath the surface, however, the bombing of al-Zawahri’s safe house in Kabul exposed much deeper, long-term problems for the U.S. and a seemingly endless fight against radical Islamic extremism, counterterrorism insiders and foreign policy analysts say.
Chief among the problems are clear links between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Some specialists say the ties are virtually unbreakable and are likely to strengthen with the Taliban cementing their rule and no steady U.S. presence to act as a counterbalance.
The Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to track and contain the spread of terrorist networks in Afghanistan may be severely limited in the years to come. The al-Zawahri strike, analysts say, was unique. After eluding a global manhunt for more than two decades, the al Qaeda leader was apparently undone because of his own tradecraft sloppiness, including a penchant for spending time on his balcony in clear view from the streets below. Once U.S. intelligence could positively identify the al Qaeda leader, that habit made him a relatively easy target for long-range U.S. drones launched from outside Afghanistan.
More complex missions remain difficult, if not impossible, to organize “over the horizon.” Special Forces raids involving ground teams — such as the 2011 mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden or the 2019 operation in Syria that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — would be exceedingly difficult in Afghanistan for a host of logistical and geopolitical reasons.
“The strike on al-Zawahri is really the best of times and the worst of times,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator during the Trump administration. “The upside is it shows that in exceptional cases, the U.S. still has the capacity to take terrorists off the battlefield. The downside, which I think deserves more attention, is it shows al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to collaborate to the point that al Qaeda’s head honcho felt comfortable living in a Taliban safe house right in the heart of the capital.”
If that collaboration leads to threats to U.S. interests abroad or to the American homeland, a significant military mission would face serious hurdles.
“It would be much harder, operationally and diplomatically, to carry out an Abbottabad-type raid or a Baghdadi-type raid,” Mr. Sales said. “Where are you going to stage your troops? We could do Abbottabad because we had a substantial U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. We could do Baghdadi because we had a substantial troop presence in Syria and Iraq.”
Presidents Trump and Biden, who share little in common politically, refused to budge from their position that it was past time for troops to leave Afghanistan despite pleas from top generals to keep a small but symbolically potent force in place to bolster the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
Mr. Trump opened direct diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban despite harsh criticism from within his own party. His administration sealed a withdrawal agreement with the insurgents without getting buy-in from the Afghan government. Mr. Biden pushed ahead with the withdrawal process and timetable despite criticism that the Taliban were not holding up their end of the bargain. Military advisers privately warned Mr. Biden that the Afghan government was sure to collapse in short order without Western backing.
Both administrations have sought to turn America’s attention, militarily and geopolitically, toward Asia as China rises as a military and economic power. Some argue that the new reality in Afghanistan makes a focus on Asia more difficult. More than two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. needs to keep at least one eye on Afghanistan and its renewed potential to become the epicenter and sanctuary for global Islamic extremism movements.
“The overall strategic picture emerging from enduring al Qaeda-Taliban association is bad news for the U.S. government, which has been wanting to pivot away from the fight against terrorism toward strategic competition with China and Russia,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Asia Center, said during a recent forum. “It appears the U.S. government still faces formidable terrorist adversaries who are able to exploit grievances, alliances and state support to recover from losses and stay in the fight. America can’t afford to take the eye off its terrorist adversaries.”
As a tactical matter, the U.S. faces a host of unanswered questions about what it can and cannot do to stop the spread of extremist forces in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration has had little apparent success finding countries near Afghanistan willing to host U.S. counterterrorism assets for the long term. That lack of staging areas would greatly complicate any missions relying on ground forces.
Central Asian nations such as Uzbekistan have come under pressure from Russia and, behind the scenes, from China to deny U.S. overtures.
Even Pakistan, which has a complex two-decade history with the U.S. on matters of counterterrorism, is walking a fine line. Last month, Taliban officials publicly accused Islamabad of allowing U.S. drones to fly through Pakistani airspace to conduct missions in Afghanistan, most notably the strike on al-Zawahri.
Pakistani officials denied the charges.
“In the absence of any evidence … such conjectural allegations are highly regrettable and defy the norms of responsible diplomatic conduct,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Asim Iftikhar Ahmad said in a statement, according to Voice of America.
History repeats itself?
Mr. Ahmad also publicly admonished the Taliban to live up to the agreement it signed with the Trump administration in early 2020, in particular not to allow terrorists free rein in the country. During the first Taliban regime, bin Laden, al-Zawahri and other top al Qaeda figures conceived and prepared for the 9/11 attacks from camps in Afghanistan.
“We urge the Afghan interim authorities to ensure the fulfillment of international commitments made by Afghanistan not to allow the use of its territory for terrorism against any country,” he said.
That deal called on the Taliban to never again allow terrorist groups to use Afghanistan as a base of operations and not to conduct operations against U.S. and allied forces as the deal was being implemented. In exchange, the U.S. would withdraw all of its troops from the country.
The Taliban offered little evidence that they intended to follow through on that process. During the months-long American military drawdown, reports from the Pentagon, the United Nations and other organizations consistently said al Qaeda remained present in Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s public assurances to the contrary. Al-Zawahri’s comfortable living arrangement in Kabul offered more proof that the Taliban are either unwilling or unable to purge the country of terrorists.
A ruthless offshoot of the Islamic State, a rival to al Qaeda, also has established a beachhead inside Afghanistan.
By following through on the withdrawal and executing it in a chaotic fashion with the whole world watching, the Biden administration has made America less safe, critics say.
“We are more likely to be attacked like New York City was 20 some years ago, we’re more likely to be attacked from [Afghanistan] today than we were just one year ago,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a recent appearance on the “Cats Roundtable” radio program.
As Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo was in a key position during U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. Mr. Trump and his advisers insist they would not have forged ahead with the pullout as Mr. Biden did in the face of clear evidence that Taliban leaders failed to keep their promises or without a clear plan for maintaining counterterrorism capabilities in the theater.
The Biden administration argues that the U.S. has reaped strategic benefits from the Afghanistan pullout, including an ability to focus on the Russia-Ukraine war. A recent U.S. intelligence community assessment offered a relatively optimistic take on the state of terrorist movements inside Afghanistan a year after the American withdrawal.
The joint U.S. agency assessment concluded that al Qaeda has not been able to reconstitute the network it once had in Afghanistan and that only a “handful” of the once-feared terrorist group’s members remain, The New York Times reported last month.
With no American troops in Afghanistan and an unreliable Taliban government, military officials fear the country could eventually unravel to the point that the U.S. is forced to return.
Asked recently whether U.S. troops may need to go back to Afghanistan, retired Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie seemed to leave that door open.
“I know this: It is in the best long-term interest of the United States to not allow these centers of violent extremism to grow and expand in Afghanistan. And I believe under the current Taliban regime, that’s probably what’s going to happen,” said Gen. McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command during the 2021 withdrawal.
“The last time I was looking at intelligence, that was a position we had,” Gen. McKenzie told “Fox News Sunday” in a recent interview. “I follow it like everybody else does now: in the newspaper and other sources. But I see nothing to change that opinion that the threat is growing in Afghanistan and it’s merely a matter of time.”
Biden administration officials say the U.S. is prepared to deal with the threat. They stress that the strike on al-Zawahri proves that the U.S., despite its limited capabilities in Afghanistan, can take out terrorist figures when necessary.
“Ask the members of al Qaeda how safe they feel in Afghanistan right now,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters last month after the al-Zawahri strike.
“I think we proved … that it isn’t a safe haven and it isn’t going to be going forward,” he said.