Despite al-Zawahiri’s death, there is concern that al-Qaeda will grow as the Taliban provide safe haven (Getty)
Officials and experts said on Tuesday that the CIA drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was a victory for US President Joe Biden’s long-awaited counterterrorism strategy, but it also raised concerns. On the presence of militants in Afghanistan.
With the last American soldiers and intelligence officers leaving Afghanistan last August after a 20-year war, Biden turned to a “over the horizon” strategy of relying on drones and other spy planes to track down and target al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters inside that country.
The CIA’s strike on central Kabul on Sunday, the first of its kind since the withdrawal, gives Biden a rare achievement less than a month before the first anniversary of the chaotic exit that saw the Taliban return to power, 13 American soldiers were killed, and tens of thousands of Afghans were left behind. at risk.
“It’s a straightforward success story,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center think-tank.
He added that the United States failed to kill al-Zawahiri, who helped coordinate the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and succeeded Osama bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaeda, while it had a military presence on the ground, but it proved that it could target him nearly a year after the withdrawal.
“I criticized President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, but this strike shows that we still have the ability and the will to work there to protect our country,” US Representative Tom Malinowski said on Twitter.
I was critical of President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, but this strike shows we still have the capability and will to act there to protect our country.
Zawahiri was a mass murderer and the whole world is safer now that he is gone. https://t.co/UROqICFaVm
— Tom Malinowski (@Malinowski) August 1, 2022
But US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were still shortcomings in the strategy. They pointed out that without agreements to establish bases in neighboring countries, US drones would have difficulty monitoring targets in remote areas of landlocked Afghanistan for long periods.
A US official said the Zawahiri strike would be difficult to replicate across Afghanistan without the networks of intelligence that have thrived during the 20-year US presence.
“This was an exemplary strike,” said Neha Ansari, a Washington-based counterterrorism analyst who focuses on drone warfare.
She added that the operation required good intelligence and countries likely to allow the United States the right to fly drones through their airspace and a specific location. But she stressed that the question of whether these ideal conditions will continue remains an open one.
An example of the difficulty of collecting intelligence in Afghanistan came in 2015 when thousands of US-led forces were on the ground, when US military officials were surprised to discover a massive al-Qaeda training camp in the southern province of Kandahar.
The CIA’s use of drones to strike al-Zawahiri indicates a secret flight agreement with a neighboring country, which the US military does not have. The CIA declined to comment on the operation.
Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, a few blocks from the abandoned US embassy, raises questions about the existence of Islamic extremist groups under the rule of the Taliban.
The strike indicated a flaw in the 2020 withdrawal agreement the United States signed with the Taliban, which allows al-Qaeda and other armed groups to remain in Afghanistan as long as they do not train, raise funds or plan attacks.
Late last year, US intelligence agencies estimated that the local branch of ISIS, known as the Khorasan Province, could have the ability to attack the United States in as little as six months, despite the animosity between Taliban fighters and the group.
And senior US military leaders had said before the withdrawal, last year, that groups such as “Al Qaeda” could pose a threat from Afghanistan to the United States and its allies by 2023.
A United Nations report last year stated that as many as 500 al-Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan and that the Taliban maintain a close relationship with the extremist group.
A US military official said that while al-Zawahiri has become largely a figurehead in the past few years, there is still concern that the group may grow as the Taliban provide safe haven.
The presence of al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan should sound like alarm bells, said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA covert operations officer.
“Afghanistan is a clear and present danger. It has never been more dangerous to the United States than it is now,” he added.
(Reuters, The New Arab)
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