Al-Zawahiri’s killing in Afghanistan shows US is still willing to intervene

By Shane O’Callaghan

JUST under a year after the bungled US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the CIA conducted a historic operation in Kabul when it finally killed Ayman Al-Zawahiri, one of the original members and most recent leader of Al-Qaeda.

While significant in and of itself, the killing of Al-Zawahiri has also provided two key insights into the current situation in Afghanistan: the Taliban has unsurprisingly violated its commitment to not harbor terrorists (though it officially denies this), and the US is still capable and willing to conduct military operations in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s decision to harbor Al-Zawahiri and the US’ decision to kill him in a sovereign nation has only worsened the already fraught relations between the two, and the Afghan people are once again stuck in the middle paying the price.

Al-Zawahiri was a key associate of Osama bin Laden and took over as leader of Al-Qaeda when bin Laden was killed in 2011. Often referred to as the “brains” of Al-Qaeda, Al-Zawahiri was central in planning the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the bombing of the USS Cole, the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and many more horrific attacks. Given his role in numerous unspeakable acts of terror around the globe, Al-Zawahiri had been one of the most wanted people on the planet for nearly 25 years.

Ironically, it may have been the ending of America’s 20-year-long military response to Al-Zawahiri’s attacks that actually made it possible for the CIA to take out the man that had eluded them for decades.

In accordance with the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban, the US withdrew its military forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, and as a result, the Taliban reclaimed control of the country. Although the US lived up to its end of the agreement, it did not take long for the Taliban to blatantly violate its counterterrorism commitments.

Not only was the Taliban once again harboring members of Al-Qaeda, but the US intelligence community believed that the notorious leader of the terror group finally felt safe enough to emerge from hiding and was living in the newly Taliban-controlled Afghan capital of Kabul.

According to reporting by the New York Times, the CIA first identified that some of Al-Zawahiri’s family had relocated to a safe house in Kabul following the Taliban takeover. Shortly after, intelligence officials reportedly identified a person they believed to be Al-Zawahiri himself. The CIA then spent months confirming it was him and surveilling his activities. Ultimately, it was Al-Zawahiri’s daily habit of reading alone on the balcony that presented the US with its opportunity.

When the timing and conditions were optimal, President Biden authorized the strike. Notably, Biden and the CIA took special care to ensure that there was no collateral damage from the strike. The drone that took out the Al-Qaeda leader fired two Hellfire R9X missiles, which are also known as the “ninja missile” or  “knife bomb” because they do not use explosive charges but rather protruding blades to precisely target and eliminate individuals with minimal collateral damage.

While the US military’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan led many to be skeptical when President Biden and members of his administration claimed that the US would still have “over-the-horizon capabilities” for fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, the CIA’s impressive tracking and killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri has confirmed that, even without a troop presence, the US still has the capability to effectively gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Although the death of Al-Qaeda’s leader was lauded as a great success by many in the United States and around the world, the location of Mr. Al-Zawahiri’s demise does not bode well for the people of Afghanistan, who are already facing very dire circumstances.

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the Afghan people, especially women, have been forced to endure the oppressive rule of the new government. The fundamentalist regime has forced women to cover all but their eyes in public, it has, once again, placed heavy restrictions on girls and women attending school or work, and it has responded to protests and defiance with brutal violence.

As if the Taliban depriving the Afghan people of basic rights was not bad enough, Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, recently warned about the situation in the country. Alakbarov explained that 35 million Afghans are living in poverty, 19 million are food insecure, and 6.6 million are on the emergency level just above famine. He warned that if the international community does not provide around USD 2.6 billion soon, the people of Afghanistan could be in for a potentially catastrophic and deadly winter.

The urgent need for billions in aid to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe has led some people to call for President Biden to free up the USD 7 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan Central Bank that the US froze when the Taliban retook control of the country. Although the Taliban has been requesting these funds be unfrozen for months, the Biden administration has refused, citing existing sanctions against the Taliban for terrorism.

Unfortunately for the Afghan people, the Taliban’s decision to provide a safe haven for the leader of Al-Qaeda has now made it nearly politically impossible for President Biden to free up these funds. Biden has already suffered politically once thanks to US involvement in Afghanistan, with his poll numbers plummeting after the chaotic withdrawal.

The killing of Al-Zawahiri has been touted as a major accomplishment abroad among a recent stretch of domestic victories for President Biden, and he is highly unlikely to overshadow that by providing funds to a regime that is harboring terrorists, including a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans.

Just as the US is unlikely to give the funds to the Taliban, the Taliban is unlikely to respond well to America violating the sovereignty of the country it now controls. This ordeal has been embarrassing for the new government, is likely to infuriate the Taliban hardliners that sympathize with Al-Qaeda, and may give them leverage in their reported in-fighting with the more moderate Taliban members seeking more engagement with the international community.

Luckily, despite the worsening of relations between the US and the Taliban over Al-Zawahiri, Reuters has reported that the Biden administration is still in negotiations with the Afghan Central Bank to free up USD 3.5 billion of the frozen USD 7 billion through a Swiss-based trust fund that the administration hopes will provide relief to Afghanistan while avoiding Taliban access to the funds.

Although an agreement in the immediate future seems doubtful, if the Taliban and the US cannot reach a deal, it will, yet again, be the Afghan people who suffer the potentially fatal consequences.

Featured Image: Hamid Mir @ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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