Killing of top Qaeda leader provides lessons for US involvement in Afghanistan

Killing of top Qaeda leader provides lessons for US involvement in Afghanistan

The assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, where planning for the 9/11 attacks began more than two decades ago, where the West once seemed poised to remake a divided nation, and where the terrorist leader could once again feel comfortable after the Taliban seized power. last summer speaks eloquently of what America has achieved in a 20-year experiment. It also says a lot about where he failed.

On the one hand, it was a reminder of how little has changed. The Taliban again took power in the country. Like 21 years ago, they harbored a prominent al-Qaeda leader. There, he settled comfortably in a safe house, so comfortable that his family was close by and he had routines to spend time in the sun.

On the other hand, it was a reminder of how surveillance, drones, and remote assassinations have changed the nature of the hunt for terrorist group leadership. In 2001, American drones were mostly unarmed. In the next 21 years, they became armed, and the CIA and the US military perfected the art of hunting what they called high-value targets.

It took patience to get al-Zawahiri—two decades of patience. This confirmed President Biden’s promise that even after the withdrawal of US troops last year, he would continue counterterrorism operations.

Which brings this story to another lesson: if the original purpose of infiltrating Afghanistan was to carry out such operations—hunting for the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the generation of terrorists who followed them—then it might be possible to carry out the mission without trying to remake the country.

But the mission has changed. President George W. Bush hailed the first signs of democracy – elections – and the fact that girls can go to school. The military units helped irrigate the fields and build the judicial system. For a while, America imagined it was building a noisy, nascent democracy. But somehow it didn’t stick. Drones could not remake the underlying society or defeat the Taliban, who have always existed in various forms. America has succeeded tactically, but not strategically. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were put on trial, but as the British discovered in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th, changing society proved much more difficult. Al-Zawahiri left. The Taliban still rule.

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