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A deadly US drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend provided several clues as to what US counterterrorism strategy might look like going forward.
First, the target was al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a man the United States had been pursuing for more than two decades. The strike showed that the United States can always track hard-to-find extremist leaders, even if it takes a long time to find them.
Second, it was the first high-profile US attack in Afghanistan since the withdrawal of US troops in August last year. Such strikes are far less frequent than at the height of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are still part of the arsenal.
Third, US national security priorities have evolved after two years of wars against Islamic extremists. Russia’s war in Ukraine is the most pressing concern right now, and China is the biggest long-term challenge. But extremism remains a threat that will emerge periodically.
“We make it clear tonight that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you are hiding, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and get you out,” President Biden said Monday night. from the White Loger.
Strike shows US can still monitor threats from abroad
US officials said they learned earlier this year that al-Zawahiri’s family had moved into a safe house earlier this year in Kabul’s upscale Sherpur neighborhood, a diplomatic area many Taliban leaders now call home. .
At some point, Zawahiri joined them. US officials said al-Zawahiri never left the house, but they were able to establish a pattern of his movements.
This allowed the United States to carry out the drone strike with two Hellfire missiles on Sunday morning while al-Zawahiri was on the balcony of the house, according to US officials.
Officials did not say where they launched the drone, but the United States no longer has any military bases in the immediate area, suggesting the plane may have traveled a long distance before reaching its target.
John Kirby, Strategic Communications Coordinator at the White House National Security Council, Told morning edition that the strike is a significant blow to al-Qaeda operations and proves that the United States will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists.
“We said a year ago that we knew al-Qaeda was starting to return, in small numbers, to Afghanistan,” Kirby added. “We have been honest about this. We have also said that the plan is not to hit every Al-Qaida terrorist with a missile, but to ensure that we defeat these threats to our homeland, to the people Mr. Zawahiri posed that kind of threat and that’s why we eliminated him.”
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Zawahiri hideout suggests al-Qaeda-Taliban links
morning edition Host Steve Inskeep, who was in Kabul at the time of Sunday’s strike, said residents were woken by the sound of at least one early morning explosion and then shared footage from a house to several floors whose windows had been blown out.
“We drove to the area of the targeted house this morning and found Taliban fighters blockading and guarding the approaches, but otherwise life seemed to be going on as usual in the streets all around,” he said. he adds. he said morning edition tuesday. “It’s near embassies, it’s near government buildings and, in fact, the government intelligence headquarters is only a few minutes drive from where the US says Zawahiri was hiding. .”
It’s an extraordinary development, says Inskeep, given that it was the Taliban’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden after 9/11 that prompted the US to attack Afghanistan in the first place. in 2001.
The fact that al-Zawahiri took refuge in the heart of the capital suggests that there is still a close relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who had engaged in the 2020 Doha agreement not to harbor extremists.
In A declaration On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the Taliban of breaking their word and betraying the Afghan people.
“By welcoming and sheltering the leader of Al-Qaeda in Kabul, the Taliban have seriously violated the Doha agreement and have repeated to the world that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten security. other countries,” Blinken said. .
In turn, the Taliban, who have not confirmed al-Zawahiri’s death, blamed the United States for violating the accord by striking Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda is diminished, but the United States says it will remain vigilant
The United States and the Taliban were already at odds, and the United States refused to recognize the group as the government of Afghanistan, like most other countries.
While the United States provides humanitarian aid, Afghanistan is in dire need of food, medicine and other basics.
As the United States pulled out a year ago, US military leaders said they would continue to watch Afghanistan “over the horizon”.
Many doubted the United States’ ability to cope with the demise of the military, with the embassy closed and intelligence much harder to gather. But the drone strike showed that the United States was capable of gathering detailed intelligence and carrying out a long-range strike, at least in this case.
Kirby says al-Zawahiri was “actively engaged in urging his followers to plot and plan attacks,” potentially including in the United States. With history as a guide, he says al-Qaeda leaders should appoint a successor to al-Zawahiri.
Al-Qaeda still poses a threat to the United States, he adds, even though it is a “significantly reduced terrorist network” compared to two decades ago, or even in 2011, when the United States killed bin Laden.
However, the United States views the Islamic State as a much bigger danger these days, including in Afghanistan, where the group is at odds with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and has been blamed for numerous deadly attacks.