Targeted attack on terror
The killing of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul is another demonstration of the United States’ capacity to carry out counter-terrorism operations from a safe distance. The successor to Osama bin Laden was taken out by a “precisely tailored” missile strike as he was sitting on the balcony of his VIP-area home, clearly under the protection of the Taliban. Few tears will be shed at the international level for this mass murderer, whose help in planning the 9/11 attacks, is only one of the many exploits in a record of infamy.
But al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul raises serious questions about the Taliban’s promise of not harbouring or encouraging al-Qaeda elements, despite pledges to stop cooperating with the latter. Clearly, the Haqqani Network, which is charged with overseeing the security of Kabul, has been unable to sever its longstanding ties with al-Qaeda. The fact that al-Zawahiri was provided a safe haven will further isolate the Taliban and strengthen the pressure to keep it under a strict regime of sanctions. While it will certainly exacerbate the mutual distrust and ill-will between Washington and Kabul, it is doubtful whether it will alter the Taliban’s attitude to the terror group.
More importantly, it is doubtful whether the killing will have any impact on al-Qaeda’s operations. Zawahiri may have held the al-Qaeda together ever since the US eliminated Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. But he had done this over a period when new terror groups such as ISIS have spawned, and various loosely attached affiliates are making their presence felt in different parts of the Middle East. No major international terrorist operation has been carried out by al-Qaeda for some years now, and it is doubtful whether the killing of al Zawahiri – more bureaucrat than mass leader – will have much impact on the group.
One winner, at least in a political sense, from the targeted strike is arguably US President Joe Biden, whose badly botched withdrawal from Afghanistan dented his image, leading his detractors to allege he was weak and incompetent. Given his dismal approval ratings and the fact that the midterm elections are looming, he will hope that some political capital can be acquired from the strike.
As it did when taking out Iran’s powerful military commander Qasem Soleimani, the US has displayed that drones can be used with great precision on specific targets. This lends a new dimension to war against terror groups and their leaders, something that may force them to adapt to the new reality – that it is unsafe to be exposed, irrespective of where you are located.