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A year has passed since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since then, intelligence agencies have shifted focus from al-Qaida to China’s growing military, political, and economic aspirations. However, despite the lack of U.S. presence on the ground in Afghanistan, the nation must continue to preserve the importance of gathering intelligence on extremism within the greater Middle East including parts of Central Asia. Allocating resources elsewhere cannot sacrifice continued counterterrorism efforts. Notwithstanding the current administration’s justification for the military’s withdrawal in 2021 (i.e., al-Qaida was no longer in Afghanistan), al-Qaida is not dead. Under the rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan will remain a haven for terrorist organizations. Neither Ayman al-Zawahiri nor al-Qaida could operate in Afghanistan without the knowledge and permission of the Taliban.
The Death of a Leader, But Not the Followers
The recent successful strike against and subsequent death of al-Zawahiri on the third-floor balcony in an affluent area of Kabul (only a short distance from the former U.S. embassy) is a poignant moment to reassess the relative benefits and challenges associated with the continuing U.S. counterterrorism efforts. While the world remains engrossed in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, violent extremists are continuing to plot against the U.S. These signs remain obvious as al-Zawahiri was not hiding for 21 years but rather, until recently, sitting comfortably in Kabul at a Taliban safe house until killed. Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan is a strong indicator that al-Qaida’s resurgence is mounting again. If nothing more, al-Zawahiri’s presence solidifies that the bond is stronger than ever between the Taliban and al-Qaida. A February 2022 UN assessment strongly reinforces this assertion:
There are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country. On the contrary, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history.
The Doha Agreement – designed during the Trump administration and delivered during the Biden administration – was intended, among many things, to remedy numerous security concerns within the region and force the Taliban to keep Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven, a recruitment hotbed, and a launching pad for future terrorist attacks after the U.S. withdrawal. Unfortunately, the Taliban seems to have ignored that part of the agreement and has since denounced the killing of al-Zawahiri as a violation of the terms of the Doha Agreement. The U.S. State Department suggests the opposite, arguing that the Taliban was “hosting and sheltering” al-Zawahiri and “grossly” violating the Doha Agreement and “assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.”
Al-Zawahiri’s mere presence confirms that he received protection from the Taliban. The killing of al-Zawahiri will likely invigorate al-Qaida’s recruitment efforts and further strain U.S.-Taliban relations. Although uneasy and uncertain before the killing of al-Zawahiri, relations now will become noxious. Observation of many pro-al-Qaida social media platforms has encouraged followers to ramp up the attacks on the U.S. and seek revenge for al-Zawahiri’s death. Some social media sites note that “dark days await America.”
Intelligence & Technological Capabilities
Assuming tensions in the Middle East will get worse before they get better, the U.S. must maintain vigilance for the disruption of terrorism movements – particularly those in leadership. The benefits of current U.S. counterterrorism efforts are evident, and the ongoing capacity for U.S. “over-the-horizon” precision strikes is apparent. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan brought the advantage of focusing military effort and spending in areas of the globe with greater strategic significance, such as East Asia and Europe. It has given the U.S. military contracting and manufacturing community the space to shift toward conventional war supply (e.g., significant military armament and other aid to Ukrainian forces) to good effect. The “Fact Sheet” on the 2022 Department of Defense National Security Strategy reflects these priorities. It is arguable whether these efforts would have been achievable with a continued sizeable military presence in Afghanistan.
The successful strike against al-Zawahiri is also further demonstration and proof of impressive U.S. intelligence and technological capabilities. A lethal drone strike conducted halfway across the world inside an unfriendly nation is difficult. The fact that it produced very little collateral damage is also laudable. The strike represents a highly sophisticated and adeptly managed technological and human capital nexus that can extend similar results globally. These demonstrated capabilities will continue to provide good leverage for the U.S. on the global stage. It also evidences continued U.S. capabilities to target threats in the Afghanistan region from abroad. These will remain important because al-Qaida will seek to replace al-Zawahiri while leveraging Afghanistan as a safe haven under the protection of the Taliban, allowing continued plotting against the U.S. and its allies.
Some might argue that this strike closes the loop on the attacks of 9/11, thus bringing an end to a 21-year search. Some may also argue that the strike represents the final retributive chapter on the long story that came to a head with the brutal attacks on the U.S. in 2001. Undoubtedly, the U.S. has relentlessly eliminated or captured the ring of planners and supporters of the infamous attacks one by one, no matter where they lived. As a result, the al-Qaida of today is not the same as the al-Qaida of 2001. In many ways, this is because of the relentless pursuit and elimination of its leaders. However, al-Zawahiri’s death could mark the beginning of renewed tensions between the U.S. and the Taliban leadership.
Part of the fundamental problem of U.S. counterterror efforts is that successes such as the al-Zawahiri strike often hide the inherent challenges. They can often drown out the real factors contributing to the success and lessen awareness of resources needed for continued future success. The al-Zawahiri strike was likely the result of legacy intelligence capabilities that the U.S. built in Afghanistan over the past two decades rather than any inherent or new over-the-horizon capability. The U.S. robust intelligence capability formerly in Afghanistan is rapidly dwindling without the protection and resources previously provided by the U.S. government’s full-scale commitment.
Strategic Choices & Ongoing Challenges
Perhaps recent history can elucidate the heart of the issue in Afghanistan. Strategic choices in that region were presented as a false dichotomy, an all-or-nothing approach to U.S. involvement that extends well back into the initial U.S. responses to the terror attacks in 2001. In the face of competent advice, two successive presidential administrations have chosen to view the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan as an either-or scenario. Both the Trump administration, through its negotiations with the Taliban, and the current Biden administration, with its wholesale withdrawal, were committed to an approach that drained nearly all U.S. resources from Afghanistan. To both administrations, the answer was simple, nothing in Afghanistan.
Strategic depth means detecting, tracking, anticipating, and eliminating terror threats in their expected safe havens before effective terror attacks can be executed against U.S. interests.
For the Biden administration, these ideas came to the forefront in a nearly forgotten controversy with General Stanley McChrystal and President Obama in 2009-2010. The controversy began over publicly released information from a McChrystal recommendation to double down on a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Perceived within the Obama political apparatus, including Vice President Joe Biden, as an attempt by the military establishment to restrict the president’s decision, the alternative quickly became the Biden-team sponsored “counterterror plus” strategy. This controversy, ably described by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his book Duty, pitted an all-in counterinsurgency approach against a scaled-down counterterrorism approach in Afghanistan.
With the benefit of hindsight, while Biden had advocated increased support for a Pakistan partner in counterterrorism, Gates looked to rely on an Afghanistan regime that proved either unwilling or unable to sustain any determined assault against the Taliban. However, any Pakistan-centered policy option was doomed to failure, as evidenced by the harboring of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad by elements within the Pakistani Inter-service Intelligence agency (ISI). The Afghan government proved too weak to resist the Taliban’s resurgence. Nevertheless, Gates recognized then the same essentials that remain now. All the approaches to al-Qaida and their Taliban supporters had already failed by 2009. Neither the counterinsurgency nor counterterrorism plus strategies could work. He recommended in his book an approach that “had to narrow the mission and better communicate what we were trying to do.”
That clarity is what is needed now. But as past decisions were ultimately about military power commitments in Afghanistan, the fundamental choice now is the level of commitment of other security measures within the region, specifically intelligence capabilities. Given the changed politico-strategic environment in the greater Middle East, it is uncertain what capabilities will be dedicated to counterterrorism efforts. An increased pledge of support from NATO allies is now a moot point. The European crises consume much of their energy and resources. Asian alliances and partnerships are similarly consumed with Chinese provocations and belligerency.
The Need for More Strategic Depth
What most informed analysts have known all along since 9/11 is that strategic depth is necessary to confront the ever-morphing hydra of the threat:
What strategic depth means precisely, especially regarding the deployment of intelligence capabilities, is a million-dollar question on the counterterror front.
At what scale is the U.S. government willing to develop, deploy, and sustain regional networks of clandestine informants, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets, and other operational capabilities?
What costs, institutionally and monetarily, are required for such an effort?
Strategic depth means detecting, tracking, anticipating, and eliminating terror threats in their expected safe havens before effective terror attacks can be executed against U.S. interests. This means being able to strike not just one high-payoff target like Zawahiri but striking multiple high-value targets within the same network near simultaneously on-call. That will require a robust intelligence effort spatially and temporally near the terror network itself. Frankly, this means a significant infiltration and espionage only possible through high-level strategic commitment.
The current U.S. National Defense Strategy reflects counterterror as an economy-of-force effort designed to deter attacks and manage the persistent threat of violent extremist organizations. The priority of effort should focus on larger-scale threats such as China and Russia. As the landscape of the terrorism threat shifts, shapes, and grows within a changing global environment that provides relative safety to Middle Eastern terror organizations, one wonders whether the current U.S. counterterror approach reflects the necessary strategic depth to prevent another 9/11.
Al-Qaida has not yet announced its new leadership. Most recently, the threat from the terrorist movements has weakened significantly and suffered organizational setbacks, as the Islamic State and al-Qaida leadership have been killed. Nevertheless, the continued monitoring of al-Qaida and the Islamic State is essential to diminish their threat. Although it has been a test for al-Qaida and the Islamic State to generate eagerness to recruit when their supporters witness continued defeats and setbacks, the killing of Zawahiri might just be the spark that ignites al-Qaida 2.0.