By JONATHAN SCHRODEN
The successful strike on Sunday against Ayman al-Zawahri —a man with no shortage of American blood on his hands — is a celebratory moment for President Joe Biden’s administration. For watchers of Afghanistan, it is also illuminating, like a flashbulb on the darkness that has enveloped Afghanistan since the American pullout a year ago.
According to initial reports, the Central Intelligence Agency used a drone to launch two Hellfire missiles at Zawahri after spotting him on the balcony of the Kabul safe house in which he was staying with his family. Even with the limited information now available, this assassination can tell us a great deal about the current security situation in the country, the state of U.S. capabilities to affect that situation and the future of Afghanistan and its people.
It also raises a host of questions that are yet to be answered.
Security is a growing worry
Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s nearly immediate takeover last August, the trend in security for the average Afghan has improved. Civilian casualties, for example, have declined as a result of the end of the long civil war waged by the Taliban against the U.S.-supported government.
However, the threat from terrorist groups of concern to the international community has steadily increased in the past year.
The most virulent of these is the Islamic State-Khorasan, an organization that was on the rebound even before the U.S. withdrew. Since then, IS-K has increased in size to between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters and is now one of the “most vigorous” regional networks of the Islamic State. The group, which routinely conducts attacks against Taliban security forces, has also engaged in horrific attacks against minority groups and rocket attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Al Qaeda is not as strong as IS-K in Afghanistan (likely numbering several hundred individuals). But unlike the adversarial relationship that IS-K has with the Taliban, al Qaeda enjoys close and abiding relations with the group that now governs the country. A recent United Nations report stated that since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, al Qaeda senior leaders had “enjoyed a more settled period” and had begun recruiting new members and funding in the country. That report further stated that the Taliban’s takeover had given Zawahri himself “increased comfort and ability to communicate” with al Qaeda’s followers.
The fact that Zawahri was killed in the middle of Kabul — in a neighborhood known to house senior Taliban figures — suggests that both he and the Taliban believed the country’s capital was an effective sanctuary for the world’s most wanted terrorist. Further, Zawahri’s habit of spending time on an open balcony, combined with reports that foreigners were detected in his neighborhood by local Afghans months ago, illustrates the increased sense of freedom that members of al Qaeda have enjoyed in Afghanistan over the past year.
‘Over-the-horizon’ counterterrorism is less effective — but it can work
Before the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, it was maintaining several thousand special operations forces in Afghanistan, accompanying counterterrorism strike platforms (e.g., drones), a CIA station and local partner forces such as the Afghan Army Commandos and the elite Ktah Khas. In the wake of the withdrawal, the U.S. lost all of those capabilities, and was left with no residual presence or partner forces in the country.
To mitigate those losses, the U.S. established an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism cell in Qatar, intended to address threats in Afghanistan remotely. It has been flying routine drone sorties from its airbases there, through Pakistani airspace and over various regions of Afghanistan. Those drones provide the U.S. with some residual means of intelligence collection on terrorist activities in the country. But as of last December, according to the former commander of U.S. Central Command, the U.S. was “at about 1 percent or 2 percent of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan.”
With a tiny fraction of the capabilities it once had, the U.S. has been far less effective at putting pressure on groups like IS-K or al Qaeda in Afghanistan, which accounts in large part for their expansion since last fall. And yet, the Zawahri strike illustrates that even with this small amount of capability, the U.S. remains able to find, fix and finish even the most elusive of terrorist targets there.
While the full details of Sunday’s strike have not yet been revealed, reports have emerged of the CIA having a “ground team” in place before and apparently after the strike was conducted. The infiltration or cultivation of such a team represents a notable expansion in U.S. intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan over the past six months and the successful strike will reignite the fears and reinvigorate the safety protocols of al Qaeda and IS-K leaders.
For Afghans, no good news
While Zawahri’s death is a victory for U.S. intelligence agencies and will likely hobble al Qaeda’s core cadre until a new leader is firmly at the helm, it nonetheless bodes ill for the average Afghan.
Over the past year, Afghanistan’s population of roughly 40 million people have suffered immensely. Financial aid to the country, which formed the predominance of its national budget before the U.S. withdrawal, has decreased precipitously and its economy has contracted by 30 to 40 percent since last August.
Prior to this strike, the U.S. had been engaged in regular talks with the Taliban on issues such as humanitarian aid, opening of secondary schools for girls and the possible release of Afghanistan’s sovereign wealth to a modified Central Bank. Through these talks, the U.S. aimed to inject more resources into the Afghan economy — without directly aiding the Taliban government — to ease the suffering of Afghans.
Now, with the news that Zawahri was not only in Kabul, but being sheltered there by the Taliban’s acting Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the relationship between the Taliban and the U.S. is likely to move into a cold, tense phase. The Taliban have already condemned the strike as a violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and the sole formal agreement between the group and the U.S. that the two sides signed in Doha in 2020. The U.S., for its part, called the Taliban’s harboring of Zawahri a violation of the same agreement.
Negotiations were previously healthy enough that U.S. Special Representative Tom West was able to exchange proposals with the Taliban that were designed to jump-start macroeconomic assistance to the country. In this new atmosphere, it is doubtful that he will be given the same degree of latitude to meet with the Taliban, and it seems likely that no further progress on any of the issues he had been discussing with them will be made soon.
In the meantime, the one constant of the past four decades of Afghanistan’s history — the suffering of its average citizens — is likely to remain.
With new knowledge comes new questions
While the Zawahri attack illuminates a lot about the current situation in Afghanistan, it also raises a host of additional questions. For example, why did the Taliban allow Zawahri to come to Kabul? Was it to keep him safe from discovery and U.S. strikes elsewhere? Or was it to keep tabs on him and his activities, so as to prevent al Qaeda from attacking other countries from Afghanistan, as the Taliban has repeatedly pledged it would do?
Even more important, looking forward: If Zawahri was brought to Kabul and sheltered by the Taliban, who else are they hiding and protecting? Other leaders of al Qaeda? Leaders of other militant groups? And when will the Afghan people see relief from the cycle of terrorism, violence and suffering that they have endured for so long?
Yesterday’s announcement was a moment to celebrate. But it was only a moment. Today brings new knowledge, new questions, new targets, new challenges and new collateral damage in the unending war between the U.S. and al Qaeda.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent those of CNA, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.