Opinion

What the U.S. accomplished by killing al-Zawahiri

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

The United States has killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a drone strike in Afghanistan. Intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahiri, who planned the September 11 terrorist attacks with his predecessor Osama bin Laden, to a house in a secure neighborhood in the capital, Kabul, where he was hiding out with his family. President Biden reportedly approved a plan to take him out days ago, and the CIA-operated drone fired two Hellfire missiles when al-Zawahiri stepped out onto a balcony on Saturday. Nobody else was killed, the White House said. 

President Biden announced the operation Monday night after U.S. intelligence assets on the ground confirmed the death of al-Zawahiri, who took over as Al Qaeda's leader after U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a 2011 raid in Pakistan. Al-Zawahiri, who was responsible for many attacks along with September 11, reportedly was continuing to plot strikes against Americans, although his Islamist extremist organization has lost much of its ability to carry out attacks around the world. "Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more," President Biden said. The U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan a year ago this month, and Biden said that he "made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We've done just that." How important was it for the U.S. to get al-Zawahiri, and what does his death mean for the fight against terrorism?

Killing al-Zawahiri made the world safer

Al-Zawahiri, 71, was "a sociopathic maestro of mass murder," say the editors of the National Review, and "and all Americans should welcome this victory against an Islamist mass-murder cult that has waged war against the free world." Bin Laden is dead and "the threat of jihadism has faded to background noise in recent years" as  China and Russia started posing growing threats to global security, but "the threat to the American homeland remained." The United Nations said as recently as last month that al-Zawahiri was "communicating freely" with his subordinates. This operation suggests the U.S. can still strike inside Afghanistan when justified, and there's no better justification than making a killer "pay the price he long ago deserved." Killing al-Zawahiri won't "reverse the evil he inflicted on innocent people. But it makes the world a safer place."  

This shows Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal was a mistake

It's definitely "good that we killed Zawahiri — and Biden deserves credit for the strike," says Marc A. Thiessen in The Washington Post. "But he also deserves blame for creating the conditions that allowed the world's most-wanted terrorist to move to downtown Kabul and set up operations in a city that had been liberated from Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies with the blood of courageous American service members." If Biden had followed the advice of his generals and stopped short of an abrupt and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, setting the stage for the Taliban's return, al-Zawahiri might never have considered returning to Kabul this year. "Killing Zawahiri is Biden's greatest foreign policy triumph. The fact that Al Qaeda's leader was in Kabul is Biden's greatest foreign policy disgrace."

The strike should serve as a warning to the Taliban

As Biden said, "the strike brings another measure of justice for the victims of the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil," says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. A Taliban spokesman condemned the drone strike, but "it's impossible to believe that Taliban officials didn't know Zawahiri was in their midst." Clearly, there's close collaboration between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, just as there was the last time the Taliban was in power, when they provided bin Laden and al-Zawahiri sanctuary as they plotted the 2001 attacks. "The strike should be a warning to the Taliban that abetting Al Qaeda is a bad survival strategy. If terrorists based in Afghanistan plot and kill Americans, the Taliban should understand that their leaders will also be targets."

Clearly, it's too soon to put Afghanistan in the 'rear-view mirror' 

"If there was anything remotely positive about the retreat from Afghanistan," says Jeff Greenfield at Politico, "it was a widely shared sense that this misbegotten adventure was behind us." Our withdrawal wasn't pretty, but at least it got us out of a commitment that was never going to succeed, "and whose cost was measured in thousands of lives and countless dollars." But if al-Zawahiri was able to hide out in Afghanistan now that the Taliban have returned to power, there must be "others with malevolent intentions abiding there." So even if this gives Biden's approval rating a well-deserved bump — as Obama got when bin Laden was killed, and former President Donald Trump did when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest during a U.S. commando raid in Syria — the "specter of a terrorist sanctuary may limit that advantage." Unfortunately, "the idea that we can look at Afghanistan in a rearview mirror is sadly misplaced."

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