When President Biden ordered America’s last remaining troops in Afghanistan to leave, his critics argued that in doing so he would weaken America in the region, creating a vacuum terrorists could once again fill. Biden and his top national security aides promised it would not.
Nearly a year later, with a Hellfire missile strike on a building in a crowded section of the Afghan capital of Kabul, the United States killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, the man who sat at Osama bin Laden’s side and was one of the central players behind the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. had been hunting Zawahiri for more than two decades. When his presence in Afghanistan was detected earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community formulated a plan to confirm it was him and to eliminate him without incurring unnecessary risk to Afghan civilians. According to Biden, no civilians were killed in the attack, which took place as the al Qaeda leader stood on the balcony of what he thought was a “safe house” provided by members of the Haqqani terrorist network.
The attack was more than just a strike against a longtime member of America’s most wanted terrorist list. It was both a vindication of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan and a demonstration of the effectiveness of Biden’s counterterrorism strategy.
Speaking to the American people on Monday night, Biden spoke directly to these points. “When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago,” he said, “I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan, to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm. And I 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.”
Biden went further, promising that the attack would not be the end of American efforts to hunt down terrorists who posed a threat to the U.S. or our citizens. Speaking with evident resolve as part of his brief remarks announcing the successful operation, he said, “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
For years, even as vice president during the Obama years, Biden had argued that America’s “endless war” in Afghanistan needed to be brought to a close, troops brought home, and a new strategy for combating terror employed. He and those close to him recognized that the immense costs of waging what the Bush administration had characterized as a “Global War on Terror” was a misallocation of resources. Instead, as a senior aide to Biden said me to me shortly after he took office, “the focus should be… as it probably always should have been… on managing targeted counterterrorism efforts led by the intelligence community, supported by law enforcement and the military, and implemented using over-the-horizon technologies and, where required, special operations.”
Pulling troops out of Afghanistan last year not only brought America’s longest war to a close but it created a put-up or shut-up moment for the preferred Biden approach. Political opponents, members of the military, and other critics argued leaving would create a void that terrorists would certainly fill and which in turn would put Americans at risk.
Biden argued it would not. In a speech defending his decision to exit just 50 weeks ago, on Aug. 14 of last year, after explaining his rationale for withdrawal, he went on to say: “We’ll not take our eye off the terrorist threat. We’ll reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent re-emergence of terrorists—of the threat to our homeland from over the horizon. We’ll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil… And we’ll focus our full attention on the threat we face today.”
He added, noting the spread of l Qaeda and other terror threats outside Afghanistan, “At my direction, my team is refining our national strategy to monitor and disrupt significant terrorist threats not only in Afghanistan but anywhere they may arise—and they’re in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.”
For much of the past year, with attention drawn away by the war in Ukraine, economic and political challenges at home, and a shifting focus to other international hotspots—like the Indo-Pacific region—it was unclear to many in the public whether Biden’s strategy was just a fig leaf offered to justify leaving Afghanistan or whether the new administration would effectively implement this sweeping new approach to counterterrorism. The ugliness associated with the Islamic State terror attack on U.S. forces stationed near Kabul airport during the evacuation from Afghanistan and the tragedy of the 10 civilian deaths associated with the botched U.S. response to that attack () almost immediately raised further questions.
On Monday, with the successful, pinpoint strike against Zawahiri, some of those questions have been answered. The United States possesses extraordinary capabilities to monitor risks and to project force with great precision virtually anywhere on the globe. Properly harnessed, these capabilities represent a much more efficient, effective, and sound approach to addressing and containing the manifold terror threats that will always remain a source of concern to those responsible for U.S. national security.
The Global War on Terror was a ghastly overreaction that cost America thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, damaged our standing, and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the suffering of millions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. While pulling out of Afghanistan may have been one way of finally marking the end of that war, the attack on Zawahiri provides further punctuation. Or rather, it suggests the U.S. is turning the page to a new, more targeted approach that probably should have been our response to al Qaeda and other terrorists in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and thereafter.