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Killing of top al-Qaeda leader offers lessons in US involvement in Afghanistan

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan – where planning for the 9/11 strikes began more than two decades ago, where the West once seemed poised to remake a fractured nation, and where the terrorist leader could feeling comfortable again after the Taliban takeover last summer – says a lot about what America has achieved in a 20-year experiment. It also says a lot about where he failed.

On some level, it was a reminder of how little had changed. The Taliban are once again in control of the country. They were home to the known leader of al-Qaeda, just as they were 21 years ago. There he was comfortably settled in a safe house, so comfortable that his family was nearby, and he had routines to take in the sun.

On another level, it was a reminder of how surveillance, drones and remote killing have changed the nature of the hunt for the leaders of the terrorist group. In 2001, American drones were still largely unarmed. Over the next 21 years, they armed themselves, and the CIA and US military perfected the art of hunting what they called high-value targets.

Getting al-Zawahri took patience – two decades of patience. This validated President Biden’s commitment that, even after US troops withdrew last year, he would continue counterterrorism operations.

Which brings the story to another lesson: if the original purpose of going to Afghanistan was to conduct these kinds of operations – to find the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the generation of terrorists that followed – then can Perhaps it was possible to continue the mission without trying to remake the country.

But the mission has changed. President George W. Bush celebrated the first rudiments of democracy — elections — and the fact that girls could go to school. Military units helped irrigate fields and built a judicial system. For a moment, America imagined it was building a noisy, fledgling democracy. But somehow it never took. Drones could not remake the underlying society, or rout the Taliban which, in many different guises, has always existed. America succeeded tactically, but not strategically. Bin Laden and al-Zawahri were brought to justice, but just as the British discovered in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th, society proved much harder to change. Al-Zawahri left. The Taliban still rule.


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