OPINION - US cut-and-run from Afghanistan has opened up a new hub

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·4-min read
OPINION - US cut-and-run from Afghanistan has opened up a new hub
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Ayman al-Zawahiri, 71, the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist group was killed by a “precision” strike from Hellfire missiles launched from a US drone, as he stood on the balcony at a safe house in Kabul last Sunday.

The family had moved back to the Afghan capital shortly after it fell to the Taliban a year ago. None of the family is reported killed in the strike by a drone launched from a US base in the Gulf.

President Biden, who had authorised the details of the attacks, said the operation was “of great significance.” He had followed the intelligence trail and then the careful construction of the raid by the CIA. He had been in the room when President Obama had run through the final details of the Seals raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

Joe Biden has tried to see the strike against the al-Qaeda leader as a vindication of his decision to pull US forces, and with them those of allies like Britain, from Afghanistan in August last year. By many this is regarded as possibly the most disastrous military operation by western powers this century.

The attack on al-Zawihiri suggests the Biden approach to security in Afghanistan was fundamentally flawed, and we all have to live with its consequences . Despite pledges to the contrary, Taliban Afghanistan is once more host to international terrorist groups, and the planning and training for operations across half the globe.

Zawahiri took over command of al Qaeda after Osama bin Liden was killed in 2011. He had none of bin Laden’s charisma, not say charm on occasion, but was a good organizer. A trained doctor from a well-established family in Cairo, he rose to prominence in his trial for the murder of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat in 1981.  He adopted a trick of directly addressing media in clear English from the prisoners’ cage in the court.

With bin Laden he set up al Qaeda in Sudan and then in Afghanistan , running a network of training camps and planning the first ‘spectacular’ attacks. Among the first were the bombings of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, which killed 223. Attacks were planned in Islamabad , and in October 2000 the bombing by suicide dinghy on the American destroyer Cole at Aden, killing 17 sailors and the two bombers.

Then came the 9/11 bombings by suicide plane in New York and Washington, plus the aborted fourth plane attack which was headed fro the White House, allegedly. Neither he nor bin Laden worked out the full consequences of 9/11 and its aftermath. It made al Qaeda a lead brand for fundamentalist terrorism – but the core movement of which he was deputy head never did anything on the same scale again.

He spent decades on the run, spending most time in the tribal lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan. By returning to Kabul, he broke cover and made himself more vulnerable than he may have understood.

In later years, he has been more symbol than operational commander. His real value throughout the years with bin Laden was as propagandist and organizer.

Robert Fox (Evening Standard)
Robert Fox (Evening Standard)

Al Qaeda is now back in Kabul, but it is only one terror group among many. It is active in Africa and large parts of the Middle East, but overshadowed by Islamic State, IS, newly militant from the camps in Syria and Iraq.

The presence of Al-Zawahiri,  al Qaeda and the other international terror groups in Kabul calls into question the whole way in which America agreed and then executed the pull-out from Kabul last year. The initial deal brokered in Doha was by President Trump for America and allies to quit – for the Taliban to sign up to a democratic constitution , and deny international terrorists bases in Afghanistan.

The deal was accepted immediately by Joe Biden. Even from a distance the Doha deal looked flaky , suspect even. It was godfathered by the US special envoy , Zalmay Khalilzad, a native Afghan – and it is not clear if the CIA had its own secret clauses.

Biden said the US and allies would maintain an ‘over the horizon surveillance and presence’ and this would ensure Afghanistan didn’t become a terror hub again. He said yesterday that he thought the drone strike vindicated this posture.

Clearly, it does not. Afghanistan once more is host to al Qaeda and other groups, who have their laboratories and training camps. It is going to take a lot more than Mr Biden and his over the horizon strategy, for the US and its allies like the UK to keep a check on the renewed terror threat from South West Asia.

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