Don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead. And happier still that President Joe Biden, given his well-known opposition to the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, authorized the operation.
While it’s always good to take out a terrorist leader, the White House is characterizing the strike as vindication of Biden’s reckless and deadly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan nearly one year ago, which was perhaps the most disastrous foreign policy decision ever made by a U.S. president.
Our hasty and perilous exit left us with neither a military nor an intelligence presence inside the country. In the days following the fall of Kabul, Biden administration officials assured us this was okay because of our superior “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities. According to West Point’s Lieber Institute, this means that “the United States will monitor terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS-K without boots on the ground; develop actionable targets by means of sophisticated intelligence operations; and launch aerial strikes from regional locations.”
As any president would, Biden took a victory lap during a primetime address to the nation on Monday night. He touted the good news that the mastermind behind the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “was no more.”
He made sure to tell Americans the leader of al Qaeda, a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, had been on the most wanted list “for years under presidents [George W.] Bush, Obama and Trump.”
But Biden, our powerful, steadfast commander in chief, had managed to get the job done.
“When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago, 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,” Biden said. “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.”
In a Tuesday morning appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan echoed Biden’s remarks. He said, “Taking him [al-Zawahiri] out has undoubtedly made the United States safer.”
He continued, “It has proven the president right when he said one year ago that we did not need to keep thousands of American troops in Afghanistan fighting and dying in a 20-year war to be able to hold terrorists at risk and to defeat threats to the United States. … He proved that with this decisive strike over the weekend.”
The successful targeting of one terrorist, albeit a valuable one, is not proof that over-the-horizon intelligence gathering is working. And as hard as they try to spin it, America’s frantic exit from the war-torn country last year inflicted irreparable harm to the U.S. and will always be remembered as a humiliating military defeat.
The reality is that al-Zawahiri’s death shows Afghanistan has become a haven for terrorists just as we feared. That the world’s most wanted terrorist felt comfortable enough to live openly in Kabul, speaks volumes. There was no need for an isolated walled compound tucked away in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for him because he had the Taliban to protect him. Or so he thought.
The media has quickly forgotten that Biden handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban last August, leaving behind Americans, our Afghan allies, and over $80 billion of sophisticated U.S. weapons and military equipment.
It’s also become increasingly clear that the media’s coverage of a terrorist’s death depends upon the political party of the president who occupies the White House.
We haven’t seen an obituary in The Washington Post calling al-Zawahiri an “austere religious scholar” as we did after former President Donald Trump ordered the strike that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, in October 2019.
It’s also unlikely that ABC’s Martha Raddatz will travel to Asia to deliver emotional reports on al-Zawahiri’s funeral as she did in January 2020 for the funeral of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, another Trump-ordered airstrike.
Still, I will give the President his due. The death of al-Zawahiri is a foreign policy success. But it does not validate the effectiveness of over-the-horizon intelligence operations. Nor does it exonerate him from the dumpster fire he started last summer which was the most devastating, pivotal, and disgraceful failure of U.S. leadership since the fall of Saigon.
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