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Killing of Top Qaeda Leader Offers Lessons on U.S. Afghanistan Involvement

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The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan — where planning for the Sept. 11 strikes began greater than 20 years ago, where the West once seemed poised to remake a fractured nation, and where the terrorist leader could feel comfortable again after the Taliban takeover last summer — speaks volumes about what America achieved in a 20-year experiment. It also says quite a bit about where it failed.

On one level, it was a reminder of how little has modified. The Taliban are once more in control of the country. They were harboring the known leader of Al Qaeda, just as they were 21 years ago. He was comfortably established in a secure house there, so comfortable that his family was nearby, and he had routines to absorb the sunshine.

On one other level, it was a reminder of how surveillance, drones and distant killing have modified the character of the hunt for the terrorist group’s leadership. In 2001, America’s drones were largely still unarmed. In the following 21 years they became armed, and the C.I.A. and the U.S. military perfected the art of hunting what they called high-value targets.

To get al-Zawahri took patience — 20 years of patience. It validated President Biden’s commitment that, even after withdrawing U.S. troops last yr, he would proceed counterterrorism operations.

Which takes the story to yet another lesson: If the unique objective of going into Afghanistan was running these sorts of operations — finding the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the generation of terrorists who followed — then possibly it was possible to pursue the mission without attempting to remake the country.

However the mission morphed. President George W. Bush celebrated the primary inklings of democracy — elections — and the incontrovertible fact that girls could go to high school. Military units helped irrigate the fields and built a court system. For some time, America imagined it was constructing a loud, nascent democracy. But in some way it never took hold. Drones couldn’t remake the underlying society, or rout the Taliban, who, in many alternative forms, have all the time existed. America succeeded on the tactical, but not on the strategic. Bin Laden and al-Zawahri were dropped at justice, but just because the British discovered within the nineteenth century and the Soviets within the twentieth, the society proved far harder to change. Al-Zawahri is gone. The Taliban still rule.

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