More broadly, the attack, reminiscent of the War on Terror but coinciding with a moment of skyrocketing US tensions with Beijing, underscores a deep pivot in US national security policy.
At one time, finding terrorists attacking America wherever they hide was the organizing principle of Washington’s approach to the world. While Monday’s news was a “mission accomplished” moment, the simmering tensions over Taiwan show how the US government is building a new national security machine to challenge China’s growing power.
A significant moment
There is deep symbolism in the murder of Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon turned radical Islamic ideologue who was wanted by the United States for years even before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Zawahiri was indicted by the FBI for his alleged role in the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which heralded a new era of al-Qaeda terrorism directed against Americans. He played a key role in the USS Cole bombing in Yemen in 2000. Successive presidents have vowed to bring the leaders of bin Laden’s terror network to justice, and Biden is the latest to have him fact, in one of the few common denominators of recent US foreign policy spanning administrations.
“Now justice has been served. That terrorist leader is no more,” the president said, addressing the nation from his Covid-19 isolation on a balcony overlooking the South Lawn of the White House Monday evening.
If Zawahiri lacked the charisma and mobilizing power of bin Laden, who was killed in a daring US Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan in 2011, his influence and the al-Qaeda organization did enormous damage in the USA. His disappearance validates American wishes to pursue his enemies to the ends of the earth.
“In many ways, this ends the operation to pursue bin Laden,” former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday.
He added that the loss of Zawahiri means al-Qaeda no longer has the leadership structure to pose a threat to the United States or its allies.
A bonus for a wavering presidency
More immediately, Zawahiri’s death represents a significant moment for Biden and his wavering presidency.
It could help purge painful memories of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago. That could help the administration revamp what is likely to be a damning anniversary review of that foreign policy failure later this month. And more importantly, the strike confirms Biden’s claim to be able to target American enemies in Afghanistan “across the horizon” — part of his argument that America no longer needs to maintain large land armies on foreign battlefields.
While Zawahiri was unable to reconstitute al-Qaeda after bin Laden’s death to his former power, the circumstances of his death serve as a warning to other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, the fact that Zawahiri was apparently killed in an attack on a house in central Kabul raises real concerns that Afghanistan – back under Taliban control – is once again home to al-Qaeda.
But it also shows that the United States has intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan despite the departure of American diplomats, military and intelligence officials from the country last year. Biden chose the more optimistic solution, saying the operation proved his promise not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists again.
Presidents don’t typically make life-and-death decisions about national security to massage their own approval ratings — at least most of them don’t. But they all operate in a political context because of their position. There is no doubt that Biden could gradually benefit from his moment as commander-in-chief on television, reporting from the White House to Americans on the killing of an enemy.
But Monday’s news is also unlikely to do much to change the fate of Democrats in November’s midterm elections, who fear heavy losses amid fresh signs that the economy could plunge into recession and after months of high punitive inflation. Foreign policy victories can be fleeting, and the beheading of terrorist groups no longer brings the political reward it had when then-President George W. Bush was keeping score in the years since 9/11. september.
It may take a few days to fully assess how Zawahiri was located and to confirm the White House versions of events. On occasion, jurisdictions have gotten details that are wrong or out of context on first readings. Biden’s assurance that no civilians were killed in the drone attack could not be immediately confirmed.
In an increasingly polarized nation, the killing could offer a rare moment of unity – even if the distance from the 9/11 attacks and Zawahiri’s relatively low profile didn’t send crowds singing outside the White House as was the case when bin Laden was killed.
Yet any satisfaction with Zawahiri’s murder may soon be overtaken by a multi-layered and pressing American conundrum abroad – the possibility of a stalemate over Taiwan that threatens to erupt even as states United States is waging an effective proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. .
US and Taiwanese officials have said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should defy increasingly furious warnings in Beijing and fly to Taipei. Some foreign policy experts fear the trip could provoke an unprecedented Chinese response.
Presidents know only too well that when one national security threat is extinguished, the next one looms on the horizon.