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America has lost its purpose Killing terrorists is no substitute for strategy

America needs leaders, not drones (Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images)

America needs leaders, not drones (Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images)


August 6, 2022   6 mins

With Ayman al-Zawahiri dead, now is time for Washington to abandon the failed counterterrorism policies of the last two decades. Rather than vindicating that approach, as supporters of the Biden administration claim, the al-Qaeda leader’s assassination shows how little it has accomplished. This may well be America’s last chance to fundamentally reorient its foreign policy before the country suffers far more devastating losses than those it has inflicted on itself during the War on Terror.

On Wednesday, while pundits were still helping the White House congratulate itself for killing the 71-year-old terrorist leader, China responded to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan by launching a massive, four-day combined arms live fire exercise around the island. While the US broadcasts mixed signals about its commitment to defending Taiwan, Beijing has been absolutely clear that it is willing to go to war, and has now encircled the island in an unprecedented show of force.

The lesson of the past week could not be any clearer. The American ruling class has no sense of what role it is meant to play in world affairs. It acts with reckless senility, provoking rival powers while uncertain of its own aims. To distract from this underlying reality, it fixates on symbolically potent acts like the killing of al-Zawahiri. But for how long can this go on?

None of which is a reason to mourn for al-Zawahiri, if indeed he is really dead. This is at least the fourth report of his death over the last two decades, though the first time it has been announced by a US president. Surely the best time to have killed al-Zawahiri would have been when he came to the United States in 1993 on a Bay Area fundraising tour — the same year of the first al-Qaeda-directed World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people. But better late than never.

Assuming that the reports of his death are real, however, it would be prudent  to take the details with a grain of salt. After all, the initial details about the raid that killed al-Zawahiri’s predecessor, Osama Bin Laden, who had supposedly used his wife as a human shield, were later revealed to be false, the products of a manufactured narrative. The timing of the 2011 Bin Laden raid was no doubt connected to the exigencies of the intelligence business; it had a political dimension as well, taking place in the same year Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq.

The circumstances around al-Zawahiri’s death raise a different set of questions. It appears that the al-Qaeda leader entered Afghanistan last August shortly after the chaotic US withdrawal and Taliban takeover of the country. He was staying in an upscale area of downtown Kabul, a short distance from where the US once housed its embassy, reportedly in a safe house owned by a senior aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani. This is a significant detail because Sirajuddin, in addition to being the author of a recent op-ed in the New York Times, is the leader of the powerful Haqqani network, an outgrowth of the Haqqani dynastic clan, which has played a key role in Afghan politics for decades and whose patriarch, Jalaluddin, was once fĂȘted by members of Congress as an anti-Soviet mujahideen commander. In addition to holding a place on Washington’s “specially designated global terrorist” list, Sirajuddin is also a member of the new Taliban government, serving as its acting interior minister.

When I arrived in Afghanistan in 2012 as a US Army officer, the Haqqani name was spoken of in grave tones. Operating from their stronghold in Paktia province, on Afghanistan’s treacherous southeastern frontier with Pakistan, the Haqqanis commanded an extended network of tribal loyalists, intelligence operatives, terrorist cells, and paramilitary forces. Under the leadership of Sirajuddin, they were kingmakers in Afghanistan’s fractious political scene and survived the two decades of US occupation by skillfully balancing relationships with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups, the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban. Among soldiers, the Haqqanis were known for their skill at orchestrating complex terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. In contrast with typical Taliban fighters, who were the country bumpkins of the Pashtun heartland, and whose attacks, while deadly, relied on conventional ambush tactics, the Haqqanis were more sophisticated and more lethal.

One fairly obvious conclusion to draw from the head of al-Qaeda being put up in downtown Kabul is that neither the Taliban nor the Haqqanis were overly concerned about a possible American response. But that is not the conclusion being drawn in Washington. Taking their cues from President Biden’s statement that the killing of al-Zawahiri is “proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan”, foreign policy mandarins say the drone strike proves Washington’s “strategy” is working. Its success shows that the U.S. should rely more on “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities — i.e. those which do not require large numbers of American troops on the ground to be effective — as the central pillar of national security policy.

In an article for the Daily Beast headlined, “Biden Keeps a Promise With His Zawahiri Strike,” David Rothkopf writes:

“The attack was more than just a strike against a longtime member of America’s most-wanted terrorist list. It was both a vindication of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan and a demonstration of the effectiveness of Biden’s counterterrorism strategy.”

An NBC news article polishes up a different angle of the official narrative by publicising Biden’s extraordinary scrupulousness and the “surgical” nature of the attack. “The strike was so precise that it killed al-Zawahiri on a balcony without harming family members elsewhere in the house,” the article reports, citing (who else?) an anonymous Biden official. Among the story’s five different authors is Ken Dilanian, whose close relationship with the U.S. security establishment has included routinely submitting past articles to the CIA for review before they were published.

Beyond simply cheering for the party in power, these narratives promote the idea that drone strikes are an effective strategy for destroying America’s enemies and keeping its citizens safe. “See,” say the foreign policy experts and their validators in the media, “this is how we should have done it all along. We never needed to invade Afghanistan — to say nothing of Iraq — and spend two decades nation-building in order to target al-Qaeda.”

But while they are right about the folly of nation-building, they are delusional if they think that counterterrorism represents anything new and improved in the US policy arsenal. Over-the-horizon capabilities have been a central and growing plank of American power for the past two decades. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that the capabilities now being celebrated for their effectiveness and surgical precision are the very same methods employed last summer, when a different U.S. drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians, including seven children. The official narrative about that attack, dubbed “Righteous Strike,” was that it had targeted Islamic State members who were transporting explosives and posed an imminent threat to American troops. That false narrative spread widely before the grim truth came out.

Over-the-horizon capabilities are a fine thing for a nation to have but they are simply a tool, not a strategy for achieving long-term peace. In reality, if counterterrorism worked as advertised, al-Qaeda would have collapsed years ago. “According to recent scholarship based on papers captured from Bin Laden’s hideout, the CIA’s drone campaign that targeted al-Qaeda between 2008 and 2013 devastated the core organisation, which was based in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” wrote Steve Coll in a New Yorker column published after al-Zawahiri’s death.

If it were possible for the US to drone strike its way to a lasting victory in the War on Terror, the war would already be won. But as Coll’s observation implies, the backdrop of the terrorist problem is the states which support them. Counterterrorism is great for generating publicity ops, lucrative contracts for the defence industry, and reliable sinecures for legions of experts. But in two decades of war, it was never able to address the fundamental reality of the Pakistani state’s support for al-Qaeda. Nor could it keep Afghanistan from falling right back into the hands of the Taliban.

In the most important conflicts taking place today, in Ukraine and around Taiwan, America’s over-the-horizon tools are of limited use. Even the spectacle of notching new “kills” on the high-profile terrorist scoreboard seems to be losing its lustre. Much of the appeal of counterterrorism at this point, apart from promising to prevent more fruitless two-decade occupations, is that it is a self-perpetuating institution. The counterterrorism lobby is more powerful than ever inside Washington because it offers the appearance of a guiding strategic principle behind American power, where none actually exists.

As US leadership escalates confrontation with two nuclear powers in China and Russia, it cannot even define where its nation’s vital interests are at stake in those arenas. The long exercise in hunting down terrorist groups has been a diversion from the core responsibilities of statecraft: defining one’s relationship to other countries in a way that maximises the security and prosperity of the nation.

Can Pelosi articulate how her trip to Taiwan benefited Americans? In a bare room with no aides, could Biden convincingly explain what the US involvement in Ukraine is meant to accomplish? To avoid catastrophe, America needs leaders who can answer such basic questions, not more drones.


Jacob Siegel is Senior Writer at Tablet Magazine

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Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Let us cut to the chase here- Whilst the media conveniently ignore a global, well funded, organised military organisation, with the one mission to turn the globe into a totalitarian super state based on, dominated by, and subservient to one religion, Islam, we fall over backwards to give additional rights, pass special laws, and to protect members of that religion, in the name of Islamophobia….. I wish it was funny, but it is a ” joke” that is not, to us….. but must be to those waging the war?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Thank God we have the power of India and Israel, and that of the superb Israeli intelligence services to counter this oleaginous, craven, unctuous and sycophantic weakness that is nu britn.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
1 year ago

That’s very 2002.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

I don’t see what is ‘cutting to the chase’ about your rather confused comments. What do you mean ‘the media ignore’? I’m not aware that anyone is ignoring fanatical political Islam. And with the increasingly violent Sunni Shia split, political Islam is however evil we may consider it, anything but totalitarian.

If you mean that Muslim citizens in the West should be harassed as a group, then I despair. Absolutely nothing could play more into the hands of Al Qaeda and other fanatical anti Western Islamists. The modern Right generally has a poor analysis and understanding of the world.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Are Islamists not extreme right?… or is that left?…Luckily thanks to not being under the likes of The Taliban or Al Quaeda, you are free to express your views?

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 year ago

“Let us cut to the chase here- Whilst the media conveniently ignore a global, well funded, organised military organisation, with the one mission to turn the globe into a totalitarian super state based on, dominated by, and subservient to one religion, ” until this point I thought you might have been referring to the USA. Silly me.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  David Simpson

One way or another, both the US and Islam (not to mention China) are bent on world domination. May the worst man win.

Omegle Omegler
Omegle Omegler
1 year ago

That is what you derived from this article? More proof the best argument against democracy is a 5-minute conversation with a voter.
The article has absolutely NOTHING to do with your personal paranoia at “world domination by Muslims”. Keep reading fear bait articles about that online and drive yourself even further off the deep end.
No, the article had do with the inability of the current US administration to define what its strategic global priorities are. What benefit is gained from being in Ukraine, from provoking in Taiwan.
Up your comprehension and contribute productively by responding to the article’s contents not vomit your own exaggerated biases and spin it as some ‘sensible’ take on foreign policy.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Omegle Omegler

I respect your right and freedom to express your views

Jim Jam
Jim Jam
1 year ago

Call me a cynic, but they probably know the exact whereabouts of any number of high ranking terrorists – to be picked off whenever they feel their approval ratings need a boost.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim Jam
Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Jam

I can’t get over how much he looks like Bin Laden pulling a Clark Kent. Wear glasses dude! No-one will know that its you!

Last edited 1 year ago by Lindsay S
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Jam

Ok, if that’s what you want – you’re a cynic.

Jim Jam
Jim Jam
1 year ago

Cheers Linda : )

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Jam

No different really to the Saudis murdering that journalist in Turkey or the Russians alledgedly poisoning their traitors in UK.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Jam

Or perhaps, the Taliban is using them as a piggy bank.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago

The US establishment’s belief in the effectiveness of drone strikes as a means of countering terrorism is a mirror of how they view power in the US. Namely, that power is highly centralised, held by just a few influential individuals holding it all together. If that was the nature of power in the US, it would be in a very dark place. The reality is this: as much as the egos of the US establishment think they’re uniquely positioned to lead events, they could all disappear tomorrow and the US would continue and prosper.

Likewise, and by definition, the likes of Zawahiri are high value targets not because they are a lone wolf but because they command or influence very large organisations and groups. Removing Zawahiri from over the horizon leaves the organisations intact and the groups untouched. They aren’t simply going to fade away when the leader is gone anymore than the US would cease if the POTUS was removed. If anything, drone strike assassinations can invigorate organisations much like pruning a rose bush or a democratic vote. In short, drone strikes used in isolation are, at best, useless and, at worst, will prove counterproductive.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nell Clover
N T
N T
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

They also clear out the old dogs, and allow the young dogs, who always seem to be more extreme and have more energy, to rise.
Whether it is in regard to drug cartels, terror organizations, or crime syndicates, it is really hard to make things better by lopping off the top.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Is there a difference between “nation-building” and colonizing? I don’t give a flying if I sound like an “isolationist”: if a country isn’t directly threatening our own, and/or they’re not a significant trading partner, leave them the hell alone.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

An excellent and much-needed article.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
1 year ago

Hmm. So you think that taking out the leader is a good way to end terrorism?
Proof?
Gaddafi?
Bin Laden?

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

Probably better to ‘turn’ them – Mandela?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

I personally think arming Ukraine does help Americas interests. Every day the conflict drags on for weakens Russia, without risking outright war or a single American soldier, and Europe looking for new gas suppliers will help the US fracking industry.
Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan was simply idiotic, and if Biden had any authority within his party she’d be severely demoted for it.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I think this line says it all in regards to the Biden administration “It acts with reckless senility”

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
1 year ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

That apposite phrase caught by attention too; perfectly sums up both Biden and Pelosi.

N T
N T
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I wonder if the administration believed that Ukraine was serious, and could have stood up for itself as well as it has, that a more forceful support hand would have been offered, sooner.
Tying up Russia, and making China reconsider whether Russia’s tactics and planning are wise could be a good thing, but they will also learn how to not repeat the same mistakes.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  N T

The British and Americans have been arming and training the Ukrainian army ever since Crimea. I doubt they would have bothered unless they believed Ukraine had no chance of holding off Putins animals

Marek Nowicki
Marek Nowicki
1 year ago

I was in Washington when Bin Laden was killed. I remember watching CNN announcing an important news from the. White House. Wolf Blitzer was on the screen for like 1-2 hrs saying that something important is going by to be announced by the W. House. I expected Obama resignation (silly me). His polls were tanking….then Barack O. appeared announcing the assassination of Bin Laden. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. This news should be posted on some obscure government website or by low ranking pentagon person. NOT the president of the US. Especially Barrack because he knew that in that very moment he, President of the USA legitimized Bin Laden. He KNEW!…but for political gain, for looking tough he did it anyway. Do you see and parallel with what is going now? I do….

Last edited 1 year ago by Marek Nowicki
M Pennywise
M Pennywise
1 year ago

Biden and Pelosi, just two more drones, mindlessly being controlled from over the horizon


si mclardy
si mclardy
1 year ago
Reply to  M Pennywise

I like the humor

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  M Pennywise

Best post on this thread, by far.

James Vallery
James Vallery
1 year ago

Blah Blah Blah.. The long exercise in hunting down terrorist groups has been a diversion from the core responsibilities of statecraft:
The old adage of you reap what you sow comes to mind. If the USA had kept its nose out of other countries affairs from the begining and not just the last 2 decades. The world would be a safer place. And it would not have the enemies it does today as a result of their.. Quote “The US was actually involved a little before the Soviets invaded. Once they got invaded, then the United States throws its full backing. It goes from meddling and funneling and agitating to outright saying, “Okay, we need to support the mujahedeen,” and allying themselves with the anti-communist resistance movement.” roll on nearly 50 decades. And you still have Old enemies hating the USA for meddling funneling and agitating other countries around the world. But if you have no enemies the right to bare arms would not be valid. So 2 things need to happen. One you need to have enemies. And 2 you create a situtation that causes tension. Then claim its self defence. USA are experts in this second phase. And their spin doctors will have you believe they are the victims when in reality they orcherstarted the whole thing.
I keep saying this. How many days of peace has the USA known since it was founded 246 years ago? What is that in percentages?? Well its only roughly 7% of its current exsistance. Its a nation of war, it exports war to the rest of the world. And You really do reap what you sow!!!

Last edited 1 year ago by James Vallery
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  James Vallery

Yes, somebody once said ‘The business of American is business’. Today, the business of America is war.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The business of the world throughout history has been war.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
1 year ago

The belief that the leader (or dictator) is responsible for the movement is a widely held fallacy. While people like Bin laden, Gaddafi, Trump, etc are undoubtedly important, they are not the cause – they have simply given voice to a large group of opinion.
‘Taking out’ one Hamas leader, for example, does nothing to remove the anger and frustration they gave voice to.
If we look at a pot-plant, it doesn’t need philosophy to tell you that the plant is not separate from the CO2, water, soil, nutrients etc which allow it to be. If you cut down the plant it just grows back. However, if you take away the water, it will die.
Similarly with terrorism: we need to see what is feeding it and deal with that.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

What has been feeding it since the end of WW2 is the nation who claims to have won that war, going round the rest of the World to interfere and bully/boss around.

Augustus Longestaffe
Augustus Longestaffe
1 year ago

I agree with the author’s argument, and I admire the lean, cogent discourse. Every sentence is telling.

This deserves to be widely read.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

Like it or not, Donald Trump will give the USA purpose.

rob clark
rob clark
1 year ago

could Biden convincingly explain what the US involvement in Ukraine is meant to accomplish? “

Not likely, neither could the entire US foreign policy establishment!

John McKee
John McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  rob clark

I would love to hear this explanation. I would also like to witness the cross examination of the explainers.

Rex Pagan
Rex Pagan
1 year ago

“The American ruling class has no sense of what role it is meant to play in world affairs.” “Meant” by whom?

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 year ago

The US were never able to solve Pakistan’s unwillingness to drop the Taliban because one of the US’ brilliant ideas was to bring India into the Afghanistan mix, because “secular” India was not Islamic nationalist (Hindu nationalism being irrelevant).
India had never had a role in Afghanistan before, and India’s new prominent presence there raised ever-paranoid Pakistani fears of encirclement.
The fundamental truth about re-canning a can of worms is to use a larger can. If you want to keep the can small, don’t open it.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

If Trump bumped off this guy, you’d be applauding him.

Ukunda Vill
Ukunda Vill
1 year ago

In the upside-down world we live in, ultimately we’ll find that osama was right and the USA is an evil state he claimed it was.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Ukunda Vill

keep taking the medication

si mclardy
si mclardy
1 year ago
Reply to  Ukunda Vill

Osama can be right and still be a worse option.