Managed Risks, Managed Expectations: How Far Will Targeted Killing Get the United States in Afghanistan?

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The United States may be withdrawing from Afghanistan, but thus far al-Qaeda certainly hasn’t. A 2020 U.N. Security Council report described how “al-Qaeda’s senior leadership” remained present in the country and that the group maintained a covert presence in 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan marks a fairly clear adoption of a posture that seeks to manage, rather than outright eliminate, the threat that these operatives may pose. Though controversial, this turn is logical. Al-Qaeda may be an enduring threat, but it is not an existential threat to the United States or one that is equivalent to the challenges that state actors like China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea present to U.S. interests. Critically, the United States has assessed that al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-based cadres do not presently have the ability to plot against the U.S. homeland.

The Biden administration, in its withdrawal announcement, has committed to countering the “potential reemergence” of this capability. The central instrument in the U.S. arsenal to achieve this goal will inevitably be the monitoring and targeted killing of al-Qaeda operatives residing in or near Afghanistan. The residual risk of transnational terrorism emanating from Afghanistan after the United States withdraws thus largely hinges on the effectiveness of locating and killing terrorist operatives. Can the United States manage and contain the threat of transnational terrorism through targeted killing alone?

Drawing on the tens of thousands of documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound, my forthcoming study of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan suggests that the answer is “no.” To be sure, internal al-Qaeda correspondence from 2006-2011 seems to indicate that targeted killing degraded al-Qaeda’s personnel base, undermined its organizational efficiency, and compelled it to abandon its safe haven in Pakistan. But the results were slow to come to fruition and incomplete. The post-withdrawal conditions in Afghanistan will make replicating even these middling results difficult, if not impossible. U.S. policymakers should not be under any illusion that solely killing terrorist operatives will keep al-Qaeda’s external operations at bay. Instead, they should be sure to supplement lethal strikes with complementary multi- and bilateral efforts designed to make the financing of external terrorist operations more difficult and the movement of terrorist operatives into and out of Afghanistan more treacherous. 

The Good News First

American drone strikes against al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based operatives were not counterproductive. Targeted killing demonstrably degraded al-Qaeda’s personnel base, undermined its organizational efficiency, and jeopardized its safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Captured records demonstrate that al-Qaeda began expressing concerns about the declining depth of its talent pool in the summer of 2009. In August 2009, after bin Laden tasked him to find a replacement for external operations chief Saleh al Somali — who had already described himself as being unsuitable for the position — a frustrated senior al-Qaeda leader reported to bin Laden that the group lacked “an appropriate individual to fill this position.” Al Somali’s successor, about whom al-Qaeda leaders had reservations, made for a lackluster replacement. Al-Qaeda later struggled to identify an operative who would be capable of managing a “large attack inside America,” with bin Laden curtly refusing two candidates.

Drone strikes also increased the amount of time and effort required to perform routine organizational tasks. As al-Qaeda’s losses mounted in April 2010, Ayman al Zawahiri ordered a halt to meetings due to “security concerns.” Months later, bin Laden further instructed subordinates to adopt a fairly strict security posture, telling one operative to limit his direct contact to “only two brothers … even if that leads to a slowdown in the work during this phase” and noted that the leader should not meet with anybody else, “even a messenger from the Commander of the Faithful [Mullah Omar].” These restrictions slowed al-Qaeda’s communications and complicated its ability to gather funds, foster talent, and authorize the movement of personnel.

Al-Qaeda also became gradually less comfortable in the troubled region as the drone campaign wore on. In June 2010 senior al-Qaeda operative Attiya Abd al Rahman expressed little confidence in the safety of any operatives who might be released from Iranian prison, “due to our security circumstances (the bombings that have exhausted us)!!” Attiya recommended that the group consider “leaving Waziristan, even partially,” and bin Laden directed him about a month later to “to arrange safe places far from the reach of the airplanes’ photography and bombing” for al-Qaeda’s leaders. The partial evacuation from into Afghanistan began around the fall of 2010, as Attiya reported “we are continuing to attempt to send a wave of brothers to Nuristan and Kunar.” After receiving annotated passages from Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, bin Laden eventually concluded that it was time for the group to move elsewhere:

It appears to me that the region has been very heavily revealed and that leaving the region completely is the best solution … once we disperse in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the enemy will lose the ability to focus the surveillance on our movements and place us under the photography and monitoring.

Old Limitations

These results are impressive. Al-Qaeda’s bureaucratic procedures did not generate an endless bench of skilled operatives, its decision-making structures and processes did not provide a respite from the central tradeoffs between leadership activity and personal security, and it did not view locals as more supportive as a result of any civilian casualties that U.S. strikes may have caused. Drone strikes inflicted considerable damage on al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based organization — but caveats abound.

First, the degradation of al-Qaeda’s talent pool was far from uniform. In some cases, replacements for slain operatives appeared to be just as good, if not better, than their predecessors. Al-Qaeda assessed the replacement for security official Abu Jihad al Masri, for example, as “competent,” just as the successor of al-Qaeda’s Pakistani operations chief Uthman al Shahri seemed to be an improvement. Al-Qaeda’s bench of skilled operatives did not go to zero — in November 2010 Attiya listed thirteen individuals (ten “veterans” and three from the “new generation”) who could be suitable for future leadership positions.

Al-Qaeda’s operational activities also continued even as drone strikes increased in intensity. Beginning in the late winter or early spring 2010, senior al-Qaeda operative Younis al Mauritani began exchanging messages with bin Laden regarding how to best develop al-Qaeda’s external operations. “The external work in the [al-Qaeda] organizations suffers from a chronic illness resembling rickets,” al Mauritani told bin Laden. Bin Laden eventually instructed al Mauritani to target oil tankers as a way to inflict economic damage on the West, and bin Laden’s lieutenants worked to put the plan into action. Al Mauritani eventually traveled to the Baluchistan region in Pakistan, debating whether to travel on to Somalia via a maritime smuggling route. His plan, it seems, was disrupted not by U.S. drone strikes, but by his arrest in Quetta, Pakistan in September 2011.

Nor were these uneven results achieved quickly or on the cheap. U.S. drone strikes began in 2004 and gathered steam in late 2008. It was not until 2010, though, that many of these detrimental effects became apparent in al-Qaeda’s communications. The drone campaign is more a story of attrition than of immediate effects. The precise amount of money, assets, and other enablers needed to produce these hard-earned results are not yet publicly available. But it seems that concerns over cost — both in terms of resources expended and opportunities missed as a result of expending them — were not a major constraint. After hearing a list of requests for tools to extend U.S. operations and locate terrorist operatives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, President Barack Obama told then-Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta that “the CIA gets what it wants.”

New Obstacles

The U.S. drone campaign’s results in Pakistan were not counterproductive, but they were not spectacular either. Replicating even these moderately successful results in Afghanistan after a U.S. withdrawal will be incredibly challenging.

For one, when the coalition withdraws, the United States will face new limitations on its ability to monitor and strike terrorist operatives. As Director of Central Intelligence William Burns described, “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact.” Although Burns expressed a degree of confidence that the United States would be able to anticipate any resurgence in the al-Qaeda threat, securing basing and access will no doubt be a Herculean endeavor.

Competing strategic priorities will also likely place a rather low ceiling on the time and resources that the United States can (or should) invest to compensate for these challenges. Throughout most of the drone campaign, defeating al-Qaeda was a priority for the United States. This has since changed. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy clearly notes that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance similarly emphasizes strategic competition with China and Russia. The United States has indeed already assumed some risk in its counterterrorism capacity because of this renewed emphasis.

Risk Management Beyond Targeted Killing

The Biden administration has assessed that al-Qaeda lacks the capacity to plot against the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan and declared that it is determined to keep al-Qaeda from reconstituting this capability. Surveilling and striking al-Qaeda operatives will likely be the lead policy instruments. Yet, the U.S. experience in Pakistan’s tribal areas suggests that this approach will not on its own keep al-Qaeda’s plots from moving forward. No historical analogy is perfect, and U.S. efforts in Pakistan are certainly not the only attempt by an external power to manage violence in an unstable place. Nevertheless, many of the conditions that likely contributed to U.S. success in Pakistan will not be present in Afghanistan. The loss of many U.S. enabling capabilities in Afghanistan and the existence of more pressing defense priorities indeed make the prospect of repeating the successful outcome achieved by the drone campaign even dimmer. Attempting to buy down the risk by establishing a robust “offshore” counterterrorism capability is an important, if fraught, first step.

Yet, a myopic focus on targeted killing overlooks several other opportunities to frustrate al-Qaeda’s ambitions to attack the West from Afghanistan. Any plot that entails the use of Afghan territory to prepare and train operatives to inflict mass casualties on U.S. soil would entail international travel. With this comes a need to cross borders, get on airplanes, and potentially communicate with handlers in Afghanistan. The group will need cash to pay personnel active in the external operations branch, rent safe houses, and purchase plane tickets. All of this will likely entail the assistance of a broader group of fundraisers, facilitators, and middle managers, many of whom may be located outside of Afghanistan. This all offers opportunities to disrupt plots by applying non-lethal instruments beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

First, the United States and international community should sustain and intensify efforts to prevent terrorist groups from raising and transferring funds. In the past, funding shortages have inhibited the group’s ability to build an external operations capability. Furthermore, the United States should continue to lend diplomatic and financial support to multilateral organizations that can synthesize information on, and flag, dangerous terrorist operatives.

Just as important as these multilateral efforts are U.S. bilateral engagements in South and Central Asia. Regional elites there may be resistant to allowing the United States to station forces and/or hardware on their territory, but they may be more amenable to entering into narrower, more transactional relationships based on a shared interest of minimizing any potential al-Qaeda activity on their soil. Where these interests align, the United States should explore information sharing agreements with, and offer to build the law enforcement capacity of, countries that terrorist operatives are likely to have to transit to reach targets in the West. In some instances, potential recipients may share the U.S. desire to keep al-Qaeda contained. And, in others, the attraction of U.S. security assistance and a condition to withhold it if the recipient proves to be recalcitrant may be enough to sufficiently align these interests.

Of course, such efforts are not substitutes for surveilling and striking terrorist operatives in Afghanistan, and their inclusion in the U.S. toolkit will not eliminate the risk that a resurgent al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan could pose. Their inclusion also does not mean that the United States should step back from pursuing a peaceful resolution to the conflict, supporting Afghan civil society, or finding an avenue to sustain a partnership with reliable elements of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces. Rather, these measures will add more obstacles between the planning and successful execution of external terrorist plots hatched in Afghanistan, the risks of which will likely never reach zero.



Bryce Loidolt, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. This essay draws from his forthcoming article at the Texas National Security Review that evaluates the effectiveness of U.S. drone strikes through captured al-Qaeda documents. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Isaiah J. Soliz)