WASHINGTON (AP) — Weeks before the first anniversary of a retreat from Afghanistan that critics said exposed President Joe Biden’s weakness, he shrugged off both Covid and detractors to announce the killing in Kabul of Al-Qaeda’s leader — an operation the Democrat says shows the US remains as strong as ever.
“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,” Biden told the nation late Monday as he announced the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations… We’ve done just that.”
Announcing jihadist leader deaths has become a ritual — both somber and highly political — for presidents ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Barack Obama’s 2011 revelation of the daring operation to kill Osama bin Laden in his home in Pakistan electrified the nation. On hearing Obama, a skilled orator, people poured into the streets, chanting “USA!”
Donald Trump took a different approach in 2019, using gory language to deliver news of a raid to kill Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Syria — and to bolster his own strong man image.
“He died like a dog,” Trump said.
For Biden, the setting was inauspicious. Isolating from a case of rebound Covid-19, battered in the polls and facing the anniversary this month of the traumatic August 2021 exit of US troops from Kabul, the Democrat is in a weak position.
In a nod to Covid ventilation measures, his speech was delivered from the noisy balcony of the Blue Room. As he touted American resilience, Washington police sirens wailed in the background.
Yet the timing of the speech could not have been better for a president seeking to change the narrative.
While steering clear of triumphalism, Biden noted that Zawahiri had been on the wanted list “for years under presidents (George W.) Bush, Obama and Trump.”
The implication — that the country is safe in Biden’s hands — was clear.
“No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” Biden said.
Afghan strategy debate
Critics on the right and left see last year’s US withdrawal from Kabul as a show of ineptitude that, in addition to being a humiliating spectacle, will make Afghanistan a hotbed of anti-American Islamic groups, similar to the time of 9/11.
Biden argues he had the courage to pull the plug on a failed war conducted by three previous presidents and that there simply was never going to be a neat ending to the debacle.
Dismissing skeptics, he also promised that American “over the horizon” capabilities meant there’d be no more need to risk US lives on the ground.
Now with the Zawahiri killing, Biden has a golden opportunity to say that he’s been proved right.
Afghanistan “can’t be a launching pad against the United States,” Biden said in his speech. “This operation is a clear demonstration that we will, we can, and we’ll always make good on the solemn pledge.”
There was instant praise from even unlikely quarters, with the anchor on the often hostile Fox News’ evening broadcast calling it “President Biden’s bin Laden moment” and “a huge, huge win for the US.”
Some experts, however, caution against the White House spin.
James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and now chair of the Wilson Center think tank’s Middle East Program, applauded the demonstration of “excellent intelligence, an operational strike capability and decisiveness.”
However, that expertise does not outweigh the “chaos” of last year’s Afghan withdrawal, which Jeffrey blamed on poor coordination and Biden’s “handicapping” of staff through his refusal to accept there could be any downsides to pulling out — or to plan for them.
Nathan Sales, another former diplomat who works at the Atlantic Council, said Zawahiri’s mere presence in Kabul was a failure for the United States, suggesting “as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of Al-Qaeda.”
And it’s too early to say whether one spectacular drone strike “can be replicated against other terrorist targets,” he said.
“Until we know more, we should resist the urge to see the strike as a vindication of ‘over the horizon’ counterterrorism.”
Biden, however, is so far getting overall good marks. Among those cheering Tuesday was Bill McRaven, who as then-commander of US special operations oversaw the bin Laden raid.
“What the US has shown is that we can in fact do over the horizon targeting on certain high value individuals,” he told CNN.