Shortly before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Defense Department created a task force responsible for handling counterterrorism strikes inside the country after American troops had left – a so-called “over the horizon” strategy that officials promised would keep Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to flourish.
More than a year after the creation of that task force, sources say it hasn’t sent a single proposed target to the Pentagon for approval – largely because without a presence on the ground, it hasn’t been able to build enough intelligence on targets to meet the administration’s standards for avoiding civilian casualties.
The White House has hailed the CIA operation that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on Saturday as evidence that using over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan has been effective. Current and former officials say the successful Zawahiri strike certainly proves that with the right intelligence, the US is perfectly capable of tackling a specific target from afar – but those same sources also said that Zawahiri, a single, high-value target long in the CIA’s crosshairs, was a special case that doesn’t alone prove the effectiveness of the strategy.
“There’s a difference between tracking one senior high value target and dealing with the resurgence of these terrorist groups inside Afghanistan,” said Beth Sanner, a former presidential intelligence briefer under President Donald Trump and senior South Asia analyst at the CIA. “It’s a just a whole different ball of wax.”
Some intelligence officials have publicly raised concerns that terrorist activity incubated in Afghanistan will spread outside the country’s borders and pose a threat to the United States – and that the US will be blind to it.
Asked directly by Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, if he was worried about an attack on the homeland “emanating from places like Afghanistan,” FBI Director Chris Wray on Thursday said, “We are. Especially now that we’re out I’m worried about the potential loss of sources and collection over there.”
“I’m worried about the possibility that we will see al Qaeda reconstitute,” he added.
Hinting at how high the hurdles have become, some intelligence and military officials who were not involved in the closely-held planning details of the Zawahiri operation were pleasantly surprised that the US was still able to successfully carry out such a precision strike, according to a former intelligence official still in contact with former colleagues.
Administration officials say that on the contrary, the Zawahiri strike is proof that the US is successfully monitoring and countering the threat without American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Sources familiar with the intelligence behind the strike say the US integrated lots of different nuggets of data from multiple streams of intelligence to locate and target Zawahiri.
“I think I’m more satisfied and more confident [in US intelligence in Afghanistan] than I was even a week ago because of what that collection just enabled, which was a pretty remarkable, pretty precise action,” a senior administration official told CNN on Friday.
“The fact that there haven’t been other uses of force of that type in the past year means that we are monitoring and we are being judicious – and where we think it reaches the point of needing to act, we’re acting,” the official said. “But I think it is a pretty powerful demonstration of what that capability can provide.”
The US now largely relies on drone flights and human networks on the ground to gather information about what is going on inside Afghanistan, according to a former intelligence official and the source familiar with the intelligence.
But drone flights from the Gulf are logistically complicated and have limited loiter time in Afghanistan thanks to the long flight, making them expensive to use and limiting their usefulness. And without a US presence on the ground, intelligence professionals expect human networks may degrade over time.
“I think we don’t know what we don’t know,” one former official said.
For now, there is broad consensus inside the intelligence community that the immediate threat that al Qaeda will be able to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan attacks on the US homeland or US interests remains low. But difficult questions remain about whether that risk will grow over time.
Much depends on current unknowns – in particular, how the Taliban responds to the killing of Zawahiri. “Will the Taliban actually let AQ use Afghanistan?” said one source familiar with the intelligence.
“There are a ton of factors that play into this debate,” this person said. “And all complicated.”
The intelligence community in its annual threat assessment released this year rates the threat from al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and West Africa as a greater risk to US interests abroad than its weakened leadership in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, officials believe, is still gauging its ability to operate under Taliban rule and will likely remain focused on maintaining its safe haven rather than planning external operations – at least for now.
And although al Qaeda leaders have enjoyed “increased freedom of action” under the Taliban, according to a recent UN report, there has been no major influx of new fighters to Afghanistan since the US withdrawal — a reflection of how al Qaeda has evolved away from centrally-planned attacks, according to some analysts.
But as for what happens next, one US source described the analysis across intelligence agencies as “all over the place.”
“What we don’t think we have occurring is some sort of regrowth [or] regeneration of an al Qaeda operational presence — even with less famous names [than Zawahiri],” the senior administration official said.
There is one school of thought that while some elements of the Taliban may feel honor-bound to uphold its oath to shield old guard members of al Qaeda like Zawahiri, it has no obligation or incentive to make welcome a new generation of fighters. And according to intelligence officials, there are vanishingly few members of the original al Qaeda leadership who remain in Afghanistan, none of whom are likely to replace Zawahiri.
Meanwhile, the recent strike, some analysts argue, may dissuade terrorist leaders from traveling to the country from elsewhere. They argue that the far greater risk is al Qaeda affiliates in Africa and elsewhere that are only loosely connected to core leaders in Afghanistan.
“There’s some people who are very worried,” said Sanner, who is now a contributor at CNN. “I personally think that AQ core in Afghanistan doesn’t do a lot of operational planning.”
Others assess that it’s more likely that the Taliban – consumed with trying to legitimize its government amid a financial implosion and an ongoing conflict with ISIS-K – simply may not have the bandwidth to prevent Afghanistan from being used by al Qaeda or its affiliates to plan attacks on the United States. There are also concerns that the remnants of al Qaeda may simply be absorbed into the Taliban.
The UN report found a “close relationship” between al Qaeda and the Taliban.
How the Taliban respond
How the Taliban responds to the death of Zawahiri remains an open question – and one that intelligence and military officials are watching closely, multiple officials said.
According to one source familiar with the intelligence, it’s not clear to US intelligence how many people in the Taliban knew that Zawahiri was holed up in Kabul in a house owned by the powerful Haqqani faction – a militant group that is part of the Taliban government. The Taliban has publicly denied that they were aware of his presence prior to the strike and analysts are closely watching to see if his exposure ushers in any kind of rift between the Taliban and the Haqqani.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s arrival and stay in Kabul,” a statement by the Taliban said.
White House officials said on Monday that senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in the area and even took steps to conceal his presence after Saturday’s successful strike, restricting access to the safe house and rapidly relocating members of his family, including his daughter and her children.
“As far as we know, many people in the Taliban didn’t know the Haqqani were sheltering Zawahiri in Kabul. “Does that create a split between the Taliban and the Haqqani?” the source familiar with the intelligence said.
The senior administration official said Friday that the Taliban “is scrambling a bit to figure out who knew what and who didn’t – and moreover, to get their story straight on what happened.”
Some US military officials are hopeful, meanwhile, that the strike may help push the Taliban towards some sort of limited cooperation with the US to target ISIS-K, a common enemy and separate terrorist group in Afghanistan that the US military is far more concerned about than al Qaeda, according to two sources familiar with the dynamic.
“I think this was a symbolic strike that removed an inspirational leader,” Sanner said. “It completes the task of removing the two people who were at the center of 9/11. But it is the end of an era – it is not about a current threat.”