News | May 19, 2021

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

By Bryce Loidolt WOTR

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?

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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.