Ayman al-Zawahiri met the business end of a US drone in the center of KabulAyman al-Zawahiri met the business end of a US drone in the center of Kabul. Photo by Mohammad Husaini on Unsplash


It took us two decades and a trillion dollars to whack this terrorist son-of-a-bitch. What are you celebrating?

Like most people, I learned yesterday that a CIA special op killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in what he thought was a Kabul safe house. But unlike most people, apparently, I was not overjoyed. I was incensed.

Why? Because it took more than twenty years for the US to whack this murderous bastard. We fund the US intelligence community to the tune of US$60 billion a year, another US$20 billion-plus on military intelligence. In the past two decades, we’ve spent US$1.2 trillion on our spooks. A few hours of tactical competence can’t redeem more than two decades of pathetic failure.

No one thinks that all US$1.2 trillion of the total intel budget over two decades should have been devoted exclusively to hunting down al Qaeda principals. I’m not suggesting otherwise. I wouldn’t much alter our budgetary balance among CIA collections, analysis, and operations. But it’s plain that DHL could have delivered a “Barbie and Her Unicorn” set to the Zawahiri household with greater efficiency at a sliver of the cost.

The protracted failure to rack up Zawahiri has bothered me for a long time, just as it bothered me that US forces allowed Osama bin Laden to slip out of a cave in Tora Bora in December 2001 and live for nearly another decade. I’ve said so in writing now and again. Over time, as you’d expect, my attention was diverted. But when I heard that al-Zawahiri had at last been despatched, my rage and frustration came roaring back. I glowed incandescent. My wife didn’t even need her reading light in bed.

I’ve wondered at times if the US government allowed him live because he posed no immediate danger to us and was even somewhat useful. Unlike Bin Laden, with his unifying charisma and calm, Zawahiri was petty, nasty, argumentative, condescending, divisive, feckless, and hence hopeless at managing a diffuse organization made up of barking mad primitives.

But were that so—and I don’t know—it would have represented a gross miscarriage of justice, and it would have been strategically idiotic, too. In much of the non-Western world and on its margins (read: Russia) retributive credibility is deterrence. The vast majority of jihadi extremists come from places where people admire the strong horse, not the underdog—places where respect is a function of your belief in someone’s ability to cause you pain.

Enemies of the United States need to know that if they harm Americans, they will perish in a rain of hellfire—and not in ten or twenty years, but before tomorrow night’s dinner dishes are washed, dried, and racked. Let confidence in this lapse and you invite abuse. In 1985, Hezbollah kidnapped four Russian diplomats, killing one. Moscow despatched the KGB’s Alpha Group to Beirut to handle the situation. How they did so is too gruesome to print, but suffice to say Soviet leaders were never reduced to furtively trading arms for hostages. The rest of the hostages were promptly returned. No more were taken.

Al Qaeda failed to pull off another gruesome spectacle on the scale of September 11, but certainly orchestrated plenty of smaller ones. The cost, in innocent lives, of failing promptly to nab Bin Laden was probably in the thousands. Under Zawahiri’s leadership, that number ticked at least several hundreds higher. Our failure swiftly to eliminate al-Qaeda’s top leadership cost many lives.

The damaging delay in serving justice to Bin Laden and Zawahiri deserves to join a very long list of major US intelligence screw-ups. Start with the Bay of Pigs, say, and track the trend through several infamously erroneous Soviet strategic estimates, the missed Indian nuclear test in 1974, the vast underestimation of Iraq’s WMD program before 1991 and the even vaster overestimation in 2003, the failure to detect the September 11 plot, the failure to anticipate what our invasion would produce inside Iraq or how it would redound to Iran’s advantage, the ISI’s near-continuous hoodwinking of the CIA throughout the entire Afghan debacle, and one could, frankly, go on and on. There is hardly a postwar example of a major US foreign policy failure without an intelligence debacle at its core.

In May 2011, President Obama beamed triumphantly when Bin Laden received his just if very belated reward. So be it: Presidents are politicians, and they have to manage their intelligence types. These are important relationships and it serves no purpose to berate subordinates in public just because they deserve it. I feel the same way about President Biden’s statement on Zawahiri’s demise.

But two aspects of the Zawahiri story infuriate me.

First, even though two decades have passed since Zawahiri joined his Egyptian Islamic Jihad gang to Al Qaeda and became a household name, Western journalists and commentators still can’t pronounce his damned name. It’s z-WAH-h’-ree, with a light “r,” not zwa-HERE-ee.

It’s not a petty complaint. The indifference to detail is emblematic of the flat learning curve American elites have displayed since Islamic extremism intruded upon our holiday from history. After all these years, people who should have known better long ago—maybe read a book, or take seriously what our local partners try to tell us—still can’t distinguish Sunni from Shi’a from Sufi from Shinola. They can’t tell a religious identification from an ethno-linguistic one, and they think “Arab” and “Muslim” are vaguely synonymous, leaving them ataxic at the mention of Kurds, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Amazigh, and Baluch, never mind Christian Arabs. They don’t know the difference between deracinated global jihadis, who despise their own hearth cultures, and traditionally pious Waziristani tribesman, who don’t. They don’t understand these cultures because they don’t bother to try, which in Afghanistan proved fatal against the long-entrenched moral system of Pashtunwali.

This is the same willful ignorance that led US policy down deadly rabbit holes in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Failure to promptly dispatch the senior al Qaeda leadership after 9/11 is of a piece with this somber history. You can’t find the bad guys if you insist on ignoring the cultural context in which they hide. We can expect more debacles just like this. The lyrics will differ, but the melody will be the same.

We have lethally low expectations of competence at the intersection of policy and intelligence, and we are far too easy on ourselves. Hence the second reason for the bug up my arse: We jump for joy and slap ourselves lustily on the back when anything goes right, swiftly forgetting all the prior years of bumbling and failure. The public is as forgiving and prone to amnesia as US officialdom, alas.

Just as I forgave President Obama’s victory lap in 2011, I forgive President Biden’s. Americans need something to feel good about these days, and who is Joe Biden to deny them—just three months before the midterms? But his comments and demeanor set the tone for general rejoicing in the media, and the reaction is way off key. As I read through the high-fiving commentaries, I want to pinch myself and ask: Am I the only one who sees the Zawahiri hit as a pinprick success at the tail end of nearly 220 consecutive months of unremitting failure? You would think being long-suffering is its own quintessential American virtue, and being made to wait years for a modicum of justice somehow sweetens it when it comes. This is emotional self-deception and utter nonsense: What good is a twenty-years-late notch in your belt if your belt has since become too ragged and ripped to hold up your pants?

So no, I don’t feel like congratulating the CIA. If I were currently in a position to order anything beyond pizza, I’d order the DNI (that would be Avril Haines) to conduct a comprehensive, high-level, internal after-action report to account for taking so damned long to whack Zawahiri and ensure we never suffer this ignominy again.

Will President Biden order this? Will he do now what President Obama should have done in May 2011, after the Bin Laden hit—but didn’t? Stranger things have happened; wisdom sometimes travels on the wings of regret. Don’t rule it out.

Adam Garfinkle is an editorial board member of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.


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