Analysis | Zawahiri strike leads to relitigating Biden’s Afghan withdrawal – The Washington Post


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The big idea

Zawahiri strike leads to relitigating Biden’s Afghan withdrawal

President Biden and his Republican critics were always going to spend some part of August 2022 re-litigating the year-old U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The missile strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri just hastened the process of both sides claiming vindication.

While the August 2021 departure has come to be seen (wrongly, The Daily 202 has argued) as the start of Biden’s plummet in public opinion polls, the current fight turns on the vital question of whether quitting Afghanistan after 20 years of war made America less safe.

The administration says the successful weekend raid proves Biden right about the U.S. “over the horizon” ability to kill extremists in places like Afghanistan without having an in-country military presence to collect intelligence before a strike and confirmation details afterward.

  • On Monday night, the president said he had concluded a year ago “the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists,” and could keep targeting extremists there and beyond.

“We’ve done just that,” Biden said.

On Tuesday, National Security Council coordinator John Kirby told reporters “I think we proved to a fare-thee-well this weekend that it [Afghanistan] isn’t a safe haven.”

“We said at the time [last summer] that as we depart Afghanistan, we’re going to keep vigilant, we’re going to stay ready, and we’re not going to let Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorists who threaten our homeland,” Kirby said. “And this past weekend, we proved that case precisely.”

But senior officials repeatedly warned publicly last year that the withdrawal would make identifying, tracking and targeting extremists in Afghanistan more difficult. “That’s simply a fact,” CIA Director William J. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April

The case for less safe

Meanwhile, Biden’s critics highlight that Zawahiri’s presence in a tony neighborhood of Kabul is evidence the Taliban never broke off relations with al-Qaeda, and is in fact giving the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks a harbor from which they might plan new attacks.

“It is noteworthy where Zawahiri was: In Kabul. So al-Qaeda is back as a result of the Taliban being back in power,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters. “That precipitous decision to withdraw a year ago produced the return of the conditions that were there before 9/11.”

Zawahiri appears to have been in Afghanistan before the withdrawal. And before 9/11, al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, ran training camps in Afghanistan, directed operatives around the world and had the means and resources to carry out a sophisticated, large-scale attack on America.

  • There’s no evidence that the much-diminished force Zawahiri led has such abilities. But senior officials like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, warned Congress shortly after the withdrawal that the Taliban were sheltering al-Qaeda, which could reconstitute and pose a threat to the United States within six months to three years.

Al-Qaeda offshoots in Africa and the Middle East trouble U.S. national security officials. So do Islamic State scions in Afghanistan (like ISIS-K, the group blamed for the bombing near Kabul International Airport that killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans just before the withdrawal ended) and elsewhere.

Will voters care?

It’s not clear how salient the debate over Afghanistan will be as the country heads into the midterm elections, now fewer than 100 days away. At Tuesday’s Senate stakeouts, only McConnell mentioned the strike. No other Senate leaders of either party did.

Reporters did not ask any questions about it — but peppered lawmakers with questions tied to what voters say are the issues uppermost in their minds, like inflation, and other headline-grabbing items, like the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan.

But as the one-year withdrawal anniversary approaches, it bears noting there are two things neither side appears to be doing: One, claiming the strike that killed Zawahiri disrupted an active terrorist plot; and two, pondering what it says about the two-decade American war in Afghanistan that the Egyptian-born extremist was still breathing at all in July 2022.

What’s happening now

Five former treasury secretaries back Schumer-Manchin deal

“Five former Treasury secretaries — including one who served under a Republican — have signed a statement backing the Inflation Reduction Act, the economic package brokered by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) that could come to a vote on the Senate floor in coming days,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report.

  • “Signatories include Hank Paulson, who served under President George W. Bush, as well as Larry Summers, who served under President Bill Clinton and has been a frequent critic of the Biden administration’s actions on inflation.”

Sen. Johnson suggests ending Medicare, Social Security as mandatory spending programs

“Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has suggested that Social Security and Medicare be eliminated as federal entitlement programs, and that they should instead become programs approved by Congress on an annual basis as discretionary spending,” Amy B Wang reports.

Kremlin says Pelosi’s visit is ‘purely provocative’ to China

“Russia has described a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan as ‘purely provocative,’ expressing solidarity with China and accusing the United States of choosing “the path of confrontation” in the region,” Rachel Pannett reports.

OPEC Plus minimally boosts production after Biden’s Saudi visit

“The OPEC Plus group of oil-producing nations plans to increase production by a scant 100,000 barrels daily, a move that is unlikely to have a major effect on U.S. gas prices despite the considerable political capital that President Biden expended to push the consortium in that direction,” Evan Halper reports.

A Senate proposal would give CFTC responsibility for policing bitcoin, ethereum

“The Commodity Futures Trading Commission would take the leading role in overseeing the two largest cryptocurrencies and the platforms where they are traded under a new bill from Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.),” Tory Newmyer reports.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

WaPo exclusive: Misleading Kansas abortion texts linked to Republican-aligned firm

“The messages were crafted by a political action committee led by Tim Huelskamp, a former hard-line Republican congressman from Kansas, and enabled by a fast-growing, Republican-aligned technology firm, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the advertising blitz,” Isaac Stanley-Becker reports.

“The messages were sent from phone numbers that had been leased by Alliance Forge, based in Sparks, Nev. Founded in 2021, Alliance Forge describes itself as the ‘nation’s fastest growing political technology company, proudly serving federal, state, and local campaigns throughout the nation.’

How a Trump endorsement scramble in Mo. ended in absurdity: Vote ‘ERIC’

“With two words, Donald Trump launched a wild Monday scramble that Republican leaders had hoped to avoid: ‘sometime today!’ the former president wrote on Truth Social at 10:31 a.m., declaring his plans endorse in Missouri’s U.S. Senate primary,” Michael Scherer, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report.

“Trump had not yet decided which candidate to back when he published those words, according to interviews with numerous officials familiar with the chaos that ensued. So began an eight-hour deadline to win over Trump’s favor before primary day — a decision that in the mind of some Republicans could have undermined GOP hopes for taking control of the Senate this fall.”

… and beyond

With 2024 approaching, Hawley takes a Trumpian turn to clip NATO

“Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy is living on through one senator: Josh Hawley,” Politico‘s Andrew Desiderio reports.

“The Missouri Republican staked out MAGA turf earlier this week by coming out against a joint effort by Finland and Sweden to join NATO — a vote that could end with him standing alone in the ‘no’ camp. Hawley’s move puts him at odds with fellow GOP senators considered possible 2024 presidential contenders, as party leaders work feverishly to stamp out Trump’s influence on foreign policy within their ranks.

The GOP’s love affair with Joe Manchin is over

“On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who last year told reporters, ‘God bless’ Manchin—told The Daily Beast he appreciated that Manchin ‘held the line’ on maintaining the filibuster, the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass laws. But Graham emphasized that Manchin is pushing an ‘ill-conceived idea’ that makes ‘no sense,’” the Daily Beast‘s Sam Brodey reports.

“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—who last year reportedly urged GOP senators to strategically praise Manchin and was open to Manchin switching parties—said at his press conference on Tuesday that his West Virginia colleague made a ‘terrible deal.’”

The Biden agenda

Biden to sign executive order aimed at helping patients travel for abortions

“The travel-related provision in the order will call on Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to consider inviting states to apply for Medicaid waivers when treating patients who cross state lines for reproductive health services,” Tyler Pager reports.

White House scrambles to avoid crisis amid Pelosi visit to Taiwan

“The White House worked urgently to de-escalate tensions with China as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Wednesday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and other officials during a high-profile visit to the self-governing island against the administration’s wishes, hoping to head off a geopolitical crisis amid threats and military maneuvers by Beijing,” Yasmeen Abutaleb and Lily Kuo report.

Biden world sees vindication in his Afghanistan drawdown one year and one drone strike later

For the administration, the weekend drone strike bolstered its case that its over-the-horizon strategy — meaning that terror threats could be snuffed out in Afghanistan without a significant military presence there — was working. Aides argued that it validated Biden’s decision against asking another American family to sacrifice a loved one in the distant, mountainous land,” Politico‘s Jonathan Lemire reports.

“The operation was among the most significant counterterrorism successes since Navy SEAL Team Six stormed bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in 2011. It comes at a moment when Biden appears poised to arrest and perhaps reverse his slumping political fortunes.”

Working from home during covid seems to work out for Biden

“Work from home, it turns out, has been good for President Biden. Since first testing positive for covid nearly two weeks ago and remaining at the White House, Biden has presided over a remarkably successful, if short, stretch of his presidency,” Ashley Parker writes.

“Biden celebrated as the Senate, and then the House, passed the Chips and Science Act — a $280 billion bill that will subsidize domestic semiconductor manufacturing in an effort to help U.S. companies compete with China. He delighted as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the majority leader, reached a secretive and unexpected $370 billion deal on legislation to lower prescription drug prices, cut emissions and overhaul how the country produces energy.”

Biden and Harris endorse Bass for Los Angeles mayor

“President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris endorsed Rep. Karen Bass for mayor of Los Angeles on Tuesday, lending the Democratic Congresswoman significant national support,” Politico’s Jeremy B. White reports.

“The endorsement essentially throws the weight of the White House behind Bass, solidifying her standing as the Democratic Party’s pick. Bass is vying with Republican-turned-Democrat businessman Rick Caruso to lead America’s second-largest city.”

The drone strike that killed Zawahiri, visualized

“A loud blast was heard in the Shirpur neighborhood in central Kabul. The district, long a derelict area owned by the Afghan Defense Ministry, was converted into an exclusive residential area of large houses in recent years, with senior Afghan officials and wealthy individuals owning mansions there,” Shane Harris, Dan Lamothe, Karen DeYoung, Souad Mekhennet and Pamela Constable report.

Hot on the left

3 years after the El Paso shooting, ‘environmental’ nativism is spreading

“The shooting in El Paso wasn’t an isolated incident, and experts who study white supremacist movements say eco-fascism is becoming ‘a more accepted part of the ideology.’ The man who killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., was also a self-proclaimed eco-fascist. Like the El Paso shooter, he went out of his way to target a community of color; like the El Paso shooter, he published a manifesto in which he claimed that demographic change, overpopulation, and climate change were linked,” Gaby Del Valle writes for the Nation.

Hot on the right

Trump meets with Viktor Orban after immigration tirade

“Former President Donald Trump welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to one of his luxury golf resorts barely a week after the Central European leader made remarks that have been compared to Nazi rhetoric,” Bloomberg News‘s Mario Parker reports.

“Trump released a statement saying it was ‘great spending time with my friend’ and that the two were also celebrating Orban’s April electoral victory, in which Trump endorsed him.”

Today in Washington

At 2 p.m., Biden will deliver marks virtually on securing access to reproductive and other health care services at the first meeting of the interagency Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access. Vice President Harris, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Becerra,  Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas will also attend.

In closing

Trevor Noah’s take on not-so-safe houses

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.


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