On 1 May 2012, President Obama delivered a speech to U.S. troops at the Bagram Air Base in Kabul. The purpose of this visit was to announce the signing of what he qualified as a “historic agreement” that designed the future relationship between the United States and Afghanistan, underlining Afghan ownership, the end of the war, and the establishment of a dialogue on an equal basis. However, this agreement is not “historic”, nor is its content “new”. The agreement of 1 May is simply a formal recast of the 2011 Bonn International Afghanistan Conference’s Conclusions, into an official bilateral strategic partnership with the Afghan state. Obama’s praise for the US troop’s “successful operation that killed Osama Bin Laden” and for the devastation of al-Qaeda’s leadership constituted the cornerstones of his declarations. A year after the raid, the killing of al-Qaeda leader is still presented as the crowning achievements of the war. But what was the actual meaning of this killing?
The killing of Bin Laden has to be viewed as part of the larger framework of the United States’ war on terror and of its related “targeted killing” programme. This programme has constituted an essential tactic of the United States’ counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in recent years. If the assumed exceptional and “necessary” character of the strikes has generally legitimised the use of such practices, Barack Obama’s administration has, however, escalated targeted killings, especially through the use of unmanned drone strikes to eliminate al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Moreover, targeted killings have recently been personally confirmed and defended by President Obama (January 2012) who qualified them as “judicious”, and the U.S. Department of Defence has requested sustained technological improvement to expand targeted killing capacities as part of its 2013 budget request.
Obama’s speech recontextualised the decade-long war in Afghanistan in its primary aim of “disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda” in order to protect the United States and its citizens. It also assesses what has been achieved. If the devastation of “al-Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders” is considered as a major accomplishment, the actual outcome of the “leadership erosion” strategy of a horizontal organisation is rather meaningless, especially in the absence of effective prevention of radicalisation and recruitment. Strategically, targeted killings will not defeat al-Qaeda or the Taliban, nor will they prevent them from perpetrating terrorist attacks. They can, however, somehow disrupt the networks’ ability to operate and reduce their capabilities.
The multiple explosions that took place in Kabul immediately after the departure of President Obama have been claimed by Taliban spokesman Zabibullah Mujahid. Ironically, President Obama’s visit revealed that the Taliban’s momentum was not broken, and that systematic “delivering [of] justice” through extrajudicial means was clearly a failing strategy.