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Can Zawahiri’s killing help Biden earn political dividends in US midterms?

When former United States President Barack Obama successfully led the mission to take out Osama bin Laden in May 2011, his popularity across the country soared.

But did it translate into electoral gains the following year when he sought re-election? It’s hard to tell, since experts then spoke of how events closer to home have historically been of more value to the voters, highlighting the fact that bin Laden’s killing had resulted only in a brief bump in Obama’s approval ratings.

So, can Biden, whose popularity currently suffers from a lack of voter confidence, ride on the successful Kabul strike that killed bin Laden’s longtime second-in-command and chief of Al Qaeda, Zawahiri, as midterm election approaches?

“To be sure, it may give the Democrats a political boost, to the extent that counterterrorism and Afghanistan register as high priority election issues for American voters, which I frankly don’t think they do,” Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, tells TRT World.

But, he adds, “Had there not been this drone strike, it would have been tough for the administration to muster positive and triumphant talking points on the one year anniversary of the withdrawal. So, the Zawahiri killing does provide that advantage.”

However, Kugelman cautions one shouldn’t overstate the political boost that the Biden administration could get from the strike.

“Most Americans aren’t paying attention to Afghanistan,” he says.

“Most Americans will certainly know about Al Qaeda, and many will know who Zawahiri is. But because it’s been so long since 9/11, and there hasn’t–thankfully–been anything remotely comparable to 9/11 in the US over the last few years, for many Americans these counterterrorism issues won’t resonate like they used to.”

Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, also presents a similar viewpoint, saying the biggest takeaway is just how unimportant this is for US domestic politics overall.

“The death of Zawahiri is mostly being discussed within DC policy circles. The average American either didn’t pay attention or vaguely knows that an ageing terrorist was killed,” he tells TRT World.

“Bottom line is that Al Qaeda is a footnote in US domestic politics right now. Gas prices, inflation, and divisions over domestic politics will dominate the midterms and next presidential election.”

The Biden administration has indeed found itself in-charge as it deals with multiple crises: from geo-political to geo-economic. 

At a time when the recovery is still in progress from the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on global supply chains, Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine has brought with it a new set of challenges. Amid all this, the US annual consumer inflation has posted its largest increase since 1981, making businesses an early victim as companies hold back investments and curtail their expenses, turning recession, unemployment and inflation into important election talking points.

This is also why Kugelman thinks the Zawahiri strike will not be a political game-changer for Biden and could only give him “a modest bump, but not much more, especially once we get past the Afghanistan anniversaries in August”.

“The US elections–and especially midterm elections–rarely revolve around foreign policy issues,” he says. “The pandemic and inflation are big issues that affect millions in the US, while the Zawahiri strike may be of momentary interest to Americans, but that interest and focus will be fleeting.”

So, is there anything to read into the timing of the strike? “I don’t think we should attribute the timing of this strike to the upcoming midterm elections,” Kugelman says. 

“It’s not like the US would have held off on going after Zawahiri until it was closer to the elections. The administration was going to pull the trigger when it had the opportunity – whether that happened a few weeks, a few months, or a longer time before the elections.”

Even if there was any political advantage in getting rid of the Al Qaeda chief, Weinstein, who has also served as a US marine and deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, says, “Biden’s political opponents will try to paint the Al Qaeda leader’s presence in Kabul as the president’s fault for leaving Afghanistan.” 

“I think this will come across as petty since we failed to capture or kill Zawahiri for decades.”

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