Has Barack Obama been a good counter-terrorist president? On the left, and even on the right, we usually hear a resounding “yes”: Obama has maintained, sometimes amplified, the programs that really keep us safe (predator drones, expansive use of domestic intercepts, unsavory intelligence liaison relationships, and rendition). Some on the left may be disturbed by the president’s actions, but their moral indigestion is contained by the belief that Obama is still better than George W. Bush. And after SEAL Team Six went for the kill in Abbottabad, the right posed few questions about the action, or the way the administration and the Central Intelligence Agency have characterized the supposedly diminishing al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two leading Republican presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, aver that the president appears weak, especially to the regime in Tehran. But apart from highlighting how weak presidents tempt our enemies, they have not really questioned Obama’s counterterrorist credentials.
That’s a mistake. Since September 11, 2001, Washington has been enamored of the idea that the principal terrorist threat to the United States comes from “independent” actors like al Qaeda. Whereas George W. Bush at least combined this analysis with his recognition of an “Axis of Evil” (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were highlighted for their support for terrorism as well as their appetites for weapons of mass destruction), Barack Obama has assiduously avoided underscoring state sponsorship of terrorism. His minions may occasionally say unkind things about Pakistan and the Islamic Republic, but the president has steered clear of depicting the military junta in Islamabad and the clerical regime in Tehran as terrorist threats to the United States. Even after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is responsible for the nuclear program as well as terrorist operations, was caught trying to orchestrate a bombing run on the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, the administration chose not to dwell on the incident—the first time, so far as we know, that any foreign state has planned a possibly mass-casualty terrorist attack in the U.S. capital. The White House quickly turned the discussion of retribution back to sanctions—the president’s preferred method of responding to Tehran on the nuclear issue, human-rights violations, and now, it seems, terrorism.
But by doing so—by not talking loudly about the increasing evidence of a longstanding alliance between Iran and al Qaeda, by not talking more openly about the horrendous problem we have with Pakistan, and by intentionally misrepresenting the nature of al Qaeda and the alliances among Islamic militant groups—the president has turned a blind eye towards probably the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States over the next decade: state sponsorship of “independent” Islamic terrorist groups and the likely partnering of Iran and Pakistan against the United States.
The president and the counterterrorist cognoscenti in his administration may think they are doing the country a favor, since focusing on state actors conjures up war. The White House has exchanged the “global war on terror” for a smaller, supposedly safer, more manageable confrontation with “extremists.” But strategically and tactically, little of what the administration is doing makes sense. We are more likely to find ourselves in a state-to-state confrontation precisely because of Obama’s intentions and methods.
Let us look at Iran. Although the administration and our European allies appear to be getting much more serious about rigorous sanctions against the Islamic Republic because of its quest for nuclear weapons, the White House has shied away from the possibility that Tehran will respond with terrorism, not negotiations. Perhaps the most stubborn wish in U.S. foreign policy has been the three-decade-old bipartisan determination to engage with and moderate the Islamic Republic. Ever since Ali Khamenei put on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mantle as guardian of the revolution, Western observers have wanted to describe him as “pragmatic” and “moderate,” even though his outpouring of virulently anti-American speeches, let alone the crackdowns and killings he’s unleashed at home since 1999, might engender skepticism. Iran’s much vilified and lampooned president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is probably less hardcore—even on the villainy of world Jewry—than Khamenei is. Unlike the fallen reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who could rage against the United States and the destructiveness of Western culture but also wax envious about the ethical sensitivity of occidental thought and the democracy-bred decency of Americans, Khamenei has never once emitted a smidgeon of affection, empathy, or even old-fashioned, highbrow Persian distaste for the United States.
Like Khomeini, Khamenei hates America comprehensively. The United States is, simply and infinitely, “the enemy of God.” He has at times allowed his minions and his opponents to reject the United States with less vehemence—most famously after the election of Khatami in 1997 and the American triumph in Afghanistan in 2002—when internal and external events spooked him. But when the United States was the most forward-leaning during his rule—when Barack Obama first started sending not-so-secret engagement letters—the supreme leader told Washington to stick it. Shaytan-e mojassim, “Satan incarnate,” the phrase Khamenei hurled back at Obama after the president first extended his hand, contains a truth that the administration, and many other liberals and most realists, just won’t grasp: The more the president reaches out to Khamenei, the harder Washington tries to find a modus vivendi, the more the supreme leader will hate the president of the United States. (If Khamenei used voodoo dolls, Obama’s would be larger than Bush’s.)
And it isn’t conspiracy that fuels the supreme leader’s loathing; it’s a keen understanding that America’s enrapturing wickedness is central to the Islamic Republic’s faith. Although Obama had nothing to do with the explosion of dissent on Tehran’s streets in the summer of 2009, the protesters used the president’s why-can’t-we-be-friends rhetoric, confirming the insidious danger of America’s new leader. American diplomacy towards Tehran, which has often been fairly active behind the scenes, has never been seen as more provocative than under Obama.
American liberals, who live to manage domestic affairs, like to believe that foreign affairs, too, can be handled rationally. Thus, Obama ratchets up the economic pressure on Tehran, assuming that in response, Khamenei the “pragmatist” will eventually change his behavior. Even though this scenario beggars the Iranian revolutionary imagination, it has one small chance for success: if the supreme leader knows that he cannot counter with violence. Violence—terrorism—is in the DNA of this regime. It’s how it deals with internal opposition; it’s regularly been part of Tehran’s foreign statecraft.
Yet Obama’s inconsistencies signal the opposite. On the one hand, the president describes Iran’s nuclear program as “unacceptable” and has backed an ever-more-punishing sanctions regime. On the other hand, Obama has made it clear that he would prefer to avoid a military confrontation with Tehran even when the regime is caught planning a terrorist strike. Following in the footsteps of George W. Bush but with much more conviction, Obama has ignored Iran’s extensive aid to Iraqis and Afghans who specialize in killing American soldiers.
Yet the president’s contradictions have been the most harmful—and for Tehran perhaps the most instructive—on the growing evidence of an al Qaeda-Iran alliance. Like the Bush administration, Obama’s people have not wanted to follow up on the 9/11 Commission Report, which depicted regular operational contact and likely training between Osama bin Laden’s men, Iran’s security services, and Hezbollah. Before and after 9/11, the clerical regime unquestionably abetted al Qaeda’s movement with laissez-passers. Since 2005, evidence has been mounting that the Islamic Republic has allowed al Qaeda to use Iran as a safe haven and an operational hub. In January 2009, the Treasury Department designated four members of al Qaeda who were “managing the terrorist organization from Iran.” All four of these operatives, one of whom was bin Laden’s son Saad, had supposedly been under “house arrest.”
Then barely two months ago, in December 2011, the State Department and Treasury announced a $10 million bounty on the al Qaeda financier Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, better known as Yasin al-Suri, who, according to the U.S. government, has been operating in Iran with the assistance of the Iranian authorities since 2005. “Al-Suri’s network has served as a financial conduit, collecting funds from donors throughout the Gulf and moving those via Iran to al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq,” according to Treasury. “Al-Suri’s network also serves as the core pipeline for al Qaeda to funnel operatives and facilitators from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Even so, neither the president, nor the vice president, nor the secretaries of defense and state, nor the director of the Central Intelligence Agency has managed to remonstrate publicly against this alliance, let alone threatened Ali Khamenei with dire consequences. The White House is held hostage to its dream of negotiating an end to the nuclear crisis. It doesn’t seem to realize that using economic coercion without plausible military deterrence is an invitation to the Revolutionary Guards to kill more Americans. The Islamic Republic has been ramping up its ties with al Qaeda, and Obama’s administration has done nothing.
The administration’s frightful timidity with the clerical regime can mostly be ascribed to bad analysis born of good intentions (it would be great if Ali Khamenei would just say, “Hi,” in response to President Obama’s letters). That’s not at all the case with counterterrorism policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it’s become increasingly difficult not to accuse the administration of crudely manipulating and politicizing intelligence and being deceitful about the strategic ramifications of its current policy.
According to the White House, America has al Qaeda on the run in Afghanistan, its numbers reduced to fewer than 100. And as Marine Corps War College professor Jim Lacey has fairly inquired, if the United States is confronting fewer than 100 members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and we are not at war with the Taliban, which increasingly appears to be the administration’s position, then why do we still have more than 100,000 soldiers in that country?
But as Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn of The Long War Journal tirelessly point out, the figures the U.S. government gives for al Qaeda membership in Afghanistan are, quite simply, made up. They are asserted often and with such confidence that the probable source is the CIA, which, as those who’ve had the pleasure of reading national intelligence estimates know, tends to insert earnest self-confidence where information is lacking. Roggio and Joscelyn have consistently shown that the U.S. military regularly kills large numbers of al Qaeda holy warriors only to have the total remain unchanged in official accountings. As both gentlemen have written in this magazine, NATO and U.S. military press releases that still show al Qaeda and its affiliated groups to be all over most of Afghanistan’s provinces belie the impression given by President Obama and other senior officials that al Qaeda has been bottled up and “decimated.”
Roggio and Joscelyn have tried unsuccessfully to get U.S. officials to explain to them how the CIA and the Pentagon differentiate between al Qaeda and other holy-warrior groups in Central Asia. Are we counting just Arabs—meaning that ethnic Pashtuns, Punjabis, Sindhis, and Kashmiris who’ve caught al Qaeda’s global-jihad bug fail to qualify as members? That shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer and certainly doesn’t compromise sources and methods. Yet the CIA and the Pentagon are mum. (And the press hasn’t bothered to push the inquiry.)
We can assume that any information the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency provides to Langley is viewed with extraordinary skepticism, given the close relationship the ISI has with so many terrorist groups, especially the Haqqani network and Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, which maintain operational ties to al Qaeda. Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, who now head counterterrorism at the State Department and Middle Eastern affairs at the National Security Council, respectively, are probably the two best counterterrorist minds the Democrats have. In The Next Attack, their scathing critique of the Bush administration’s war on terror published in 2005, they wrote that, whereas “before September 11, extremists focused their hatred on India and the issue of Kashmir, now they seek to mobilize support by inciting others against America.” Benjamin and Simon were deeply concerned that Pakistan could become the breeding ground for a new anti-American jihad, as the language and ideology of transnational holy war spread. And things haven’t gotten any better: Since 2009, hardcore Pakistani Islamic militant groups, which historically have had the closest relationships with al Qaeda, have gotten much bolder at home and often abroad, as British MI5 officers who monitor the Pakistani community in the United Kingdom can testify.
The truth: The CIA has no way of knowing how many members of al Qaeda remain in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Worse, neither it nor the Pentagon has any meaningful rubric for identifying al Qaeda’s jihadists. If they are counting young men who’ve given their allegiance, their baya, to the organization, they must have al Qaeda’s inner command circle penetrated with moles. We know from the long hunt for bin Laden, in which interrogations far from the battlefields of Afghanistan played a critical role, that this is not the case. There are sometimes real virtues to using predator drones aggressively against al Qaeda and senior leaders of the Taliban and other Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but an enormous downside is missing opportunities for capture and interrogation. In Afghanistan under a liberal president, America has returned to victory-by-head-count reminiscent of Vietnam: If we’ve killed X number of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders by predators—even though both organizations enjoy safe haven in Pakistan, where their members can undertake R & R, recruitment, training, and planning with little fear of drones—we are winning.
We don’t know whether al Qaeda will survive as an effective organization without bin Laden, but we certainly do know that Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s myriad radical Islamic groups are doing okay, if not prospering. We know for a fact that bin Laden intended early on—even before he returned to Jalalabad in 1996—to marry his organization, operationally and ideologically, to radical groups in Central Asia. Once in Afghanistan, he successfully integrated his personnel into the Taliban, incorporating them throughout the chain of command in units fighting the Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. No information has surfaced indicating that the Taliban of Mullah Omar, let alone groups like the Haqqanis and the forces behind Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the fiery Pashtun Islamist who has long received assistance from Tehran and the ISI, has backed away from al Qaeda in the field. Mullah Omar, who lost his realm after 9/11, has had ample opportunity in his safe haven in western Pakistan to state, with whatever poetic obfuscation Islamic sensitivities require, any regret he has about his alliance with bin Laden. He has not done so.
Neither the Pentagon nor the CIA has released any evidence that these organizations have ever turned al Qaeda members in (for propaganda purposes, we would surely hear about it). It’s a decent guess that America’s intelligence on al Qaeda and the groups closest to it hasn’t improved since Obama came into office. Take away the computers and files seized at bin Laden’s home in Pakistan, and the quality of intelligence gathered in the last three years has probably declined. The United States presumably still has no spies in senior al Qaeda and Taliban circles. And, given the current political and ethical difficulties of long-term detention of Islamic militants, the extensive interrogations and debriefing of volunteers that are the key to first-rate intelligence, per senior administration officials who should know, have become rare.
The surge of American forces in 2010 and 2011 has improved tactical intelligence—boots on the ground are indispensable to getting the natives to open up about the movement of enemy forces. But there are real limits to the kind and quality of information so gathered if American soldiers are capturing low-level fighters while predators kill commanders. It is also downright bizarre that the administration intends to negotiate with the Taliban while it’s killing the group’s elders, who are probably less radical than the young men who’ve enlisted since 2001. Predators have created headroom for the religiously and operationally ambitious. Such “negotiations” really cannot lead to anything, as the French expert on Afghanistan Gilles Dorronsoro has quipped, except to “America’s surrender.” After all, President Obama is not threatening to stay.
One of the great losses that came from the president’s ill-conceived decision to kill, not capture, bin Laden is the opportunity to interrogate the founder of al Qaeda about absolutely everything. Under intensive interrogation we could have learned the depth of his ties to Iran and the Pakistani military, let alone to other Islamic groups and intelligence services. There are good rumors that the computers seized by the SEAL team in Abbottabad have information about how bin Laden continued to plant his people into the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That information, let alone the facts on the battlefield, could make mincemeat of the administration’s hope to find some diplomatic means to a “decent interval” for American forces to leave Afghanistan. For this plan to work, the Taliban must be philosophically recast into a Pashtun nationalist movement that no longer wants to abet al Qaeda or other radical Islamic groups with a taste for killing Americans.
What President Obama is likely leading the United States to is a Taliban victory in Afghanistan that will reinvigorate al Qaeda and its allies. Much of Pakistan, especially within the military, has been hoping to get back to a pre-9/11 world, where Pakistan’s considerable Islamic fervor could be directed again towards Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the United States and away from the Pakistani military, which really didn’t want to get into a shooting war with Islamist groups it had once supported. The attacks of 9/11 forced the Pakistani military, which has become an increasingly Islamist outfit over the last 30 years, to shoot its children. This is a distasteful and ultimately unsustainable position.
As is President Obama’s drone campaign in Central Asia. The Pakistanis already restrict the use of predators from bases on their soil. Pakistani intelligence, heretofore critical to targeting Afghan Islamic militants based in northwest Pakistan, has surely become a lot less fulsome, too. If President Obama is serious about withdrawing the bulk of American forces from Afghanistan by 2014, Pakistani cooperation will likely dry up. It’s America’s force of arms, more than Washington’s financial aid to Islamabad, that keeps Pakistan from completely reverting to its old ways. We would do well to remember that it was the “old” Pakistan, with its officially sanctioned A.Q. Khan proliferation network, that delivered nuclear technology and know-how to Tehran. Civil war in Afghanistan, which will surely arrive when the Americans leave, may complicate Iranian-Pakistani relations, since they must support opposite sides. Pakistan will back a Taliban drive to retake Kabul and reestablish Pashtun Islamist supremacy throughout Afghanistan; Iran will perforce back its Persian-speaking Tajik and Shiite Hazara allies. But this ethnic split in Afghan aid was already present in the 1990s when Islamabad allowed Khan to help Tehran.
In the years since, both sides have come to despise the United States more intensely. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old Middle Eastern adage. President Obama, who has a hard time grasping intractable enmities in foreign affairs, would do well to appreciate its full ramifications.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).