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See No Evil

President Obama may think that the threat from al Qaeda is receding. It isn’t.

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” the president said. “In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries.” The president then offered four examples intended to illustrate his point. In all four cases—in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Mali—others lead the fight on the ground. American airstrikes buttress the efforts of local partners, but the president made it clear that he wants to limit U.S. involvement: “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbounded powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation-states,” he said.

The president’s solution: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” And we must define a strategy based “not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.” All of this defining, the president explained, “begins with understanding the current threat that we face.”

And therein lies a major problem: When it comes to the threat we face, the enemy also gets a vote or, to use Obama’s lexicon, a say in how the fight is defined. Al Qaeda and its affiliates do not think the war has ended. They are fighting in more countries than ever.

Al Qaeda Is Alive

There is much unfinished business in Afghanistan, despite the president’s vow that American “troops will come home” and their “combat mission will come to an end.” Al Qaeda maintains safe havens in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces and operates elsewhere. The Taliban remains closely allied with al Qaeda and associated groups. And the Taliban-led insurgency remains so robust that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stopped publishing statistics on the level of violence late last year. The last ISAF statistics available to the public show that the level of violence remains higher than before the Obama-ordered surge of American forces in 2010.

In Pakistan, al Qaeda and its allies maintain a safe haven in the northern part of the country, despite pressure from American airstrikes. And the Pakistani government continues to be a duplicitous ally, sponsoring and protecting various al Qaeda-allied groups. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, remains a threat after orchestrating the failed May 2010 bombing in Times Square. The State Department announced in September 2010 that the TTP has a “symbiotic relationship” with al Qaeda.

In neighboring Iran, al Qaeda maintains what the Obama administration has called a “core pipeline” for transiting fighters, money, and weapons to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. This network, according to a July 2011 Treasury Department designation, exists under a formerly “secret deal” between al Qaeda and the Iranian regime. In April, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced that they had detained two terrorists who were plotting to derail a train traveling between New York and Canada. The Mounties said the terrorists received “direction and guidance” from “al Qaeda elements located in Iran,” which is probably the same Iran-backed network uncovered by the Obama administration.

To Iran’s west, in Iraq, the situation looks grim. “We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home,” the president said during his speech. In reality, only America’s role in the fight for Iraq came to an end. According to the U.N., April 2013 was the deadliest month in Iraq in nearly five years​—​that is, since before Obama was even elected. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has played no small role in the latest violence. Declared all but dead in 2010, AQI rebounded. According to Pentagon data cited by the Associated Press, AQI increased its operational capacity from 75 attacks per week in early 2012 to “an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq” by the end of the year. AQI’s ranks have swelled. The group has established new training camps, new safe havens, and a whole new arm in Syria​—​the Al Nusrah Front.

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