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Strategic Retreat

The war on terror is far from over. Why are we coming home?

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By BILL ROGGIO and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The killing of Osama bin Laden was a monumental tactical success in the war against al Qaeda. For millions, bin Laden had come to symbolize American weakness. His mere existence was a reminder that the United States, for all its military might and economic dominance, could not bring to justice a man responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans. And bin Laden was more than a symbol. Documents recovered from his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011 reveal he was still an instrumental leader within the global terror network he established. For these reasons and more, the death of bin Laden at the hands of an elite band of Navy SEALs was a cathartic moment for the nation. But the Obama administration has used that moment to justify a strategic retreat from the global war against al Qaeda, its allies, and the terror-sponsoring states that threaten American interests. 

During his State of the Union address last week, the president did not say that America was retreating from the September 11 wars. Instead, he wanted Americans to believe that those wars had been won: Mission Accomplished. 

“Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq,” Obama began.

Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought—and several thousand gave their lives. We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

You would never know from the president’s words that America’s enemies continue to fight on, even as he calls our soldiers home from the battlefields.

The justifications for this retreat were set forth in a document released by the administration in early January entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” Its purpose is to provide “strategic guidance” for the Defense Department. In a page-and-a-half introductory letter, President Obama twice used the phrase “as we end today’s wars” when discussing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Our Nation is at a moment of transition,” wrote the president. “Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, we have responsibly ended the war in Iraq, put al Qaeda on the path to defeat—including delivering justice to Osama bin Laden—and made significant progress in Afghanistan, allowing us to begin the transition to Afghan responsibility.”

The president’s words are disconnected from reality. Iraqi security quickly deteriorated in the weeks following the complete withdrawal of American combat troops in December. Al Qaeda in Iraq has stepped up its attacks on civilians and security forces, threatening Iraq’s fragile government. A political crisis pitting Shiite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki against Kurdish and Sunni politicians, including Iraq’s vice president, has also ensued. American forces are no longer in a position to influence these events, which has made them worse. 

The administration argues that in drawing down U.S. forces it was simply abiding by an agreement reached by the Bush administration in 2008. But as Max Boot has explained, the president and his advisers did not really want to extend or modify that agreement. The Obama administration did little to convince the Iraqis to alter its terms. In the end, the agreement provided the Obama administration with political cover for an outcome it desired. President Obama had long talked of bringing an “end” to the war—an end for American forces, mind you. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed militias fight on. According to the Washington Post, Iraqi officials counted about 2,640 deaths for the year ending December 31. And, according to the Post, Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit group that tallies civilian deaths using published reports, estimates “460 civilians died violently after the troops’ departure, a 35 percent increase over monthly averages for last year.”

It is impossible to see how President Obama can consider this a “responsible” end to the Iraq war. Nevertheless, if the president gets his way, America’s military forces will leave Afghanistan as well in the next two years.

President Obama is right that American troops and their allies have made “significant progress” in parts of that war-torn country, but the gains are tenuous. Other areas of Afghanistan remain infested with jihadists. And the insurgency organizations based across the border in Pakistan will be happy to take advantage of a security vacuum once the Americans are gone. 

Within hours of the Abbottabad raid, those seeking to end America’s military involvement in Afghanistan were on the march. Speaking to reporters the day after President Obama announced bin Laden’s death, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed the view that the successful raid should “reinforce” the president’s desire to draw down forces. 

“I think there is going to be a lot of strong feeling on the part of most Democrats and many .  .  . independents and even some Republicans,” Levin said, “that the decision of the president to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan starting in July [2011] should be a robust reduction. It shouldn’t be just a symbolic reduction; it should establish the point [that] the security of Afghanistan needs to be in the hands of Afghans.” 

Levin’s timing was off, but not by much. In June 2011, President Obama announced that 10,000 troops sent to Afghanistan as part of a surge he ordered would be withdrawn by year’s end. The remaining 23,000 surge troops would leave by September 2012, Obama declared. In October 2011, the president announced the U.S. pullout from Iraq by the end of that calendar year. 

The Obama administration is desperate to find a way out of Afghanistan. The problem is that the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their allies have not been defeated. So, then, how to justify retreat? The administration makes three key arguments, each based on politicized intelligence. 

First, administration officials argue there are only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives inside Afghanistan at any one time. It is not clear how anyone could possibly know the exact number of al Qaeda fighters, as they typically do not hand over rosters to Western officials. But the administration’s intent is clear: to downplay the centrality of Afghanistan in the fight against the terror network that attacked us on September 11. If al Qaeda is barely present in Afghanistan, the logic goes, there is no reason for U.S. forces to be there either. (Never mind that al Qaeda’s core leadership is based in Pakistan, and a foothold in Afghanistan gives American forces a place from which to launch operations against them, such as the raid that killed bin Laden.)

The administration’s estimate relies on an absurdly narrow definition of al Qaeda. Fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a close ally in both ideology and operations, are excluded. So are other non-Arab groups, even though bin Laden’s grand strategy was to bring these organizations under al Qaeda’s banner. The deceased al Qaeda master made strides in that direction long before September 11. 

NATO’s command in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), regularly issues press releases on its raids. A review of these statements from March 2007 forward shows the presence of al Qaeda and affiliated foreign groups such as the IMU in 94 districts in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Al Qaeda’s own martyrdom statements confirm ISAF’s reporting. In other words, the enemy’s footprint is much larger than the administration would have us believe. 

Second, administration officials contend—as Vice President Biden told Newsweek in December—that the Taliban “is not our enemy.” This was a rather callous statement given that the Taliban has spilled much American blood over the past 10 years. But the intent is plain to see. It is easier to justify retreat if you can claim that the Taliban—former ruler of what it still calls the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and the backbone of the insurgency there—isn’t an enemy at all. 

The Obama administration has tried to open peace talks with the Taliban on a number of occasions and has failed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has listed the goals for the talks as (1) the Taliban lays down its arms, (2) the Taliban accepts the Afghan constitution, and (3) the Taliban separates itself from al Qaeda (implicitly conceding that the two work together, though this is inconsistent with both Biden’s opinion of the Taliban and claims that al Qaeda has little to do with the insurgency). There is no reason to believe the Taliban is serious about meeting these goals. In January, the Taliban opened a “political office” in Qatar to facilitate negotiations; the administration took this as a significant step. In announcing its new office, however, the Taliban stated that this 

does not mean a surrender from jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration but rather the Islamic Emirate is utilizing its political wing alongside its military presence and jihad in order to realize the national and Islamic aspirations of the nation and its martyrs.

While the Taliban thus openly rejects two of the administration’s goals, it doesn’t mention the third—that it break with al Qaeda. But this is fantasy as well. It is based on the mistaken belief that the Taliban and al Qaeda were not really close allies when al Qaeda struck America on 9/11 and, furthermore, that the decade of war since has not made them blood brothers. The irony is that the administration’s own attempt at peace talks reveals just how wrongheaded this view of Taliban-al Qaeda relations is. 

To move forward with talks, the Taliban demands the release of five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo. All had extensive ties to al Qaeda going back well before 9/11, according to leaked Joint Task Force-Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) memos. One of the five, for instance, is a former senior Taliban intelligence official named Abdul Haq Wasiq. JTF-GTMO concluded that Wasiq “utilized his office to support al Qaeda and to assist Taliban personnel” in eluding capture in late 2001. Wasiq also “arranged for al Qaeda personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff in intelligence methods.” The al Qaeda trainer was one Hamza Zubayr, who was killed during the same raid that netted Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda’s point man for 9/11. 

The high degree of collusion between the Taliban and al Qaeda has continued in the past decade. Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani, the father and son who run the most lethal part of the Taliban coalition, are thoroughly indoctrinated in al Qaeda’s global jihadist ideology. The Haqqanis hold a seat on al Qaeda’s elite Shura council and have harbored senior al Qaeda leaders in northern Pakistan for years. Even if some Taliban commander forswears al Qaeda, the Haqqanis will not.

ISAF frequently reports on raids targeting dual-hatted al Qaeda/Taliban operatives in Afghanistan. The Taliban recently appointed Sheikh Mohammed Aminullah, who is closely tied to al Qaeda, as the head of its Peshawar Regional Military Shura, which is responsible for operations in eastern and northern Afghanistan. The Peshawar Shura is one of four Taliban committees responsible for waging jihad in Afghanistan. Two of the other committees are also controlled by al Qaeda’s allies. 

There are many more examples, but the important point is this: There is no reason to believe the Taliban will betray al Qaeda, after refusing to do so for nearly two decades, now that America is on the verge of retreat.

President Obama’s third justification for withdrawal is that al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat.” Other administration officials have made the same assertion. Visiting Kabul in July 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the United States “is within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.” The Obama administration had narrowed its list of targets to between 10 and 20 key al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa, Panetta told reporters. “If we can be successful in going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack on this country.” 

Although administration officials have not defined what they mean when they say we are close to “strategically defeating al Qaeda,” it appears from Panetta’s comments that they mean eliminating al Qaeda’s ability to attack “this country,” the United States. This assumes that al Qaeda’s sole strategic aim is to strike the American homeland again. Undoubtedly, al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, including Ayman al Zawahiri, would love to execute another September 11. Al Qaeda has repeatedly plotted such attacks, including during the Obama years. This is not al Qaeda’s only strategic aim, however, nor is there reason to believe al Qaeda has devoted most of its resources to achieving it. In fact, there are good reasons to think that al Qaeda has allocated most of its assets to other initiatives, mainly waging insurgencies in jihadist hotspots around the globe—including the very areas President Obama has ordered American troops to leave.

While al Qaeda has failed to launch a single successful terrorist attack against the United States since September 11, 2001, “homegrown” terrorists (such as Major Nidal Malik Hasan) have had some success. And Sunni extremists have pulled off thousands of attacks elsewhere in the world, killing tens of thousands of people, most of them Muslims.

Each year the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) releases data on the global threat. The latest figures, for 2009 and 2010, show that in the first two years Obama was in office, Sunni jihadists killed more than 18,000 people. Tens of thousands more were wounded. And even this stunning figure probably underestimates the casualties. A significant number of attacks likely go unreported, and purely military engagements don’t count. 

Not all Sunni extremists take their orders from al Qaeda, of course. But they are part of the same ideological movement that gave us al Qaeda in the first place and which al Qaeda has sought to galvanize into action. Al Qaeda and affiliated parties, moreover, are by far the most prolific Sunni extremist organizations. The NCTC noted that in 2009, for instance, the deadliest groups were the Taliban (a close ally of al Qaeda, Vice President Biden notwithstanding), al Shabaab (al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia), and Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The nations most afflicted by terrorism (both Sunni and non-Sunni) in 2009 and 2010 were Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia. It is in this context that President Obama has ordered his drawdown of American forces—in precisely the nations hardest hit, Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no reason to believe that the situation in Afghanistan will improve once American forces are gone, any more than it improved in Iraq.

And while the administration is right that al Qaeda’s ability to hit the continental United States has been severely degraded, we should not forget how close we’ve come to mass casualties: Both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s attempted bombing on board a jetliner on Christmas Day 2009 and the Times Square attempted bombing by an agent of the Pakistani Taliban, a close ally of al Qaeda, in May 2010 were near misses. Luck saved the day in both cases—not vigilance. 

President Obama has sounded the horn of strategic retreat. No doubt administration officials would disagree with that characterization. The president has ramped up drone attacks in northern Pakistan and elsewhere, they argue. And those attacks have killed numerous senior terrorists, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was involved in multiple plots against the United States. 

This is true, and the president deserves credit for these actions. But drone strikes are merely a tactic, one that is insufficient to contain the advances of al Qaeda and its allies. “From Pakistan to Yemen,” President Obama argued during his State of the Union address, “the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.” But this is true only for those select terrorist operatives who find themselves in the crosshairs of American drones. It is not true for the vast majority of jihadists who fight under al Qaeda’s black flag. 

On January 16, for instance, Rida became the latest Yemeni town to fall to AQAP fighters. They are led by Tareq al-Dahab, brother-in-law of Anwar al-Awlaki. AQAP relinquished the town only after negotiating a favorable deal with local authorities, who agreed to free imprisoned al Qaeda fighters. Elsewhere in Yemen AQAP continues to hold territory. The killing of Awlaki hurt AQAP’s ability to hit the United States and other Western countries in the short run. But it has not stopped AQAP’s growing army from seizing and holding territory. These gains only increase AQAP’s lethality—and its ability to strike American targets in the long run. 

Across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, another al Qaeda affiliate, al Shabaab, remains a potent force; it controls a large part of central and south Somalia and has expanded its operations into Uganda, Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) remains a significant problem in North Africa. New terrorist groups that proclaim their affinity for al Qaeda, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, are popping up. There are reports that a new al Qaeda affiliate has set up shop in Egypt, too.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s allies continue to hold turf in northern Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. There is no evidence that the al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in northern Pakistan, where drones buzz overhead, will fall any time soon. Pakistani citizens are routinely ravaged by al Qaeda’s allies, including the Pakistani Taliban. Other Pakistani jihadist groups allied with al Qaeda continue to plot international attacks—especially Lashkar-e-Taiba, which shot up Mumbai in 2008. In Iraq, al Qaeda’s franchise still launches spectacular attacks, even if it can’t hold large swaths of territory as it once could. 

Drones are not enough to contain this menace. But President Obama has done away with COIN, the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine centered on building up allied local forces and good governance, for more limited counterterrorism measures such as drones and special forces raids. It apparently does not matter to the Obama administration that such tactics failed to stop al Qaeda’s armies from previously controlling parts of Iraq and continuing to control territory elsewhere. 

Al Qaeda is hardly invincible. It has been greatly weakened, in some ways, during the past decade. But al Qaeda and its allies can only be strengthened by America’s retreat from the lands of jihad. And they are not the only ones watching as President Obama takes his eye off the ball. Terror-sponsoring regimes like those in Iran and Pakistan have learned that there is no substantial price to be paid for spilling American blood. They’ve learned, too, that America’s commitment to fight its enemies is severely constrained by domestic political considerations. 

The Obama administration lauds its counterterrorism partnerships with friendly governments. Allies, indeed, are invaluable. But the Arab Spring has introduced uncertainty into some of these relationships. In Egypt, a government dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has replaced the regime of the friendly, if despicable, Hosni Mubarak. In Yemen, a duplicitous but sometimes helpful President Ali Abdullah Saleh has given way to chaos and a growing al Qaeda insurgency. In Libya, the gangster-terrorist Muammar Qaddafi, who also occasionally provided counterterrorism assistance, has fallen to a coalition that includes jihadists. We should not be sad to see the Mubaraks, Salehs, and Qaddafis go. But now that they are gone, we should be worried that the American government under President Obama will not seek to influence the course their nations take. 

We must end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama argues, to “focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.” The Defense Department tells us it is necessary to “rebalance” its assets “toward the Asia-Pacific region.” So to China and its neighbors President Obama looks—as the fires of jihad rage, barely abated.

Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio are senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editors of The Long War Journal.

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