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