Osama bin Laden’s killing was a great moment for America and for decent people around the world. But allowing the euphoria of that moment to drive us to irresponsible decisions in South Asia would be devastating to America’s interests and security. Al Qaeda has not yet been dismantled or defeated.
Osama bin Laden’s death has no implications for the number of American or international forces in Afghanistan, for their mission, or for the timeline for their reduction. George W. Bush sent forces into Afghanistan not to kill bin Laden, but to oust al Qaeda from its safe haven there, defeat that organization, and create political conditions that would preclude its return to Afghanistan. Barack Obama reaffirmed that mission in his December 2009 speech setting out the current strategy. He chose a counter-insurgency approach because a return of the Taliban regime to Afghanistan would allow al Qaeda to re-establish safe havens there, whether drawing on the historical friendliness between the two or the inability of the Taliban to prevent their return to the country. Furthermore, the protracted, virulent insurgency creates opportunities for al Qaeda-linked Pakistani proxies such as the Haqqani network to invigorate international terrorist groups and use them in the fight in Afghanistan. President Obama has been pursuing the right strategy, and the forces the United States and its international partners have committed to executing it are—just barely—adequate to achieve it.
The outcome of the war in Afghanistan hangs in the balance. American forces and their allies made dramatic gains last year, clearing the Taliban out of safe havens throughout southern Afghanistan, their heartland. Eastern Afghanistan, where al Qaeda-linked groups have a stronger presence, has also seen considerable progress. Contrary to some media reporting, neither al Qaeda nor Lashkar-e-Taiba has established safe havens in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from isolated river valleys in Kunar Province. In fact, a series of offensive operations in the valleys and the province has inflicted great harm on elements of those organizations. Kunar’s capital, Asad-abad, is a growing and increasingly thriving town, as we saw on a recent visit. And Afghan Army troops have remained in some of the outposts from which U.S. forces withdrew, demonstrating their determination to control their own territory.
Although al Qaeda has not reestablished sanctuaries in Afghanistan, it has not been for lack of trying. U.S. forces only recently killed a senior Afghan al Qaeda official in Kunar, and there is ample evidence that al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, among other Islamist groups, would welcome the opportunity to set themselves up in a lawless Afghanistan once again. The need to help Afghans establish a state that can prevent the reemergence of terrorist sanctuaries remains after bin Laden’s death, and the current strategy, adequately resourced, is the only way to achieve that goal. Calling for accelerating the withdrawal is tantamount to declaring that Afghanistan has become irrelevant with bin Laden’s death and that succeeding there is no longer important for America’s security.
Consequently, there is a great deal of fighting ahead. Continued military engagements are needed to make precarious improvements enduring and handle other challenges. The enemy will work hard this year to retake its lost sanctuaries in the south, to conduct spectacular attacks in Kabul and elsewhere, and to strengthen its remaining safe havens in the east. Our forces will try to hold and expand security gains in the south and make progress in the east, but conditions are not set for any major reductions in those forces.
If there is cause for cautious optimism in Afghanistan, there are ample grounds for pessimism on the other fronts in the struggle with militant Islamism. Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan has once again concentrated the minds of Americans on the fact that Pakistan’s leadership has yet to come to consensus about the need to combat and defeat militant Islamist groups within Pakistan’s borders. Nor has the United States developed any real strategy for addressing this challenge. We can hardly expand the campaign of targeted strikes further, particularly after the recent raid deep into Pakistani territory. And the drone campaign will not defeat the virulent terrorist groups it is attacking. Overreacting to suspicions of Pakistani complicity in bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad by suspending all aid or military ties or by taking other drastic actions would make it much harder, not easier, to operate against the terrorists who threaten us.
On the contrary, withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and cutting all aid to Pakistan would merely reinforce two of the most prevalent conspiracy theories in South Asia—that the United States will always abandon those who rely on it, and that we were only there to get bin Laden anyway. We should, instead, build on the symbolic victory of killing bin Laden by following through with the president’s strategy to dismantle and defeat the militant Islamist groups supported as proxies by some in the Pakistani security apparatus. Only by defeating those proxies can we reasonably hope to compel Pakistan to reevaluate its security interests and develop a policy to oppose and suppress all militant Islamists operating within its borders.
But al Qaeda has not confined itself to its sanctuaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda thrives in political weakness and has been in the process of expanding around the globe. The core al Qaeda group of which bin Laden was the head (often referred to as Al Qaeda Central) has long had at best only a tenuous control over the operations of its dispersed franchises. That control rested partly on resources Al Qaeda Central directed, partly on the value of its recognition of a particular group as worthy of the al Qaeda brand, but largely on the symbolic importance of the charismatic bin Laden. Bin Laden’s likely successor, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, is far less charismatic. His accession to the leadership role could prompt a competition between Al Qaeda Central and its franchises over which group really is at the center of the movement. Such competitions, unfortunately, unfold in the form of spectacular attacks, particularly those conducted on the territory of Western states.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in Yemen, is the most active and perhaps the most dangerous al Qaeda franchise in the world. The Arab Spring has reached Yemen with a vengeance—massive protests have led to the defection of elements of the Yemeni military, with the result that armed forces are concentrating for potential civil war in and around the capital and elsewhere in the country. Attempts to broker a negotiated departure for Yemen’s hated president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have broken down. It is far from clear that any such agreement would keep the peace there for very long in any case. Already Saleh has brought back to his capital some of the elite, U.S.-trained Special Forces units supposedly dedicated to the fight against AQAP. As the work of Katherine Zimmerman at AEI’s Critical Threats Project has shown, almost any likely scenario going forward will give AQAP more freedom to train, plan, stage, and conduct attacks from increasingly lawless tribal areas in which it has considerable local support. The combination of Yemen’s slide toward state failure and bin Laden’s death could create a tremendous opportunity for AQAP. His death may also lead to an increase in AQAP’s efforts to conduct spectacular attacks against the United States and the West.
Another al Qaeda affiliate already has control over large portions of a state: Al Shabab is the de facto government of much of southern Somalia outside of Mogadishu. It has not been formally recognized as an al Qaeda franchise, but its ties with AQAP are long and deep, and its ideology closely mirrors al Qaeda’s. Shabab is kept from controlling all of southern and central Somalia only by the presence of peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, who have been barely able to hold parts of the capital. Shabab is unlikely to suffer at all from bin Laden’s death, but it may see a chance—or feel the need—to expand the reach of its strikes in sympathetic retaliation.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, fortunately, remains relatively ineffective, despite efforts to revive itself as American forces withdraw. But the continued presence even of American military trainers in Iraq after the end of this year remains in doubt, and it is not clear that the Iraqi military on its own will be able to maintain the necessary degree of pressure on that al Qaeda franchise. If the complete withdrawal of American forces now underway leads to the explosion of ethnic conflict between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, as some analysts fear, Al Qaeda in Iraq could find fertile ground to reestablish itself, undoing the progress we have made since 2006.
A protracted stalemate in Libya could also set conditions for al Qaeda groups to pose again as the only reliable allies of eastern fighters feeling abandoned by the United States and the West. Although the current Libyan resistance leadership is not penetrated by al Qaeda or supportive of that organization or its ideology, eastern Libya is the area that has produced the most al Qaeda fighters in that country and that has the conditions most conducive to the injection of al Qaeda’s ideas and leaders.
More remote scenarios could see the rise of al Qaeda franchises or fellow travelers in Egypt, elsewhere in North Africa, the Levant, or Equatorial Africa, but there is no need to belabor the point. The struggle with al Qaeda, to say nothing of the larger struggle against militant Islamism generally, is far from over. Clear and present dangers are, in fact, emerging. It can be tempting to argue that these threats merely show the wisdom of withdrawing from Afghanistan, which is not now a center of al Qaeda activity, to focus on more pressing problems elsewhere. We must resist that temptation. Our struggle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will not be helped by our giving its affiliates and allies free rein in Afghanistan and returning Taliban leader Mullah Omar, whom all al Qaeda affiliates recognize as “the leader of the faithful,” to a position of power.
Success in Afghanistan and Iraq remains vital. American withdrawal from either commitment will be taken throughout the Islamist community as a sign of weakness and indecision. But success in those two thea-ters is not enough. This moment in the war with militant Islamism is the time to take stock of our global strategy and to develop coherent approaches to the dangers already visible on the horizon. No one wants to invade Yemen, Somalia, Libya, or any other country. But the strategies we have been relying on in Libya and Yemen are failing, and we have never had a strategy for Somalia. The United States must seek every possible way of averting the dangers of stalemate, state collapse, and the triumph of al Qaeda groups, preferably without deploying more of our own forces.
It may be that, in the end, America simply cannot be secure if terrorist groups with international ambitions have uncontested control over sanctuaries and resources. But the U.S. government has never yet focused its attention fully on these challenges, let alone focused resources on them. It is past time to do so. Those sincerely concerned with America’s security should be demanding that kind of commitment and should reject utterly the notion that bin Laden’s death will allow us to declare “mission accomplished” and withdraw from the Middle East, and the world.
Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and director of its Critical Threats Project. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.