During his counterterrorism speech on Thursday, President Obama defended the use of drones by saying the following:
To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, “We could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.”
It is true that the drone strikes have been effective in killing terrorists. So the president is right in that regard and deserves credit for the slaying of some senior al Qaeda and al Qaeda-affiliated operatives. However, drone strikes are only an effective tactic, not a strategy, and the enemy has adapted to this tactic.
Don’t take my word for it. Below is the full quote from the declassified bin Laden document President Obama cited. The president cited only the last two sentences (emphasis added), but the rest of the quote shows that al Qaeda maintains “reserves” outside of the drones’ line of fire. In other words, the full quote shows the limitations of the drone program. Here, bin Laden claims to speak for the entire community of Muslims (the Ummah), but of course al Qaeda does not speak for all Muslims.
The Ummah should put forward some, but enough, forces to fight America. The Ummah must keep some of its forces on reserve. This will be in the Ummah’s best interests. The Ummah will use the reserve in the future, but during the appropriate time.
In the meanwhile, we do not want to send the reserves to the front line, especially in areas where the enemy only uses air strikes to attack our forces. So, the reserves will not, for the most part, be effective in such conflicts. Basically, we could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives!
Therefore, the full quote actually supports a different argument – that al Qaeda’s “reserves” have been removed from the drones’ kill box. It is quite obvious that improvised explosive devices, car bombs, small arms and the like cannot takeout unmanned drones. So, al Qaeda has simply moved some of its forces elsewhere.
Other documents show that Osama bin Laden ordered some of his minions to relocate to Kunar, Nuristan and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Today, Kunar and Nuristan are al Qaeda safe havens. On the same page as the quote cited by President Obama, Osama bin Laden noted that his “Waziristani brothers” were “frankly exhausted” by the airstrikes. It is for this reason that “reserves” were moved elsewhere. Bin Laden writes:
It is known that they teach in military and war science that if a war breaks out between two countries, the two countries do not send all of their forces to the front line. Instead, they hold back some forces, especially forces with special training.
Several paragraphs later, in this same document cited by President Obama (Document 17 released to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center by the White House), we learn this (emphasis added):
We have plenty of time to view and examine the appropriate time to begin our jihad work against the apostate regimes in the region…We still have a powerful force which we can organize and prepare for deployment. The organization process and the preparation for deployment will need time.
President Obama trumpeted the “end” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home,” President Obama said. “The Afghan war is coming to an end.”
Now, here is what Osama bin Laden said about Iraq and Afghanistan in the same document cited by the President:
Our goal is to build our state, then spread God’s Call to the rest of the world. We can, God willing, accomplish this goal, as long as we stay put on the path of jihad.
We need to concentrate our jihad efforts in areas where the conditions are ideal for us to fight. Iraq and Afghanistan are two good examples. We do not have to rush to other areas of conflict, especially in areas which appear to have unfavorable jihad conditions.
So while al Qaeda’s strategy is to “concentrate” its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama’s goal is the opposite – to “end” America’s war in both.
It should be noted that we do not when this document was authored. And al Qaeda’s strategy continues to evolve, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.
But President Obama’s selective citation of this document, attributed to Osama bin Laden, highlights a broader problem. The president and his administration only see what they want to see in the fight against al Qaeda and affiliated groups.
Again, the administration should declassify and release nearly all of the bin Laden files. The one document cited by President Obama does not tell the whole story, nor do the other 16 released by the administration. Hundreds of thousands of documents and files were recovered in the raid that killed bin Laden.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.