Six months ago, President Obama told the American people that the end of the U.S. war against al-Qaida was approaching. Three months later, a threat from al-Qaida’s Yemen branch shuttered 18 U.S. diplomatic missions across much of the Muslim world. Just last month, the administration called al-Qaida’s Iraq and Syria chapter “a transnational threat network.”
So the question presents itself: Was the president wrong? The answer depends on the meaning of al-Qaida — and on the meaning of war.
In both cases, new definitions lead to new strategies. They may rely less on ground forces and targeted killings from drones, though neither can be abandoned, and more on diplomacy, intelligence and other international forces. They will require more involvement from Congress.
The U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011 and has ruled out sending any back. U.S. troops in Afghanistan are scheduled to leave by the end of next year. The Afghanistan withdrawal raises concerns that al-Qaida’s core group, which was reduced to ineffectiveness by U.S. drone strikes and appears to be unmolested by Pakistani authorities, may revive. That’s reason enough for the U.S. and Afghanistan to agree on terms that would allow the U.S. to leave behind a significant military contingent after 2014 and retain the ability to launch drones from Afghanistan.
The lack of such an agreement with Iraq hampers the U.S. ability to help President Nouri al-Maliki cope with al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria, which has played a major role in sectarian violence in Iraq that has killed 7,000 people this year.
The group has not demonstrated the ability to strike beyond the region. But that could change — especially if, together with the other al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, it liberates a portion of Syria and turns it into a base for exporting jihad. Already, hundreds of foreign jihadis from Europe, Asia and North Africa have been drawn to Syria to fight for al-Qaida and may pose threats when they return home.
The most dangerous al-Qaida presence to the U.S. remains the one in Yemen: al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It is the only part of the network apart from the core known to have directed attacks against the U.S. homeland: its foiled plots to bomb U.S.-bound airliners in 2009 and 2010.
With backing from the U.S. military, Yemeni forces regained control of AQAP’s southern strongholds in June 2012. Still, the group remains strong, and in August the U.S. launched eight drone strikes in Yemen — four times as many as usual since Obama announced his restrictions on targeted killings.
Those restrictions are a start to rewriting the rules of the new war. But they don’t go far enough.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations have used the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress just after the Sept. 11 attacks as a basis for fighting al-Qaida’s associated forces. With the battle no longer focused on the al-Qaida core and its Taliban protectors, this original authorization has outlived its usefulness. The president and Congress are overdue for discussions to refine the authorization for war.