Stick a Fork in al-Qaeda

A year after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, letters written by al-Qaeda’s former leader paint a picture of an organization that was a shadow of its former self — certainly not the terrorist group with global reach that was able to attack America on Sept. 11, 2001. Addressing the nation after signing a security agreement with the Afghan government, President Obama declared: “We devastated al-Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set — to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.” Or maybe it’s been reached and it’s time to put a fork in it because it’s done.

To begin, there is no al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan. Even the administration has admitted this — nearly a year ago. Last June, a senior administration official said that the United States hasn’t seen a terrorist threat from Afghanistan “for the past seven or eight years.” He also said, “There is no indication at all that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks outside of Afghan borders.” So if al-Qaeda is not in Afghanistan and is not a threat to the United States as it was on 9/11, what are we doing with some 90,000 U.S. soldiers (which make up the bulk of the almost 129,000 NATO-ISAF forces [.pdf]) still there?

To his credit, President Obama has put in place a plan to draw down U.S. troops over the next two years. But this is a case of the president wanting to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he wants to withdraw from Afghanistan — if for no other reason but it’s an increasingly unpopular war on the home front and it’s an election year. On the other hand, he wants to stay the course seemingly in a quixotic quest to create security (a euphemism for nation-building) and to prove to the world that we will not abandon Afghanistan (even though U.S. national security is not dependent on Afghan security). However, this means continuing to prop up a corrupt government in Kabul and continuing to occupy a Muslim country (remember that one of bin Laden’s original grievances was the presence of a few thousand U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia as a call for terrorism against America).

Not only is al-Qaeda not a threat to the United States in Afghanistan, but it’s not much of a threat to the United States period. Bin Laden’s desire to assassinate President Obama because “killing him automatically makes Biden take over the presidency. … Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will led the U.S. into a crisis” seems more like wishful thinking with a hint of desperation.

Moreover, bin Laden was concerned about all the various al-Qaeda offshoots (under the umbrella of the al-Qaeda name, but not under bin Laden’s direct control) because they were killing Muslims in Muslim countries and not focusing on America. He worried that “it would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end.” In other words, to the extent that al-Qaeda was (or is) a threat, it’s more of a local threat to Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq than a global threat to America. More than 10 years after 9/11, how ironic is that?

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.