Ten years after 9/11, the United States is safer. Al-Qaeda has been weakened—“an organization in distress” as counterterrorism chief John Brennan recently assessed. Many of its leaders have been killed or captured. The terrorist network is under continuous pressure due to the intelligence and military operations of the United States and its allies—particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Limiting opportunities for recruitment, training and planning in these two countries has increased the cost and difficulty of launching successful attacks against the United States.
For a period after our intervention in Iraq, al-Qaeda benefited from the unpopularity of our actions in many parts of the Arab and Islamic world. The group found a home among Sunni Arabs who initially opposed the new order in Iraq, and al-Qaeda decided to make Iraq the center of its struggle against the United States. The decision backfired. Al-Qaeda operatives—especially the foreign fighters—overreached, mistreating Iraqi Sunnis in its efforts to incite a “civil war within Islam” between the country’s Shiites and Sunnis. U.S. and Iraqi leaders responded effectively to the growing rift between al-Qaeda and Iraqi Sunnis, and proactive diplomacy persuaded key Sunni groups to participate in the political process and become stakeholders in Iraq’s democracy. On the military front, the coalition and its increasingly capable Iraqi partners teamed up with local Sunni forces to weaken al-Qaeda in Iraq dramatically.
As al-Qaeda suffered setbacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, its popularity across the region declined. Despite Washington’s inability to win broad regional support for its policies, support for al-Qaeda in the greater Middle East has fallen considerably. The Arab Spring could consolidate this shift at the ideological level. If the ongoing tumult results in liberal societies responsive to the demands of their polities, al-Qaeda will have a harder time surviving without a political environment conducive to extremism.
Safer, however, does not mean that we are safe. One consequence of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is that much of the al-Qaeda threat has shifted to Pakistan. We have had significant successes there—some with and some without Pakistani cooperation—but confronting what remains of al-Qaeda in Pakistan is complicated. The United States has limited freedom of action and is dependent in many ways on Pakistani security forces. Islamabad’s arrest of several key Al-Qaeda leaders in recent days is positive, but its overall cooperation remains mixed. Al-Qaeda’s leadership still operates in Pakistan, and it maintains strategic and operational ties with key insurgent groups such as the extremists among the Taliban and Haqqani network, which in turn have very close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). And though it is less of a threat in Iraq, al-Qaeda remains active. So long as it retains the ability to launch regular attacks in Baghdad and surrounding areas, the organization could prove to be a destabilizing force in the country.
Overall, the future of al-Qaeda depends on five factors:
First, U.S. counterterrorism efforts. American operations around the world have limited the space in which al-Qaeda can plot new attacks. Through improved defenses, better interdiction efforts, and bolstered intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, the United States has hardened itself against new attacks even as the overall number of attempts to hit the country has remained high. The challenge, though, is that al-Qaeda has evolved and adapted as well. The network is shifting to virtual attacks waged by self-starting groups. At the same time, the imperative of old capabilities has not diminished. Al-Qaeda continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction while seeking to regain and expand physical sanctuaries.
Second, the war in Afghanistan. The surge has made important security gains in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But the Taliban remains a threat. Despite progress on many fronts, institutional weakness and corruption within the Afghan government feed the insurgency. Afghan security forces are growing in capability but still rely heavily on the U.S. presence. If the United States draws down precipitously, the Haqqani network and extremist Taliban will fill the vacuum and again provide safe haven for al-Qaeda. If the Taliban-Haqqani network succeeds in taking over a significant part of Afghanistan or in inciting a new Afghan civil war, safe havens for al-Qaeda will expand, and the threat to the U.S. homeland will increase. On the other hand, if Afghanistan is successful it will be a major setback for extremists and terrorists.
Third, relations with Pakistan. Pakistan’s security forces are still playing a double game of providing some tactical support to the United States while fueling the insurgency in Afghanistan. There are three main reasons: Pakistani military leaders remain wedded to a strategy of zero-sum competition with India; the military and intelligence services of Pakistan wield disproportionate influence over the government of Pakistan and its more moderate, albeit corrupt, civilian leadership; and Pakistan is pursuing broader regional interests. It remains unclear whether Islamabad is simply hedging against Indian influence and a potential American withdrawal from Afghanistan, or if it seeks to create an expanding empire through Central and South Asia. The question is whether Pakistani civilian leaders and the United States will be able to shift Pakistani policy and politics in a more stabilizing direction, facilitate an Indo-Pakistani rapprochement and negotiate an Afghan-Pakistani settlement.
Fourth, the future of Iraq. The United States has succeeded in creating a basic political compact and reasonably stable democratic institutions in Iraq. Yet the Iraqi government remains plagued by political stalemate and sectarian agendas. Tehran continues to wield extensive influence over Iraqi politics. These factors account in part for the recent Iraqi decision not to request an adequate long-term U.S. presence in the country. From the point of view of countering al-Qaeda, if the United States leaves now, before Iraq reaches a sustainable level of security and sociopolitical cohesiveness, the prospect of sectarian warfare will increase, thereby providing openings for al-Qaeda. Given Iraq’s geopolitical weight, what happens in Iraq will have a shaping role in the broader Middle East.
Fifth, the Arab Spring. The unrest in the greater Middle East appears to be the consequence of a revolutionary gap between moribund regimes and restive populations. It is an encouraging prospect. Anti-Americanism does not seem to be a principle motivating factor for the youth-led revolts. But the Arab Spring could evolve in ways that benefit al-Qaeda. So far it has been secular dictatorships broadly aligned against al-Qaeda that have proven most vulnerable to internal upheaval. One threat is that Islamist parties with greater ideological and strategic sympathies to al-Qaeda will usurp the revolutions. Perhaps even more dangerous is the risk of chaos and instability creating opportunities for al Qaeda.
The United States may be safer. Safer, however, does not mean that we are safe. Al-Qaeda has suffered many setbacks, but from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arab Spring and Iraq, nothing is set in stone.