Obama's Confusing Al Qaeda Strategy

Obama's Confusing Al Qaeda Strategy

"The American public deserves to know whether the administration believes core Al Qaeda has been defeated or not."


Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been defeated—or so President Obama seems to think.

On May 27, the president announced that a total of 9,800 U.S. military personnel would remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year. He also stated that this force would be reduced by half during the following year, and would be cut again by the end of 2016 to a few hundred troops operating from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.


This announcement was immediately met with criticism from Republicans, but also from a host of Afghanistan watchers and former U.S. officials from the Obama administration. Generally, these commentators agreed with the force levels the president proposed for 2015, but were critical of the pace of their removal. Lost in these criticisms, however, is an important discussion about what those 9,800 troops will be doing in Afghanistan, and more importantly, to what end. In his speech, the president clearly articulated two missions for those troops: “training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda.” He further stated three goals for the continued U.S. presence there: “disrupting threats posed by Al Qaeda; supporting Afghan security forces; and giving the Afghan people the opportunity to succeed as they stand on their own.” The first of these goals is the most critical to U.S. national security, and therefore worth examining more closely.

In early 2009, the White House released a White Paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which stated that the core goal of the U.S. in these countries was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan” (later in the same document the word “destroy” was used in place of “defeat”). Clearly, this language is significantly stronger when it comes to our desired end state for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan (the so-called “core Al Qaeda”) than that used by the president recently. So what does this shift in language mean? There are three possibilities.

First, it is possible the president simply misspoke last week when he characterized our goals against core Al Qaeda; that they have not actually changed since the 2009 White Paper. This is essentially what a National Security Council spokesperson recently stated was the case. However, it seems far-fetched that the White House, in communicating a major policy decision concerning the future of the longest war in American history, would not have chosen its words with extreme care.

A second possibility is that the administration has simply dropped its goal of defeating core Al Qaeda. This again seems unlikely, given that we have been aiming to do so for well over a decade and there has been no talk by the administration or others of a desire to abandon the defeat of Al Qaeda as a central U.S. national-security interest. Indeed, in the president’s speech at West Point on May 28, he reiterated that “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” Clearly, the administration has not given up the fight against Al Qaeda.

The third possibility is that the administration has concluded that core Al Qaeda has, in effect, been defeated—and that therefore, the mission for our troops in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) going forward is to keep the remnants of core Al Qaeda “disrupted.” Looking back on the president’s speeches over the past year, this appears to be the most likely explanation. In a speech specifically focused on terrorism that he delivered just over a year ago, the president stated:

Today, the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.

The president went further with this theme in his recent speech at West Point, saying “today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized Al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate.” These statements, taken together, strongly imply that the administration has concluded the defeat of core Al Qaeda and has shifted the purpose of our counterterrorism mission to one of continued disruption.

This discussion may seem one of semantics, but it is important for three reasons.

First, if the administration believes that core Al Qaeda has in fact been defeated, it should say so explicitly. Such a defeat represents a major strategic accomplishment—and one that should be made clear to the American public. While the president implies this position in his speeches, statements to the effect that core Al Qaeda is no longer a primary threat are less transparent to the average American, and certainly carry less weight, than if the president were to state that core Al Qaeda has been defeated.

Second, it implies that the administration will accept vestiges of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so long as they are unable to attack the U.S. homeland and our interests abroad. If this is the case, this too needs to be communicated to the public.

Third, it helps explain why the president decided to draw down the remaining 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan within two years. Since narrower strategic goals generally require fewer resources, the administration’s logic is presumably that fewer resources are required to continue disrupting core Al Qaeda than were required to defeat it (and that those resources could be entirely Afghan come 2017). But again, this logic was implied in the president’s announcement, not made explicit.

Understanding these points is critical to understanding and evaluating our future role in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the broader shift in counterterrorism strategy the president outlined in his West Point speech. But explicitly communicating and justifying these points to the U.S. public will be critical for the administration to stem the tide of criticism created by its recent announcement on Afghanistan. While the president may be inclined to avoid the possibility of his own “Mission Accomplished” moment, the American public deserves to know whether the administration believes core Al Qaeda has been defeated or not.

Jonathan Schroden is the Director of the CNA Corporation’s Center for Stability and Development and led CNA’s independent assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of CNA or the Department of the Navy.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Army/CC by 2.0