Al Qaeda on the Rise

Just when you thought it was safe to leave Iraq, al Qaeda is back--with a vengeance.

According to the New York Times, al Qaeda operatives are undoing the Anbar Awakening, which secured the American surge back in 2008. Under a hailstorm of brutal Islamicist violence, the Sunni sheiks living there are now abandoning their pro-American stance and going back to the terrorists.

Meanwhile, we learn that Osama bin Laden, far from cowering in a cave with goats as his only friends, is holding court in northwest Pakistan and even supervising operations from his base--while other al Qaeda operatives stream back into Afghanistan for new attacks. That puts still more pressure on a government that's on the verge of tossing in the towel to al Qaeda's old ally, the Taliban.

In short, the work of almost a decade of US counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations--at a cost of thousands of US lives plus uncounted Pakistani, Afghan and Iraqi soldiers and civilians--is coming unraveled. We're staring at the possibility of the entire region becoming a permanent al Qaeda base.

How ironic that this comes under President Obama--who during the presidential campaign excoriated George W. Bush for neglecting al Qaeda in order to invade Iraq.

The reason is simple. This president has made it clear that his most urgent priority isn't victory or even regional stability, but getting every American out of there--so that he'll be able to say at the 2012 Democratic Convention, "I brought our troops home."

In the process, he'll have left a disaster that will make post-Vietnam Southeast Asia--boat people, "killing fields" genocide and all--look like "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," because Pakistan's nuclear weapons are at stake.

The administration's missteps leading to this great unraveling aren't difficult to follow. They go back at least to Obama's bizarre comment during the 2008 campaign that he could see sending US troops into Pakistan even without Pakistan's approval. Forgotten now, his words then set off an international outcry--and sent a clear signal that he neither understood the region nor the issues involved there, nor cared about them.

Then came the preemptory decision last year to speed up the withdrawal from Iraq, regardless of conditions there--and then Obama's long, agonizing dither last fall over committing more troops to Afghanistan.

Right now, Karzai seems to put more trust in his negotiations with the Taliban than in his dealings with Washington--even as our young men and women are dying every day trying to save his country.

Foes as well as friends realized it meant he wasn't looking for a winning strategy but a way to make the problem go away. That perception was confirmed by his reliance on remote-control Predator drones to kill an enemy he doesn't want to confront or even acknowledge exists.

Now we have a Pakistan strategy that wants to force that country's government to wage war on al Qaeda, Taliban and other foreign terrorist bases in its remote Northwest Frontier Province on the Afghan border--a war in which the Pakistan government will see little real gain if it wins and a national catastrophe if it loses (as it almost did a year ago).

Meanwhile, our ham-handed handling of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has made him wonder: With friends like the Americans, who needs enemies?--especially if US troops are gone by next summer. Right now, Karzai seems to put more trust in his negotiations with the Taliban than in his dealings with Washington--even as our young men and women are dying every day trying to save his country.

Perhaps Karzai, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and the Anbar sheiks are being weak and shortsighted. But they're dealing with a president who constantly sends signals of being just that. They're also the ones (along with their families) who'll pay the hideous price if they're on the wrong side when US policy in this region fails, as it plainly seems to be doing.

Yet this isn't the first time we've been at this fork in the road. The question is whether the American people will rise to this challenge as they did in Iraq in 2006. Then, they backed a strategy to win, not run, in large part because they knew Bush would stay the course and understood the sacrifice he was asking. It's not clear that Obama does.

Meanwhile, winning is only going to get harder. Bin Laden, al Qaeda and their allies have studied America's success in Iraq and adjusted their strategies across the region accordingly. They're confident that, before long, Obama will hand over all three countries to them--along with Pakistan's nukes.

Can anyone say, looking at this administration, that they're playing a long shot?

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army/Petty Officer 3rd Class Shawn Hussong

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About the Author


  • Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008), the Mountbatten Prize–nominated To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005), the New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and many articles on foreign and military policy. At AEI, Dr. Herman authored a new book that traces the mobilization of American industry, technology, and material production over the course of World War II.
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