As the Obama administration prepares to announce a specific number for the first round of promised troop reductions in Afghanistan, starting in July, U.S. officials are talking up the idea that al-Qaeda proper is broken. Listen very carefully.
Pronouncements that al-Qaeda has been diminished in Afghanistan are meant to support the message that the mission there has been largely accomplished and that it’s safe to start leaving. But whatever the merits of pulling out forces, the evidence of al-Qaeda’s weakening mustn’t be used to minimize the overall threat from Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda’s brand of terrorism remains a serious global threat that requires vigilance.
Yes, al-Qaeda, the organization, has been weakened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, notably by U.S.-led NATO actions. And yes, the jihadist movement has lost many of its star players. But al-Qaeda long ago metastasized into multiple jihadist groups beyond that region. They might not have the ability to organize spectacular acts of destruction, but they can cause mayhem.
In one sense, the danger posed by jihadists is growing. The turmoil in the Middle East presents them with enormous opportunities. Faced with domestic unrest, government security agencies are more focused on other matters, from suppressing dissent in Bahrain to running the government in Egypt, than on counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S.
Broken Down Security
In many locales, security has broken down altogether. Amid the civil war in Yemen, Islamic militants took control of the southern town of Zinjibar. In some places, guns are everywhere. Think of Libya. Be certain that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, will be casting about in the Muslim world for new territory.
This is not to say that the future is completely bleak. Jihad’s appeal remains largely rooted in the frustration of ordinary people with a lack of control over their lives, a paucity of basic freedoms and an inability to scrape out a decent living. Jihad provides a convenient surrogate enemy in the distant West against which to act out. Democratic reform in the Arab world would deprive jihadists of the desperation they need to win recruits and supporters.
How the U.S. can support such reform is the subject for another day. In the meantime, it is essential that Americans remain mindful of a crucial fact: Neither our hard-won victories over jihadists in Afghanistan, nor our desire to extricate ourselves from a conflict that has cost us dearly can obscure the hard truth that the long fight against Islamic terrorism is far from over.
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