Leon Panetta, newly installed Secretary of Defense, proclaimed in Kabul on Saturday that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.” He did not explain how Washington defines “Al Qaeda” today. Nor did he specify what is meant by “defeat.”
Those are critical omissions. Without greater precision we are not in a position to assess the significance of the statement or to estimate the likelihood of success in meeting the American objective. It was simpler in the wake of 9/11. Then it was thought that Al Qaeda was a unitary organization, hierarchically structured and with clear command and control. In other words, sort of like Goldman Sachs. That is certainly not the case nowadays.
Remnants of “classic Al Qaeda” haunt the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leadership is fragmented, its foot soldiers scattered. Al Qaeda today is at best a loose holding company; more likely, little more than a franchise operation. Moreover, its franchise units seem to have limited operational capability.
Secretary Panetta made specific reference to US-born Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and unnamed members of al-Saba in Somalia. The latter group has a Somalian agenda and none of its leaders have been involved in attacks on American interests for thirteen years. It has no known capability to do anything on American territory. Al-Awlaki is the supposed instigator of two failed airline plots most noteworthy for their amateurishness.
What to make of this picture? Most striking is that the United States does not seem to be in danger of serious Al Qaeda directed terrorist acts on its homeland for the foreseeable future.
There is almost no likelihood of another 9/11 attempt. Second, inchoate groups of activists with some potential to develop over time an approximation of a dangerous capability can be found in an number of places -- including Hamburg and other European cities. So why concentrate a huge effort in AfPak that drains hundreds of billions of dollars from the US Treasury, inflicts casualties on thousands of Americans, ravages the Afghan countryside and undercuts America’s standing in the world?
The answer is inertia – intellectual, psychological, organizational and political. Change is a forlorn hope as the Obama people continue the tradition of at once evoking a generation long war on terror and trumpeting their stellar successes.
(Professor Michael Brenner teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com)