Shadow Government

Evaluating the war with al Qaeda

Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda's core leadership in the near future. Leon Panetta was even more forthright in remarks to reporters a month later, arguing that the U.S. was within reach of "strategically defeating al Qaeda," that the group was "on the run," and that killing 10-20 key leaders would lead to its defeat. Two weeks ago DNI James Clapper reiterated the administration's view in his testimony before Congress that core al Qaeda was "diminishing in operational importance," that the movement could soon fragment, and that this would make the core largely of symbolic significance.

It is rather surprising, given this optimistic appraisal, that the second half of Clapper's testimony on terrorism -- as well as the next few lines of Brennan's speech -- detail the resilience and growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates -- the official designation for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (AQIM). Both statements warn that these groups are not just maintaining their activities, but are actually expanding in size and influence while now seeking to attack the U.S. How can the strategic defeat of al Qaeda be at hand if its affiliates are surging?

The apparent contradiction within these two statements suggests that there might be inconsistencies in how the U.S. assesses progress in the war against al Qaeda. Over the next few days I'll attempt to tease out these inconsistencies and provide some clarity on the four interrelated questions that the U.S. must answer if we want to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda: How do we define al Qaeda; what does al Qaeda want to achieve (i.e. what are its objectives); how well do we think al Qaeda is doing at achieving these objectives; and finally how well do we think we're doing at stopping al Qaeda.

Let's start with the most fundamental of these questions: What is al Qaeda? It might seem strange that more than ten years after 9-11 we are still struggling to answer this question, but understanding this enemy has never been an easy task. In their official remarks, both Brennan and Clapper provide the administration's answer: Al Qaeda is cleanly divided into a core that has as its key objective attacking the U.S., affiliates that have shown interest in attacking us but generally focus on local concerns, and "adherents" -- individuals who have been inspired by al Qaeda's ideology, but have no organizational connection to the core. Given this description, if asked to choose between describing al Qaeda as a movement that inspires and motivates or an organization that directs, commands, and controls a global war, I believe that the administration would answer "movement."

This seems like a plausible answer, and it has been used to guide successful U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, but it leaves out a necessary piece of the puzzle: it ignores how al Qaeda defines itself. In multiple statements, al Qaeda's leaders have consistently asserted that their group as an organization with a fully articulated bureaucracy and administrative committees, the vanguard or "High Command," of a global jihad against the Crusaders and Jews (and their allies). Another, more detailed, explication of their views is presented in a 2009 interview with Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the now dead "General Manager" for al Qaeda. Abu al-Yazid was asked how large al Qaeda was, and he used the opportunity to describe three tiers within the organization: the leadership and those who have sworn an oath of loyalty to the leaders (what we call the core); multiple groups and individuals that joined directly with the command to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and what he calls "branches," that al Qaeda has opened in "many Muslim countries."

Abu al-Yazid also claimed that the leadership had direct command and control over all these parts of its organization, despite the difficulties posed by distance and wartime conditions, ordering, for example, the branches to carry out attacks against the U.S. This was not just boasting. At the time of the interview, it was the official position of the U.S. government that AQAP, AQIM, and other affiliates were focused on local concerns and would never attempt to attack the homeland. Six months after Abu al-Yazid made this assertion, an AQAP member tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a U.S. flight into Detroit, and since then a series of plots have been disrupted involving various affiliates.

It's now possible to understand, at least partially, the apparent contradiction between the two parts of Brennan and Clapper's statements: the U.S. has attempted to disaggregate the "high command" from the troops that they claim to be commanding. Our current CT (counter-terrorism) strategy targets the high command (the Core), and thus the claim that "al Qaeda" is almost defeated, while leaving the forces in the field (the "affiliates") relatively untouched. A rough analogy to current U.S. strategy -- although without the nation-state structures to provide a sturdy backbone -- would be if in a future war, an enemy targeted the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Combatant Commanders in an attempt to decapitate U.S. forces in the field, but was unable to take on U.S. troops directly.

Of course it is one thing for al Qaeda to claim command and control over all these forces, and quite another thing to actually exert it. Measuring this will require a further investigation of al Qaeda's objectives and the group's ability to achieve these objectives.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Crying wolf

In the course of Congressional testimony this week supporting the Obama administration's $525 billion defense spending request for FY 2013, the Pentagon leadership was dire about the consequences of any further cuts to defense. In particular, Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey are seeking to prevent the law going into effect that would require an additional $500 billion to be cut across the coming decade.

The Pentagon leadership professes itself fine with this year's cuts. Panetta has said "the United States military will remain capable across the spectrum. We will continue to conduct a complex set of missions ranging from counterterrorism, ranging from countering weapons of mass destruction, to maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. We will be fully prepared to protect our interests, defend our homeland and support civil authorities." General Dempsey fully endorsed the new guidance. Yet they both insisted no further cuts were possible without grave damage to our national security.

In seeking to persuade members of Congress to repudiate the 2011 Budget Control Act that established the topline spending levels, Panetta's tactic was to shame: "We have made no plans for sequester because it's a nutty formula, and it's goofy to begin with, and it's not something, frankly, that anybody who is responsible ought to put into effect." To be clear, he is declining to comply with the law.

Dempsey's tactic was to cry wolf: he said that if the sequestration cuts went into effect, "we would not any longer be a global power." This is nonsense. The Budget Control Act necessitates a 15 percent cut to DOD spending across ten years, in a budget that has doubled in the past decade. A budget that constitutes 42 percent of the entire world's defense spending, in a world in which all but two or three of the other big spenders are friends and allies likely to support our endeavors. A budget that after sequestration takes effect will hover at 2004 spending levels -- and the year 2004 was a profligate one in defense spending.

The United States has eleven aircraft carrier battle groups; no other country in the world sails more than one. We have three times as many modern battle tanks, four times the number of fourth-generation tactical aircraft (and are already fielding the fifth generation), more than three times as many naval cruisers and destroyers, 19 times as many tanker aircraft and 48 times as many unmanned aerial vehicles as any other country. The additional public investment since 2001 has also allowed the U.S. military to develop and use cutting-edge equipment such as drones, better body and vehicle armor and more precise bombs. We have an operational and technological edge that is literally pricing our allies out of participation, and that leaves our adversaries incapable of winning so long as we are willing to pursue our objectives.

Secretary Panetta is right that our national interest would be best served by the president submitting a budget that reforms entitlements to put our country on a sustainable spending path. The president has not done that. Secretary Panetta might perhaps take his concern about the devastating effects of sequestration to the president, who has committed to veto any relief for DOD from the Budget Control Act.

But that General Dempsey would project American power as so fragile -- at a time when our strength is being tested on several fronts -- is incredibly injudicious. If he cannot maintain America's ability to operate military forces throughout the world on an annual budget equivalent to our spending in 2004, he does not deserve to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Mullen was right: Our military has lost the ability to budget. We have a whole generation of military leaders with no experience operating cost-effectively. This, too, is a serious deficiency in our defense.

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