Shadow Government

Al Qaeda's resurgence

The murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on September 11 has created a growing political backlash in the United States, but there are three other reasons that this attack is significant. First, an al Qaeda unit successfully assaulted American soil for the first time since 9/11. Second, we were -- once again  -- caught by surprise, and third, the attacks show that al Qaeda is not just alive and kicking (as I mentioned in my previous post), but that our current strategy for dealing with the group is failing.

While various plots have been attempted by al Qaeda and individuals or cells associated with the group, the sacking of the Benghazi consulate was the first successful attack that can be definitively tied to the organization. Excellent work by Thomas Joscelyn suggests that the attack on the consulate was just one of four separate assaults on embassies carried out by al Qaeda that day. This simultaneity is, by the way, one reason that I immediately suspected -- and wrote about - al Qaeda involvement in the raids, since this is as much a hallmark of al Qaeda operations as, for instance, the use of suicide bombers in Muslim-majority countries and the targeting of international organizations.

Just as worrisome for future events is the fact that the United States was caught off-guard, yet again, by this massive and sophisticated operation. I would argue that there are four reasons for this failure: a widely accepted narrative, a false view, the successes of the targeted attrition program, and assumptions about the war in Libya. For the past 18 months there has been a building narrative among both the expert community and this administration that, with the death of Bin Ladin, al Qaeda is nearly finished and that there is nothing left but a small group of "dead-enders," known as the "core," that need to be dealt with. Al Qaeda, in the narrative, is so weakened that it can barely stay alive, let alone carry out successful and complex attacks like that in Benghazi.

This narrative is based on a false view of al Qaeda: that the "core" is a small terrorist group whose main objective is attacking the United States, that the affiliates have primarily local concerns, that there is little command and control between the "core" and the affiliates, and that, therefore, the United States must only kill off the central leadership to be safe. I responded to this view of al Qaeda in several earlier posts, arguing that the core and affiliates are intimately connected, that the main objective of al Qaeda is taking over the Muslim-majority world, and that the organization is, in fact, attempting to create and lead a global insurgency. If this is all true, then al Qaeda is nowhere near defeat, and is, in fact, doing far better today than at any time in its existence.

The successes of counterterrorism czar John Brennan's targeting program played into both the narrative and the current accepted view of al Qaeda by giving the impression of progress in the war with al Qaeda. As each member of the leadership was killed -- most especially Bin Laden, but many others as well -- experts and administration officials proclaimed that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The belief that the United States was making progress against al Qaeda (along with the notion that the affiliates have mainly local concerns) created a false sense of security in many places, including Libya.

Finally, and most controversially, I believe that this administration's incorrect reading of the war in Libya worked with the narrative and analytical issues to create the preconditions for the United States to be caught by surprise in Benghazi. Unlike the war in Iraq, the United States managed to topple the Libyan dictator without putting American lives in danger and without exacerbating local tensions through the presence of our troops. The result should have been less violence, no insurgency, and no organized al Qaeda group in Libya. The continued, and even strengthening, violence in places like Benghazi -- along with a strong al Qaeda presence -- was unexpected and therefore unplanned for, again adding to the shock of September 11.

The third significance of Benghazi is that it underlines the failure of our current strategy to deal with al Qaeda. For several years, the main strategies for combating al Qaeda have been to take them on through our ground troops (in Iraq and Afghanistan), to empower partners to fight them (many places in the Middle East), or to use attrition to whittle down the group's leadership. With the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the slow shifting of some partners away from aiding us (see Egypt and Pakistan, for example), we are more and more dependent on attrition as the means for taking out the group. The spread of al Qaeda to many new places, including the Sinai, Mali, Syria, and of course Libya, points to the failure of this strategy to achieve our goals.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

Where's the indignation, General Dempsey?

Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cast himself as the arbiter of military conduct and guardian of the military's prerogative to remain outside America's bruising political battles. He has said, "one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy -- in our form of democracy -- that's most important is that we remain apolitical." More than just staking out the high ground, he has chosen to police it, objecting to retired veterans criticizing the president. 

Gen. Dempsey also rebuked Congressman Ryan during budget season for suggesting the military leadership had concerns about President Obama's new goal post of another $400 billion in cuts to free up money for domestic spending. Gen. Dempsey turned up the volume in that exchange, invoking his impugned honor that Ryan would "collectively call us liars."

Which is why it is so odd that Gen. Dempsey has not held the president to the same standard. On several recent occasions, President Obama has asserted that his Republican challenger for president would force on our military money and weapons they don't want. 

In his convention speech -- an overtly political occasion -- President Obama said, "my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don't even want." No reaction from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During last night's presidential debate -- another overtly political occasion -- the president twice insisted Governor Romney was peddling "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military isn't asking for."

Really? No one in the American military believes defense spending should be higher than the president's FY2013 budget request? The president of the United States was misrepresenting the views of many in our military, counting on their professional reserve to remain silent while he uses their credibility with the public for political advantage in an election. How does that not count as politicizing our military?  

The Budget Control Act would cut $50 billion a year for the next ten years from DOD's budget, something Gen. Dempsey has said would be a disaster of such proportions that the United States "wouldn't be the global power that we know ourselves to be today." Most of my military colleagues are concerned about the gap between demands and resources, and most believe the defense budget should not be further cut. Some believe near-term risk should be accepted in the military realm in order to solve the much larger vulnerability of our national debt; others believe civilians are asking the military to make yet more sacrifices so that politicians don't have to face up to the hard choices of entitlement reform. Which is to say that our military is not of one view on practically any subject, even those that touch on the center of their professional judgment.

To be fair, Gen. Dempsey is in an awkward position, caught between the commander in chief playing politics and the desire to stay out of the political mud-slinging. And this is a thin-skinned and stridently political president who it may be difficult to remain effective as the senior military advisor to if Obama takes umbrage at being corrected (which he surely will). But Gen. Dempsey has put himself in that position with his forceful interventions on the issue previously. Other generals have labored under no lesser burdens.

I'm very much in favor of our military staying out of politics; but if Gen. Dempsey is going to set himself up as the arbiter of the civil-military boundary, he needs to actually police both sides of it. And that means correcting the record when the president misleads the public or caricatures our military as having only one view about an important national issue that goes directly to their military judgment.

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