In March, when President Barack Obama ordered the reorientation of American military attention to Afghanistan - and away from Iraq - he invoked the threat of Al-Qaeda. Echoing the rhetoric of his predecessor, Obama warned that "Al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the US homeland from its safe-haven in Pakistan." For the American people, the president went on, "this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world." On its face it was an immoveable assessment, black and white, a view repeated often in the eight years since 9/11. But as analysts and regional experts ponder the president's posture, shades of gray are coloring the White House's assessment.
There is a healthy debate among terrorism analysts as to the strengths, weaknesses and possible vulnerabilities of Al-Qaeda and its loosely connected cousin, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In a recent National Journal online debate, Michael F. Scheuer, an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University, argued that Obama is correct in refocusing attention on Al-Qaeda because after seven years of the Bush administration, the organization is stronger than ever.
Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute offered a somewhat different assessment: "Al-Qaeda has been crushed," he wrote; the Bush administration deserves credit "for destroying a terrorist threat that was allowed to fester before they took office."
Brian Fishman, director of research at the US military's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, says it's incredibly difficult to know who's right. "One of the things that [Al-Qaeda] has done very successfully in Pakistan and Afghanistan is they haven't been at the forefront" of violence, making it difficult to ascertain the group's strength. "You don't see a lot of Al-Qaeda attacks," Fishman says. "You see Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Hekmatyar, whoever they are. AQ has connections to all of those groups, but they've built a role for themselves there that is secondary in the local context."
But even this assessment is debated. Seth Jones, a counter-terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, says Al-Qaeda is not willingly taking a back seat. While American air strikes from Predator and Reaper drones have damaged Al-Qaeda leadership (though the State Department acknowledges it is impossible to gauge current numbers), Jones says a more significant reason for the group's decline is competition for space and funding from groups like the Taliban. "It is essentially being out-competed," Jones says. Al-Qaeda has "had trouble getting funding from traditional donors; their training camps are in much worse shape; and there is a lot of evidence that senior and mid-level operatives are bitterly complaining now that they don't have the funds to carry out these attacks."
Assessing the strength and ambition of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is made somewhat easier by the group's relative lack of a safe haven; unlike in Afghanistan and Pakistan, American soldiers can directly engage the Iraqi variant. General David Petraeus, then the top commander in Iraq, declared in July 2008 that the Sunni extremist group was shifting focus to Afghanistan. But Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the group still has plans for Iraq.
AQI "was definitely on its back heels, its back foot" during the surge of American troops, but "it was never eliminated totally," Katzman says. "I think it's just sort of coming out of hiding now." Fishman, who authored a March 2009 report on the state of AQI, agrees that the group may be on the march, if subtly so. "AQI today is settling into sort of a new kind of role that I think is more sustainable, and I think they're finally trying to learn some of the lessons from their own failures," Fishman says. "AQI still can't control its own destiny; it exists where it is useful to local players that are vying for political power," like Mosul. But there are indications AQI is lowering its public profile while supporting other group's in a bid to remain relevant, Fishman says.
Amid the competing assessments is a dearth of options for rooting out Al-Qaeda. In Iraq, political and ethnic divisions - between Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Mosul, for instance - have provided operating space for jihadist groups. And the Iraqi government's mishandling of the capture of the alleged leader of AQI has only strengthened the jihadists' hand, observers say. Much will hinge on how the Iraqi government addresses the threat.
On the Afghan-Pakistan border, options are fewer still. Aerial bombardments have been the method of choice, but the assaults have alienated large segments of the indigenous population. Jones says Pakistan's tribal regions must be physically cleared of militants, either by encouraging engagement of local sub-tribes to conduct operations; bolstering indigenous security agencies; or coordinating air strikes with Pakistan. Economic incentives and development aid will have little long-term impact until territory infiltrated by Al-Qaeda and other militant groups is cleared, he says. But that will take the full cooperation of Pakistan's government. And as Fishman notes, unless Islamabad is on board, Obama's call will likely go unanswered.