In a recent article, well-known CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen claims that al-Qaeda is defeated and that it is time to declare victory over the vaunted terrorist organization. While the elimination of Osama bin Laden and his top deputies over the past year signals major strides against the organization, the U.S. still faces formidable threats from terrorists associated with and inspired by al-Qaeda and its virulent anti-U.S. agenda.
While the Obama Administration has committed to withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, that does not mean the U.S. can simply turn away from the country and hope for the best. If the Taliban is able to regain influence in Afghanistan without breaking ties to international terrorism, it would provide an opportunity for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups to revive and regroup in the region.
A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be a morale boost for terrorists throughout the world. Even bin Laden recognized this. Documents found at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound last year demonstrate how important the war in Afghanistan is to al-Qaeda’s global agenda. Bin Laden believed that the war in Afghanistan showed the weakness of the U.S. and that it would inspire other jihadists worldwide.
A recent Heritage study on terrorist plots against the U.S. over the last five years drives home the point that terrorists, both at home and abroad, continue to seek to harm the U.S. and its citizens. James Carafano, Steven Bucci, and Jessica Zuckerman make a strong case for why now is not the time for complacency:
Internationally, al-Qaeda has become more decentralized, leading to a greater dependence on its affiliates and allies.… With the global operating environment for terrorist networks having become increasingly hostile, homegrown terrorism has become more appealing to al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. Homegrown terrorist actors can often bridge the divide between the United States and the other regions of the world in which terrorist networks operate.… It is this “duality” for instance, that served Najibullah Zazi in his attempt to bomb the New York City subway system, with Zazi being able to operate with facility in environments as starkly different as New York and Peshawar.
Bergen draws parallels between how the U.S. ended World War II and how it should view the end of the fight against terrorism: “To win World War II, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin did not feel it necessary to kill every Nazi. We should not impose a higher standard in the battle against al Qaeda.”
While the U.S. did not feel it necessary to kill every Nazi, it did find it necessary to end the Nazi regime and the ideology on which it was based. If we cannot confidently say the threat from global terrorism has ended, then we should not confidently declare victory over al-Qaeda and its global agenda.
The nature of the threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates may be evolving, and we should certainly adapt U.S. strategy accordingly. But we cannot afford to pretend that the U.S. is no longer a target of terrorists associated with and driven by al-Qaeda’s deadly ideology.