Al Qaeda Isn't 'On Its Heels'
President Barack Obama told U.S. troops in Afghanistan on May 25, 2014 that the U.S. has “decimated the al Qaeda leadership in the tribal regions” of Pakistan. While conceding that the al Qaeda network elsewhere in the world poses an increasing threat to U.S. interests, the U.S. government frequently touts the progress it has made in neutering al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan — as it narrowly defines it. These talking points increasingly seem based on a picture of al Qaeda’s South Asian network that is at least several months out of date, however. They do not appear to account for al Qaeda’s well-known ability to repair damage to its network, that network’s improving position in Pakistan, or an apparent strategic pause in both U.S. and Pakistani operations against al Qaeda in the region. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and all it entails, not only increases al Qaeda’s operating room in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but has already severely degraded the intelligence infrastructure that helped support the drone and covert operations campaign that contributed heavily towards the success now claimed by the president.
Rhetoric Based on an Old Snapshot of the Network
President Obama described al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan variously as being “on its heels” and “on the ropes” in his speech on Sunday. The president and members of the administration have often used similar language to describe the effects of U.S. policies on al Qaeda in South Asia, though they have moderated these optimistic assertions with admissions that al Qaeda elsewhere in the world continues to pose a threat to the United States.
Al Qaeda’s supposed near-defeat in Pakistan is attributed to the death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a one-off Special Operations Forces strike deep inside Pakistan in 2011 and to the U.S. drone campaign inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, which has been underway since 2004.
The U.S. drone program has, in fact, inflicted heavy casualties on al Qaeda in Pakistan over the years. It has killed top al Qaeda leaders and facilitators including Ilyas Kashmiri, Abu Yahya al Libi, Atiyah Abd al Rahman and Abu Zaid al Kuwaiti, as well as successive leaders occupying the organization’s operational command or “number three position,” a feat that has had a serious impact on al Qaeda attempts to conduct attacks from Pakistan against U.S. interests outside the region. Before Kashmiri’s death in June 2011, bin Laden had reportedly tasked the senior operative with plotting an attack against President Obama.
There are problems with using drone kills as metrics for success against the network, however. The first concerns the definition of what is, in fact, considered to be “al Qaeda.” The Obama administration has defined the group in extremely narrow terms: it considers al Qaeda primarily to be the group of individuals comprising its leadership during, and having involvement in, the September 11 attacks on the U.S., as laid out in a recent report by Mary Habeck. This narrow definition excludes new leaders and operatives who have since come to prominence in the network and key facilitators and supporters that make possible al Qaeda’s survival and reconstitution. Current U.S. strategy against al Qaeda fails to account for the change in the group’s basic structure from a rigid, hierarchical organization into a more fluid organism, interconnected with and often dependent upon local affiliates with which it does not necessarily have a formal association, but with which it shares an ideology, fighters, facilitators, infrastructure and space, as laid out in an AEI Critical Threats report by Katherine Zimmerman.
A Complex Network in Pakistan
Al Qaeda in Pakistan is heavily embedded with, and relies for its functionality upon, groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Network. The TTP is the primary militant group combatting the Pakistani state and is a key facilitator of al Qaeda in Pakistan. The umbrella group is active throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas but maintains a key haven in North Waziristan agency of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Senior Pakistani militants have served on al Qaeda’s leadership shura, Pakistanis have come to fill positions in the al Qaeda apparatus such as in its media and propaganda departments, and al Qaeda has collaborated with the TTP in conducting attacks inside Pakistan. Drone strikes targeting and killing al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan have frequently killed TTP members co-located with their al Qaeda partners. A similar fate has befallen many Haqqani Network members and leaders. The Haqqani Network’s relationship with al Qaeda is extensively documented and goes back decades, to al Qaeda’s inception in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Haqqani Network also shares al Qaeda’s ideological aims and is a key facilitator of the group in the region. It has remained largely unscathed by Pakistani military action since the Pakistani intelligence establishment considers the Haqqanis to be key proxies supporting Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda has shown a remarkable ability to regenerate itself and survive shocks caused by the deaths of senior leaders in drone attacks, furthermore. New leaders have continually come forward to take the place of those slain and it is clear now that al Qaeda maintains a far deeper reserve of seasoned members able to take on senior roles than was previously appreciated. The relative ease with which it has been able to successively fill its “number three” position with experienced, pedigreed operatives is an example of this; at least five or six men described as occupying that position were reported as killed or captured through 2010. The position’s volatility says as much about the al Qaeda leadership’s ability to absorb system shocks as it does about U.S. counterterrorism efforts. We keep killing their leaders and they keep replacing them.
A Strategic Pause?
The al Qaeda network cannot be divorced from the larger militant milieu in which it operates, even if narrowly defined to include only the operatives active around bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri in Pakistan; progress against the al Qaeda network needs to account for the health of its key facilitator networks as well. The news from Pakistan on this front is not encouraging.
The TTP has suffered almost no significant disruption at the hands of the U.S. or Pakistani governments since the death of its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike in November 2013. The TTP conducted an intense campaign of high-casualty attacks beginning in the winter of 2012-13 through February 2014, during which it killed hundreds of civilians and soldiers across the country. When the Pakistani military finally appeared to be gearing-up for a long-awaited military offensive into North Waziristan, the key stronghold for militants of all stripes in South Asia, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for a last-ditch attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the TTP in the hope of avoiding a protracted conflict in the tribal areas that might incur blowback in the rest of the country and wreck his domestic political agenda. The peace negotiations and ceasefire commencing in March 2014 robbed the incipient operation of its momentum, but have yielded no results thus far and the protracted negotiations have arguably given the TTP time and space to steel itself for a military offensive if and when it does come. 
The Pakistani military conducted no major airstrikes or operations in North Waziristan for nearly three months since the declaration of a ceasefire with the TTP and, until last week, had not resumed activity despite the fact that the TTP has continued to conduct (but disavow) attacks across the country and refused to renew a ceasefire with the government that expired in April. The military began a robust series of airstrikes and limited ground engagements in North Waziristan on May 21 in response to recent attacks on its own personnel, but the efforts fall short of the massive operation necessary to disrupt the various militant groups in a safe haven as well-entrenched as North Waziristan.
Despite the lack of activity from the Pakistani state over the past several months, the U.S. has not filled the gap in activity against al Qaeda and its affiliates with its own favored method of drone attacks. At the peak of the drone program in 2010, U.S. unmanned aircraft conducted between 117 and 122 strikes against targets inside Pakistan and killed numerous senior Taliban, Haqqani, and al Qaeda leaders. The number of strikes has steadily dropped since, and only 27 or 28 strikes were conducted in 2013. In fact, the U.S. has not conducted a single drone strike in Pakistan since December 25, 2013, nearly a six-month gap. The last major al Qaeda figure to die in a drone strike in Pakistan was Abu Saif al Jaziri, a “senior al Qaeda military trainer.”
The pause cannot be attributed to a lack of targets: recent intelligence reports indicate that the U.S. continues to worry about the threat emanating from Pakistan. One report cites an increase in “threat stream” activity in several regions over the past six months and names an al Qaeda leader in Pakistan, Abdullah al Shami, as being in charge of the Pakistan-based network’s efforts to plan attacks abroad. Al Shami is a perfect example of al Qaeda’s “deep bench” and the kind of operative now at the network’s fore. Born in the U.S., al Shami was not a major player in the al Qaeda network on September 11. He has, however, managed to diligently work his way up the ranks and into the network’s senior leadership over the last 13 years. The threat al Shami poses and his seniority in the network has prompted administration officials to discuss targeting him in a drone strike, despite his being a U.S. citizen.
Administration officials, speaking anonymously, attributed the pause in strikes to a Pakistani government request for a hiatus in the program while it attempted to build domestic support for an offensive against the TTP and, later, in order to prevent a disruption in peace talks with the TTP. Previous attempts to begin negotiations with the TTP were scuttled when a U.S. drone attack killed the TTP’s second-in-command, Wali-ur-Rehman, in May 2013. The U.S. was accused by both the TTP and political leaders in Pakistan of deliberately sabotaging the nascent attempts at dialogue. This time, peace talks have also largely failed to produce any results; however, parties looking to apportion blame for the unsuccessful parleying have largely left the U.S. out of the discussion.
While there is merit in allowing the Pakistani state the time and space to try to construct its own narrative for the need to take on militant safe havens in the FATA, it is important to recognize the effective outcome the pause in the drone program has likely had on enemy groups in the FATA. The U.S. has no serious alternative to drone strikes when it comes to battling al Qaeda in Pakistan. Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan have been able to operate largely unmolested for nearly six months as a result. Not only has there been a lack of activity against enemy networks, but the reasons for the halt in drone and Pakistani military activity have been matters of public record, which mean groups operating in the region would be aware that they could conduct their activities with a degree of freedom they have not encountered for some time. Claiming that al Qaeda is still “on its heels” is difficult when one compares the original pressure the network was under when the narrative was first introduced in May 2011 with its current circumstances, in which both it and its key affiliates have enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom from attack and disruption.
Aside from al Qaeda’s own network, its key affiliates such as the TTP and the Haqqani Network, in whose midst it lives and on whose support it relies, have remained largely unchecked. The claim that al Qaeda appears to be struggling to survive has previously been based on a level of activity against the network that is no longer being maintained. U.S. intelligence reports continue to warn of al Qaeda operatives inside Pakistan planning plots against the U.S. and the organization’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, appears to be coordinating the activities of al Qaeda’s international network with an unprecedented degree of centrality from within Pakistan.
Dismantling the Infrastructure to Respond
Al Qaeda’s “core” network in Afghanistan and Pakistan has, in the past, come under severe pressure from U.S. drone and Special Operations Forces, and limited Pakistani military engagements. The network has, however, been allowed an important breather over the last several months and the infrastructure that has contributed to keeping al Qaeda in survival mode in Pakistan is being systematically dismantled as the U.S. prepares to exit Afghanistan. This augurs poorly for achieving U.S. objectives relating to preventing al Qaeda’s resurgence in the region.
Part of President Obama’s speech on Sunday addressed the need to prevent al Qaeda ever being able to regenerate a presence inside Afghanistan that it could use to plot attacks against the U.S. and its interests. On Tuesday, he reiterated that a key part of the continuing U.S. mission in Afghanistan will be supporting counterterrorism operations against the “remnants” of al Qaeda in the region. That stated objective and the U.S.’s current trajectory appear to differ greatly, however. The president’s characterization of the al Qaeda threat in South Asia also appears to dismiss the fact that the pause in activity against the network has given al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan uninterrupted time and space to recoup some of its strength.
Ignoring, for the moment, the deliberate pause in drone attacks inside Pakistan, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is also shaping up to conduct a far more modest mission against al Qaeda in the days following the main U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. As President Obama announced on May 27, the U.S. is planning on cutting the number of troops it has in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of 2014. It is also downsizing key Afghan paramilitary forces it stood up to conduct much of the covert surveillance activity inside Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan that helped to make the drone program so effective in the first place. This downsizing will make it harder to both prevent al Qaeda returning to areas in which it previously operated and to dislodge it from parts of Afghanistan, such as Kunar and Nuristan, in which it continues to enjoy an existing safe haven.
Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams (CPT), as the paramilitary units have become known since they were first publicized in Bob Woodward’s 2010 book “Obama’s Wars,” are CIA-run and -funded units comprised of “elite” Afghan operatives capable of operating clandestinely both inside Afghanistan and in hostile areas of Pakistan’s FATA. According to several reports, a key task of these CPTs is to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence on al Qaeda and other enemy operatives inside Pakistan for targeting by U.S.-operated drones based in Afghanistan. These teams have suffered heavy downsizing in recent months, however, with some being entirely disbanded from key territories with little advance notice, as the CIA closes down bases it has run for years along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Regular Afghan armed forces are “stretched too thin” to make up the gaps left behind and, in any case, would be unlikely to fulfill the cross-border role CPTs have played in the past. What this effectively means is that, if and when the U.S. does resume the drone program inside Pakistan, part of the infrastructure that made it so effective will be significantly reduced.
Several thousand CPT operatives operating in Kunar and Khost are slated to be disbanded; hundreds have already been dismissed in Paktika. Kunar is a key stronghold of al Qaeda in Afghanistan; bin Laden himself had advocated shifting more of the al Qaeda network to Kunar and Nuristan because of the lack of U.S. or Afghan presence there and the permissibility of the operating environment in comparison to then-besieged North Waziristan. Khost and Paktika are key home territories of the al Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network. CPTs have been described as “instrumental” in taking on al Qaeda and Haqqani Network forces inside Afghanistan; their dissolution will leave little residual capacity for U.S. or Afghan forces to prevent enemy groups maintaining or expanding their own havens inside Afghanistan, especially after the U.S. further reduces its force presence after 2014—current administration estimates aim to have fewer than 5,000 troops by the end of 2015. If and when the Pakistani military launches a full-scale operation into North Waziristan, U.S. and Afghan forces will be less able to play a supporting role on the other side of the Durand Line and to intercept hostile groups attempting to flee across the porous border into Afghanistan.
The long pause in U.S. drone strikes, the lack of a serious Pakistani military offensive the drone pause was supposed to facilitate and the thinning of U.S. and specialist Afghan forces inside Afghanistan have had — and will continue to have — negative effects on the rate of attrition of al Qaeda operatives in South Asia. Al Qaeda being “on its heels” seems an increasingly outdated turn of phrase for a network that has previously shown a remarkable ability to regenerate itself, and that has not suffered serious disruption in over half a year.
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