Al-Qaida is becoming the weapons of mass destruction of the Obama administration's war in Afghanistan. Or, to be more precise, it is a reverse WMD. For the George W. Bush administration, the likely presence of WMD in Iraq was a major justification for going to war. For Vice President Joe Biden and some senior Obama White House staff members (we do not know the position of the president yet), the alleged weakness and ineffectiveness of al-Qaida is sufficient justification for ending our major ground troop presence in Afghanistan.
Moreover, just like the discussion of WMD in 2002 and 2003, the current discussion of al-Qaida's capacities in Afghanistan is being carried out with cherry-picked intelligence. And just as Bush's opponents suspected he cited WMD merely as an excuse for starting a war he already had made up his mind to start for different reasons, so it would appear that the assertion of al-Qaida's weakness by the White House might be merely an excuse to justify the political decision that already has been made (by some) to get out of Afghanistan.
In September, the president publicly expressed doubts concerning the wisdom of his own strategy. Then Gen. Stanley McChrystal's war plans were leaked to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. The Post then editorialized harshly against the president's indecision and reminded him of his recent words concerning Afghanistan's being a necessary war.
The White House then informally released the Biden plan, which would draw down ground troops and go after al-Qaida primarily by air. Gen. McChrystal publicly repudiated the efficacy of the Biden plan and, while on CBS' "60 Minutes," mentioned he had talked with the president only once since taking command -- and then by phone.
Then, on Sept. 30, the Post ran a spectacular front-page, above-the-fold lead story, headlined "Success Against al-Qaeda Cited: Infiltration of Network Is a Factor as Administration Debates Afghanistan Policy." This article, leaked to the Post by "senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity," expressly argued that al-Qaida had been penetrated recently by our spies and other intelligence and can be hit by drones and that therefore, such "an improved counterterrorism effort" is "evidence that Obama's principal objective -- destroying al-Qaeda -- can be achieved without an expanded troop presence."
The White House-fed article went on to quote Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations' al-Qaida and Taliban monitoring group and former chief of Britain's overseas counterterrorism operations, to the effect that al-Qaida "is 'losing credibility' among potential supporters and recruits because its recent efforts 'have not awed people' and are 'not up to the standard of 9/11.' As the years have passed since the 2001 attacks, he said, al-Qaeda 'hasn't really made a connection to a new generation' of young Muslims who have little recollection of the events and are less interested in religion. In terms of Western efforts, he said, the threat has diminished."
In other words, according to senior White House officials (through the Post article), with al-Qaida now compromised and manageable from the air -- and with the Taliban having been a concern only if they empowered al-Qaida -- President Obama's former strategy of denying the Taliban influence and control in Afghanistan is no longer needed, nor do we need the general's anticipated request of 40,000 more troops. Mission accomplished; let's go home.
The next day, the Pentagon responded through Jake Tapper's blog on ABC News' Web site, arguing that those successes were "largely because of better intelligence, stemming from greater cooperation by the Pakistani government and a stronger U.S. counter-insurgency program on the other side of the border in Afghanistan. That added pressure creates the conditions for better intelligence on the ground as to where Taliban and al Qaeda forces are, sources say. 'They're squeezed,' a Pentagon source says of individuals on the border region. 'And when people are squeezed, they talk.' But military officials who support Gen. Stanley McChrystal's proposal for a larger counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan are concerned that some in the White House interpret this success as a reason to focus entirely on counterterrorism using drones."
Not only are the quoted White House senior leakers misconstruing the reasons for the successes we have had but also the Post article cherry-picked even the analysis of its major on-the-record source, Richard Barrett, whom it quoted to the comforting effect that al-Qaida's threat has "diminished." But Barrett recently had told the U.K.'s Sunday Telegraph of al-Qaida's new method of hiding bombs (in the anuses of the bombers). "While not wanting to be alarmist," he had said, "I admit this is alarming. ... Even though its capability is reduced, it is clear that al-Qaeda remains determined enough and inventive enough to cause another terrorist spectacular." Barrett had said the organization's "power to sow terror was far from eliminated."
Nor, regarding al-Qaida's alleged inability to reach young Muslims nowadays, was the Post reporter directed by the White House leakers to FBI Director Robert Mueller's testimony last week that al-Qaida in Somalia is having great success with al-Shabab, which translates as "mujahedeen youth." "They could strike the United States," the FBI director testified.
We must trust that the president will not permit himself to be misled by some of his most senior aides, who clearly are trying to cherry-pick the intelligence to gain their political objectives rather than honestly assess the intelligence on behalf of our national security needs.