Last year Obama delivered his own “Mission Accomplished” speech at the National Defense University. Its broad theme was that the War on Terror was over; it was time to shut down Guantanamo Bay and stand down from a war footing.
Obama claimed credit for putting “the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan” on the “path to defeat” with his disastrous Afghan strategy which cost 1,600 American lives while letting the Taliban take over the country. He did not acknowledge that the so-called core Al Qaeda had stopped being relevant even before he was elected.
1,600 Americans died chasing a political slogan that existed only in the heads of his speechwriters.
That same year 499 Americans were killed in Afghanistan.
Obama had declared victory against an enemy that the United States wasn’t fighting while losing a war to an enemy that the United States was fighting.
Meanwhile his own people were telling him that Al Qaeda had not been defeated.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper said, in response to a question about whether Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, “No. It is morphing and franchising itself, not only here but in other areas of the world.”
“They are not,” Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn added.
These two men were not telling the Senate Armed Services committee anything they had not already told Obama. But their boss was choosing not to listen.
By narrowly defining Al Qaeda as a small number of leaders and fighters in pre-existing war zones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, he and his White House staffers were making it easier to claim victory while ignoring the threat from expanding groups such as Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.
Obama’s policy snapshot of Al Qaeda in which Osama bin Laden was still a menace and Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan were the biggest threat to America was a decade out of date.
In his Mission Accomplished speech, Obama said that the core of Al Qaeda was no longer a threat.”They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston.”
Al Qaeda’s core might not have directed either attack, though it’s possible it did, but both attacks emerged from its strategy of building up local franchises and training lone wolf attackers over the internet.
What Obama was celebrating as proof of his victory over Al Qaeda actually reflected his failure to understand and prepare for Al Qaeda’s next move.
He was using the fact that Al Qaeda had outmaneuvered him twice, and carried out devastating attacks, as proof that he had defeated Al Qaeda and that we no longer had to worry about Al Qaeda.
It was a moment of supreme cluelessness.
In the speech, Obama warned against “a boundless global war on terror’”, but a boundless global war had been Bin Laden’s strategy all along. Al Qaeda was never meant to be a bunch of fighters running around caves in Afghanistan. It was and is an international network of cells, militias and individuals financed by international donors. Bin Laden’s money and fame only got the ball rolling.
And it’s still rolling.
Al Qaeda was never bound by Obama’s insistence on limiting the war to the same locations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Al Qaeda could and would spring up anywhere there was an opportunity. While Obama was losing to the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda was rising in its hometowns in the Middle East and its old stomping grounds in Africa.
Boko Haram was one of the many dragon’s teeth sown by Osama bin Laden. The delay in making that connection and putting Boko Haram on the terror list was caused by a White House which insisted on the distinction between core Al Qaeda and everything else. Meanwhile US intelligence agencies were warning that Al Qaeda was a global network that was no longer dependent on a central leadership.
Obama’s rigid focus on core Al Qaeda made it difficult to understand and prevent what was happening in Syria, Libya and Mali. It was only French intervention that prevented Al Qaeda from seizing Mali, but it was Obama’s intervention that allowed Al Qaeda to seize portions of Libya, murder four Americans and attempt to seize Mali. Obama’s confused and incoherent policy in Syria, where Al Qaeda dominates the opposition, nearly led him to engage in another disastrous regime change intervention that would have turned over a country with WMDs and the remnants of a recent nuclear program to Al Qaeda.
Obama tried to limit the scope of the War on Terror by maintaining rigid boundaries between core Al Qaeda and its affiliates and between its open affiliates and its covert affiliates. This served his political purposes by allowing him to declare victory, but his word games did not change the nature of Al Qaeda.
It only blinded the United States to its next move.
To claim victory, Obama had to define Al Qaeda as narrowly as possible, while Al Qaeda was defining itself as broadly as possible in order to actually win on the battlefield.
Obama saw the war as tying up old business. He pivoted to Afghanistan to finish what he claimed Bush had left undone. He went after Bin Laden to arrest him and try him in a civilian court in order to end the military tribunals. Instead of fighting to defeat Al Qaeda, he was working to defeat Bush’s policies.
Al Qaeda was not viewed as a cunning opponent following a larger plan, but a blowback, an unintended consequence of the bad foreign policy and unthinking imperialism of his predecessors. Like most critics of American foreign policy, Obama found it difficult to take Al Qaeda seriously on its own terms. Instead he viewed Al Qaeda as extremists who could only be defeated by isolating them with a more understanding foreign policy that would address Muslim grievances and empower political Islam.
But the Arab Spring didn’t shrink Al Qaeda. It expanded it into a major force capable of overrunning entire nations.
Even after all that, Obama insisted in his speech that “the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism”. Like many leftists, Obama conflated Islamic grievances with Islamic ambitions and by addressing them, he empowered them.
Before his speech, an official stated, “The president has indicated and will indicate again that he rejects the notion of global war on terrorism, which is an amorphous definition that applies to a tactic.”
Terrorism is a tactic, but means are often indicative of ends. The alternative to defining the war in terms of means would have been to define it in terms of ends. Al Qaeda’s goal, like those of the political Islamic parties that Obama was empowering, was Islamic rule. And a war on Islam was off limits.
In its obsession with root causes, the left refused to deal with either means or ends. It bypassed what Al Qaeda was or wanted and instead focused on a root cause explaining how it was our fault.
And so instead of defeating Al Qaeda, Obama helped it achieve its goals.
The distinction between political Islam and Islamic terrorists, like the distinction between core Al Qaeda and its affiliates or between its open affiliates and fellow Jihadists, was always fluid. Obama’s insistence on the absoluteness of these distinctions is why he lost and why Al Qaeda is winning.
By Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. His web site is here at Sultan Kinsh