by Eben Kaplan, Council on Foreign Relations
Barring any surprises, Osama bin Laden will mark his fiftieth birthday on March 10. Five years ago, it seemed unlikely that the man would survive to celebrate the occasion, at least not outside U.S. custody. Not only does al-Qaeda’s leader remain at large, but he is rallying the troops. Recent reports suggest bin Laden and his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri have reestablished their chain of command (NYT) and begun operating new training camps in the northwestern Pakistani region of North Waziristan. The top Taliban leader in southern Afghanistan recently told a British television station that he and bin Laden regularly “share plans” (CNN).
Critics of the Bush administration suggest bin Laden would be long gone had the United States stayed focused on its mission in Afghanistan and not become mired in Iraq, often referring to Afghanistan as “The Forgotten War” (Boston Globe). Though less pointed in its criticism, the Iraq Study Group Report notes “U.S. efforts in Afghanistan have been complicated by the overriding focus of U.S. attention and resources on Iraq.” But administration officials contend that its efforts in Afghanistan must be considered in the context of the myriad dangers facing America. Most recently, J. Michael McConnell, the newly appointed director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee “America confronts a greater diversity (PDF) of threats and challenges than ever before.”
Terrorism remains the top concern, McConnell testified, with al-Qaeda still posing “the greatest threat to U.S. interests.” He claimed global counterterror efforts have decimated the organization’s ranks, killing or capturing three-quarters of its leadership. Though al-Qaeda appears resurgent, McConnell said, the new commanders lack experience (WashPost). Nevertheless, John D. Negroponte, McConnell’s predecessor, warned in January that these leaders had cultivated “active connections” (PDF) to affiliates in Northern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
On March 6, NATO and Afghan troops launched a major new offensive (BBC), deploying a force of nearly 5,500 into the southern Helmand province. President Bush announced earlier this year that he will send an additional 3,200 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help stave off an anticipated Taliban offensive this spring. But the Washington Post criticizes Bush for his inaction on Pakistan, where many of the insurgents gather and train.
For its part, the U.S.-Pakistani partnership causes discomfort on both sides. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf—who is up for reelection this year—constantly balances U.S. demands for security against a population that sympathizes with the ethnic Pashtuns who live in Pakistan’s most lawless regions. Last September, Musharraf signed a peace treaty with tribal leaders near the Afghan border, which experts say only facilitated cross-border attacks. Others have accused Pakistan’s intelligence services of actively supporting terrorists in the region. But Islamabad does get results; most recently, Pakistani forces arrested a senior Taliban deputy (Counterterrorism Blog) earlier this month. A Online Debate questions whether Pakistan is doing all it should to secure its Afghan border.
What does this all boil down to? Not much, says National Review contributor James S. Robbins, who writes “the notion that anything at all is going according to al-Qaeda’s plan is nonsense.” Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman disagrees. He says a series of recent attacks and foiled plots all suggest that al-Qaeda “is not on the run but on the march” (LAT). The Boston Globe suggests the reality is a mix of these views: an al-Qaeda that threatens periodic attacks but lacks the freedom of operation that made it the menace it was in 2001.
Eben Kaplan is the assistant editor of CFR.org, where he writes primarily about terrorism and homeland security. Previously, he was a researcher at Foreign Policy magazine, and he has lived and worked in Mexico. Eben graduated from Bard College with honors and a B.A. in political studies.
Reprinted with kindly permission of The Council on Foreign Relations.