We’re winning the war against al Qaeda, killing its leaders faster than competent replacements can be found, NPR‘s Tom Gjelten reports.

CIA-directed airstrikes against al Qaeda leaders and facilities in Pakistan over the past six to nine months have been so successful, according to senior U.S. officials, that it is now possible to foresee a “complete al Qaeda defeat” in the mountainous region along the border with Afghanistan.

The officials say the terrorist network’s leadership cadre has been “decimated,” with up to a dozen senior and midlevel operatives killed as a result of the strikes and the remaining leaders reeling from the repeated attacks. “The enemy is really, really struggling,” says one senior U.S. counterterrorism official. “These attacks have produced the broadest, deepest and most rapid reduction in al Qaeda senior leadership that we’ve seen in several years.” Another senior U.S. official described “a significant, significant degradation of al Qaeda command and control in recent months.”


“In the past, you could take out the No. 3 al Qaeda leader, and No. 4 just moved up to take his place,” says one official. “Well, if you take out No. 3, No. 4 and then 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to revive the leadership cadre.”


The U.S. officials interviewed for this report attribute the success to improved intelligence on al Qaeda operations in the border area, some of it gathered as a result of “human penetration” of the network. The officials also report the emergence of some tension between the al Qaeda leadership and local tribal leaders in the border areas. They warn, however, that this tension is, in part, the product of increased Pakistani military activity in the border areas, a development that could be reversed if the Pakistani authorities turn their attention back toward India as a result of tensions stemming from the November attacks in Mumbai.

Politico‘s David Cloud writes of a “secret report” in which “The Pentagon’s top military officers are recommending to President Barack Obama that he shift U.S. strategy in Afghanistan — to focus on ensuring regional stability and eliminating Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan, rather than on achieving lasting democracy and a thriving Afghan economy.”

The news coincides with a totally non-secret report released today by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace [PDF], highlighted by Bruce Falconer at MojoBlog, which argues for a demilitarization of our Afghanistan effort.  Report author Gilles Dorronsoro argues that, “The reality is that the international coalition now has limited resources and a narrow political time frame to create lasting Afghan institutions. Yet, building such institutions is our only real exit strategy.”  He makes several recommendations:

  • The main policy objective should be to leave an Afghan government able to survive U.S. and NATO withdrawal. Strategies based on other objectives, like counternarcotics or promoting Western values, are not feasible given the limited resources available to the international presence in Afghanistan.
  • The presence of foreign soldiers is a driving factor in the Taliban’s resurgence. Reducing military confrontations is the best way to weaken the armed opposition.
  • Allocate resources according to three areas: strategic cities and transportation routes that must be under Afghan/alliance control; strategic areas where NATO and the Afghan army can engage insurgents; and opposition territory where NATO and Afghan forces should not expend effort or resources.
  • Withdrawal will allow the United States to focus on the central security problem in the region: al-Qaeda and the instability in Pakistan.

This would seem to tie in nicely with President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, which emphasizes decreasing our strategic ambition in the region. 

At first blush, these reports seem in stark contrast.  We’re winning the war against al Qaeda and should redouble our efforts on that front.  At the same time, however, we’re losing the broader war in Afghanistan. It would be a supreme irony, indeed, if the war in Afghanistan — entered into by the Bush administration as the opening salvo in the Global War on Terror launched in response to the 9/11 attacks — were successful in destroying al Qaeda and yet perceived as a failure because hubris created unreachable objectives for the mission. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  

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