Strategic Horizons: Al-Qaida’s Comeback

Strategic Horizons: Al-Qaida’s Comeback

Rarely a week passes without a grim new article, op-ed or newspaper story warning us that al-Qaida is mounting a comeback. Retired U.S. Army Gen. Jack Keane, for instance, recently declared that al-Qaida is "seeking to take advantage of the opportunities posed by revolutionary change throughout the Middle East" and is "on the rise." Writing for the Wall Street Journal, the RAND Corporation's Seth Jones argued that, with the Obama administration turning its attention to the Asia-Pacific region, al-Qaida is pushing into the political vacuum created by the Arab Spring and "riding a resurgent wave as its affiliates engage in a violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa." Al-Qaida is showing new life in Afghanistan and Iraq as well.

What should we make of this? Is it true that the United States gave al-Qaida a new lease on life by leaving Iraq and Afghanistan too early? Has Washington failed to act aggressively to keep al-Qaida sympathizers from filling the vacuum created as governments in Yemen, Libya and Mali collapsed? In a sense, yes. However, all of these decisions reflect an accurate assessment of the current nature and extent of the al-Qaida threat and the strategic costs of dealing with it. Sound strategy is not simply quashing enemies, but doing so in a way that the security gains are worth the strategic costs, whether in money, blood or lost opportunities.

To craft an effective strategy against al-Qaida, Americans must remember two things. First, the costs of preventing the emergence of new al-Qaida affiliates or eliminating those that do emerge often exceed the strategic benefits of doing so. There are a number of reasons that al-Qaida took root and grew: The Islamic world was unable to provide jobs for its disproportionately large demographic cohort of young men; some very wealthy people chose to fund violence in the name of Islam; weapons and explosives have been easily available in the region; governments have proved unable to protect people from violence wrapped in a religious rationale; and the United States has historically been perceived as the architect and guarantor of an unjust regional order and global political and economic system.

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