As Iraq, Syria defeat ISIS, Al-Qaeda looms large


Mosul has been recaptured by the Iraqi Army from ISIS. ISIS-held Raqqa is currently besieged from all sides by the Syrian Kurds. And the Syrian Arab Army, bolstered by de-escalation zones in the west of the country, has massed its troops in the east, scoring victory after victory against ISIS in Syria.

While things are currently looking up for Syria and Iraq, Al-Qaeda still maintains its presence in Afghanistan. A resurgent Taliban is winning the war against the government led by Ashraf Ghani and, contrary to popular belief, the Taliban maintains its close relationship with Al-Qaeda, as the leader of Al-Qaeda still pledges allegiance to the leader of the Taliban.

This exposes fatal flaws in the previous President Obama’s strategy: killing Bin Laden did not stop Al-Qaeda from growing. Announcing troop surges and troop withdrawals in Afghanistan did not work. Negotiating with the Taliban was as impractical as negotiating with Al-Qaeda. And, finally, focusing on degrading, defeating and destroying ISIS has not stopped a resurgent Al-Qaeda from taking the limelight back.

Though ISIS is a long-term threat which is highly likely to return, Al-Qaeda is the more immediate threat, and the threat has grown. Not only has the Taliban filled the vacuum left by Obama in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has become a potent threat taking advantage of the Saudi war on Yemen. Al-Qaeda also has a strong presence in Libya and, finally, those “moderate rebels” in Syria are all allied with Al-Qaeda.

While President Trump can be blamed for Al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, President Obama is to blame for the Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. Libyan President Moammar Al-Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011, creating a vacuum in Libya, and Syrian rebels were supported by the US government from 2013 until this year. Ironically, it has been Russia who has been moving to quell the Al-Qaeda threat in Syria and Libya and, unlike President Obama, has had more success in rooting them out.

Afghanistan however becomes the responsibility of US President Donald Trump. Over the past 8 months there has been much debating in the White House about the way forward in Afghanistan, and President Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with US generals suggesting the way forward is to continue the same as before. President Trump has been exploring a wide range of options, including withdrawal and handing Afghanistan to private contractors, but the most enticing idea yet has been giving the US and Afghan troops a new goal: minerals.

Afghanistan’s minerals make up a large revenue for the Taliban, and depriving the Taliban of this revenue would weaken their influence in the country considerably. Minerals in the government’s hands would help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet and help win rogue Afghan tribes back to the government. It would also win Trump support back home for continuing the war.

But Afghanistan is not the only country from which Trump will face his counter-terrorism test: Yemen is the other. Trump has strengthened US support in the Saudi war against Yemen and this has resulted in an increase in Al-Qaeda’s presence there. The rise of Al-Qaeda in Yemen (commonly known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is not dependent on territory controlled, as ISIS is;

rather it is dependent on tribes which are loyal to and grateful for a presence in the region. And there are many such tribes in Yemen.

Even should Trump create a cohesive strategy to root out the Taliban from Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda will become even more powerful and resurgent in Yemen. This will likely strain US-Saudi relations and allow Russia a hand in solving yet another US-created quagmire.

The Al-Qaeda threat looms large, and calls for dedicated attention and skilful strategy.

This article is an edited version of one which was first published on:

John Waver is a political commentator on the Middle-East. In his writings, his particular focus has been on the effect ISIS has had on the region, the success of Russian foreign policy in Syria and examining how each President of the United States has handled the war on terror. He is critical of much US foreign policy and an advocate for minority rights in the Middle-East.

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