Few Options For Obama In War On Al-Qaida

In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from one administration to another through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

Expectations for a Barack Obama presidency are high in part because of the goals Obama has himself been setting for his administration.

"I think it is a top priority for us to stamp out al-Qaida once and for all," he said recently on CBS' 60 Minutes. "And I think capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al-Qaida."

Obama has his work cut out for him, however. Bin Laden has evaded capture now for more than a decade.

Redirecting Priorities

Obama says the fight against al-Qaida will get more attention under his administration than it has under George W. Bush. Obama says the Bush administration dropped its pursuit of bin Laden at the conclusion of the 2001 Afghanistan war in order to prepare for the war in Iraq.

Indeed, some intelligence resources — from satellite surveillance to Arabic-speaking linguists — were redirected at that time, as the Bush administration turned from bin Laden to a new target: Saddam Hussein.

"I don't think it's fair to say this administration took its eyes completely off the ball, but I think it is fair to say this administration took on more things," says Matt Levitt, who until last year served as a senior intelligence official in the Treasury Department, a key position on the Bush administration's counterterrorism team.

Now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Levitt says that by pulling out of Iraq, Obama could redirect surveillance capabilities and other intelligence assets back to the pursuit of bin Laden and al-Qaida — at least in theory.

"The fact is that a military war takes a tremendous amount of intelligence resources, and if we were able to then focus those resources elsewhere, that would enable us to be better focused on capturing Osama bin Laden and focusing on the al-Qaida terrorist threat," Levitt says.

Echoes Of Bush Policy

How much can be gained here is unclear, however.

Even in the best of circumstances, some intelligence resources will still be needed in Iraq. Also, many U.S. intelligence assets have already been refocused on the hunt for bin Laden. In the past four months alone, CIA operators have directed about 20 missile strikes from unmanned aircraft in Pakistan, targeting suspected al-Qaida figures. In a recent speech, CIA Director Michael Hayden questioned whether his agency could do much more to find bin Laden.

"Though there has been press speculation to the contrary, I can assure you that the hunt for bin Laden is very much at the top of the CIA's priority list," he said.

During the campaign, Obama said he would support going after bin Laden inside Pakistan with or without the approval of the Pakistani government. That actually sounded like Bush administration policy. President Bush last July personally approved U.S. military commando raids on al-Qaida camps. One intelligence official involved in planning such raids says there were two in September, the second one aborted after Pakistani forces fired on the U.S. commandos inside Pakistani territory. Asked what other U.S. operations Obama could order inside Pakistan to "stamp out" al-Qaida, the intelligence officer said, "If there were anything else to do, we'd have already done it."

Cooperation With Pakistan

Robert Grenier, who served both as a CIA station chief in Pakistan and as head of the agency's counterterrorism center, says his advice is to forget about unilateral actions. Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders are hiding in mountainous areas of Pakistan, he says, where ultimately only the Pakistani government can assert control.

"In order to meet our tactical aims — to capture and kill al-Qaida members who pose a clear and present danger to us — as well as denying safe haven to these people, we need a long-term common strategy with the Pakistanis," Grenier says.

In fact, some of the more promising counterterrorism opportunities for an Obama administration lie outside the military domain.

Mike Jacobson worked with Levitt at the Treasury Department, where he tracked al-Qaida financing. Jacobson says Obama is positioned to demand more help from European countries in this area than Bush has been able to get.

"Over the last few years, it had gotten very easy to say no to the Bush administration," Jacobson says. "Domestically, politically, they knew that there weren't going to be consequences of saying no, and in fact it would be a relatively popular thing.

"And the feeling right now is that if Obama calls one of the European leaders, it's going to be very hard for that European country or the Europeans in general to say no in this initial period."

Hearts And Minds

Obama has one more advantage. His election as an African-American with a Muslim father demonstrates that the United States may not be the racist, anti-Muslim country bin Laden and his followers have long portrayed. By the mere fact of who he is, Obama could position the United States to be more effective in the struggle for Muslim hearts and minds.

Grenier says that is ultimately what is important.

"We've got to be mindful not only of the need to win battles but also to win the wars," he says. "We need to be keeping our eye on the long-term strategic prize."

Some analysts already see hints that the prospect of an Obama presidency is presenting an ideological challenge to al-Qaida. The fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri, No. 2 behind bin Laden, ridiculed Obama as a "house negro" in a recent video message is a sure sign, these analysts say, that Zawahiri and other al-Qaida leaders are feeling nervous about the U.S. president-elect.

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