WASHINGTON — The Obama administration should make it clear to U.S. citizens that the U.S. is still “at war” with al-Qaida, and that the conflict will not end soon, experts at a Heritage Foundation discussion said Tuesday.
The basic point is that the government has been “ambiguous” in its language about its ongoing efforts to defeat al-Qaida, said Christopher Harmon, a professor at the Marine Corps University and author of the book “A Citizen’s Guide to Terrorism and Counterterrorism.”
In May, President Barack Obama said “the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat.” In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., the president also said that many of Osama Bin Laden’s top lieutenants are dead.
According to Harmon, that is only half true, as Bin Laden anointed his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to succeed him. In his 2014 State of the Union Address, Obama again mentioned the path to al-Qaida’s defeat and the “ending” Afghan war.
“In short, I think what we are looking at is a long war,” Harmon said. “It’s not a perpetual war, but long. Until the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is captured, we are still in a state of war, and we ought to be.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were left wondering who the terrorists were, why and how they attack, and if attacks would continue, said Steven Bucci, the Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy. Harmon’s book, he added, seeks to answer some of the questions.
James Cheng, the founder of the China Reporters Foundation, in Arlington, Va., said he came to the Heritage forum because he is concerned about the continuing strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Harmon said the U.S. government hesitates in its communication with its citizens about counterterrorism. Government needs to do better, he said. For instance, he applauded the U.S. Secretary of State’s use of social media to draw attention to the issue.
“We don’t know what to say,” Harmon said. “We are afraid that we will use the wrong words.”
Former President George W. Bush’s administration wrote the first national counterterrorism strategy. Obama’s strategy continues some of the Bush practices, with a stronger emphasis on finding the root of terrorism, which Harmon said “is very difficult to do.”
“I am not sure Bush or Obama can tell us what to do about the roots of terrorism,” Harmon said.