Remember when, two years ago, unnamed US counterterrorism and intelligence officials claimed that there are only two top al Qaeda leaders left in Pakistan? We do. Now, it seems that US Secretary of State John Kerry actually believes this, and told a Pakistani news channel that the US drone strikes could end “very, very soon” as “we have eliminated most of the threat.” From The New York Times:
Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the United States had made significant headway in its drone campaign and that he hoped the strikes in Pakistan could end shortly.
“I believe that we’re on a good track,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview on Pakistani television. “I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it.”
Asked if the United States had a “timeline” for ending the drone strikes in Pakistan, Mr. Kerry said: “Well, I do. And I think the president has a very real timeline, and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.” But he did not specify what the timeline was, and a State Department statement issued later said, “Today, the secretary referenced the changes that we expect to take place in that program over the course of time, but there is no exact timeline to provide.”
We here at The Long War Journal have argued numerous times that while US drones have killed some of al Qaeda’s top leaders, the US has nowhere near “eliminated most of the threat” that the group presents. The drones have focused only on the very tip of al Qaeda’s spear — the leaders and operatives based in North and South Waziristan. The problem is that al Qaeda has an extensive network in Pakistan: just look at where Osama bin Laden was killed (Abbottabad), or where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Bin al Shibh, Abu Faraj al Libi, Younis al Mauritani, and Umar Patek were captured (Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Karachi, Mardan, Quetta, and Abbottabad, respectively.)
Additionally, over the last 12 years al Qaeda has tapped into the plethora of Pakistani and Central Asian jihadist groups to replace leaders killed in drone strikes. We’ve documented numerous times the incestuous relationships between al Qaeda and groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Turkistan Islamic Party, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and Harkat-ul-Muhajideen. Often it is difficult to distinguish where one begins and the other ends.
Just like the claims by US officials for three years straight that there are only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, the claim that al Qaeda is all but defeated in Pakistan is preposterous. Serious Pakistan watchers should recognize that Kerry’s statement is both unserious and unhelpful.