To end World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin demanded an unconditional surrender from the Nazis. But there will be no such surrender from al Qaeda. The group is not a state that is capable of entering into such an agreement, even if it wanted to do so, which seems highly unlikely.
So we are left with a choice: We can continue fighting al Qaeda indefinitely and remain in a permanent state of quasi-war, as has already been the case for more than a decade now.
Or we can declare victory against the group and move on to focus on the essential challenges now facing America, notably the country's sputtering economy, but also containing a rising China, managing the rogue regime in North Korea, continuing to delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and - to the extent feasible - helping to direct the maturation of the Arab Spring.
The case for declaring victory over al Qaeda takes two forms. First, there are al Qaeda's own myriad weaknesses that make the group's offensive capabilities rather puny. Second, there is the vast increase in the capacity of the U.S. national security industrial complex since 9/11, which makes America's defenses quite strong.
Consider some of al Qaeda's obvious weaknesses:
– According to reliable press reports, CIA drones have killed 28 al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Yemen since U.S. President Barack Obama took office. During the George W. Bush administration, roughly a dozen leaders of the group were also killed in drone strikes.
– As a result, al Qaeda has one senior leader left, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a black hole of charisma who took over the group after the death of Osama bin Laden. He inherited the Blockbuster Video of global jihad and has done nothing to resuscitate it. (Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian military commander of the group, who might make a more effective leader of al Qaeda, seems to have gone to ground.)
– Al Qaeda hasn't conducted a successful attack in the West since the bombings on London's transportation system seven years ago that killed 52 commuters. And the terrorist group, of course, hasn't carried out an attack in the States since 9/11.
– Even terrorists influenced by al Qaeda-like ideas have only killed 17 people in the United States since 9/11. About the same number of Americans are killed every year by dogs. In other words, in the United States during the past decade, dogs have been around ten times more deadly than jihadist terrorists.
– Polling data from across the Muslim world in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey indicate that support for al Qaeda has plummeted.
– Al Qaeda played no role in the Arab Spring and hasn't been able to exploit in any meaningful way the most significant development in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
– Bin Laden's death was greeted by only minor protests in the Muslim world.
At the same time that al Qaeda has weakened considerably, the United States has built up formidable defenses against the terrorist group and its allies.
– On 9/11, there were 16 people on the "no fly" list. Now there are more than 20,000.
– In 2001, there were just a handful of Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), "fusion centers" where multiple law enforcement agencies work together to chase down leads to build terrorism cases. Now there are more than one hundred JTTFs across the country.
– A decade ago, the National Counterterrorism Center, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) didn't exist. All of these new institutions make it much harder for terrorists to operate in the United States.
– Before 9/11, Special Operations Forces were rarely deployed against al Qaeda and allied groups. Now they perform some dozen operations every day in Afghanistan, as well as many other missions in countries such as Yemen and Somalia.
– At the beginning of the 21st century, the American public didn't comprehend the threat posed by jihadist terrorists. That changed dramatically after the attacks on New York and Washington. In December 2001, it was passengers on his plane who disabled the "shoe bomber," Richard Reid. Similarly, eight years later it was his fellow passengers who tackled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "underwear bomber." And the following year it was a street vendor who spotted a suspicious SUV parked in Times Square that contained a bomb.
– Before 9/11 the CIA and the FBI barely communicated about their respective investigations of terrorist groups. Now they work together quite closely.
Some may counter that while "al Qaeda central" is indeed on the ropes in Pakistan, regional affiliates of al Qaeda in countries such as Yemen and Somalia continue to pose a real threat, as do terrorist groups inspired by bin Laden's ideas, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan.
Certainly, since 2009 the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has attempted to bring down American airliners and cargo planes flying to the United States with hard-to-detect bombs, but those plots all failed, and once the talented bomb-maker behind them is captured or killed the threat to the United States from AQAP will likely recede.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda's Somali affiliate has never targeted the United States, nor has Boko Haram or Lashkar-e-Taiba. (Lashkar did attack an American-Jewish community center in Mumbai in 2008, but since then it has not attacked a U.S. target anywhere.)
It is hard for any American politician to say definitively that al Qaeda is defeated because the political costs of a subsequent, even relatively small, successful attack against the United States attributable to al Qaeda or an allied group would be very high. And since 9/11, both al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have tried to launch attacks in Manhattan that could have killed dozens if they hadn't been averted.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration is going about as far as it can go to underline the fact that the threat from al Qaeda is essentially over. A year ago, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta predicted: "We're within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda." And on the first anniversary of bin Laden's death, Obama similarly observed: "The goal that I set - to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild - is now within our reach."
To win World War II, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin did not feel it necessary to kill every Nazi. We should not impose a higher standard in the battle against al Qaeda.