On coming into office, President Barak Obama immediately assembled a team to assess the US situation in Afghanistan and formulate a strategy for the mission. Heading up this team was Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to Presidents Clinton and Bush and a former CIA officer. This paper, based on a CIGI Signature Lecture given by Mr. Riedel in April 2010, discusses the history of the US war on terror since 9/11, specifically the actors involved in initiating the al-Qaeda declaration of war on the US and its allies, and the recent terrorist plots and attacks linked to al-Qaeda, which demonstrate that al-Qaeda and its allies continue to mount terrorist attacks despite the efforts of the US to thwart terrorism. President Obama inherited a war in Afghanistan that was unsuccessful, under-funded and lacked a clearly defined strategy. The response he developed for Afghanistan is a complex one involving regional and international policies — particularly in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda has a network of insurgent groups — but it also involves military force, diplomacy and changing public opinion concerning the US. This paper assesses the progress that Obama has made in Afghanistan and Pakistan 15 months after taking office, and considers whether the US will actually be able win the war on terror.

Part of Series

The Afghanistan Papers are essays authored by prominent academics, policy makers, practitioners and informed observers that seek to challenge existing ideas, contribute to ongoing debates and influence international policy on issues related to Afghanistan’s transition. A forward-looking series, the papers combine analysis of current problems and challenges with explorations of future issues and threats.
  • Bruce Riedel joined Brookings in 2006 after 30 years service at the Central Intelligence Agency including postings overseas in the Middle East and Europe.