The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Obama no longer saying al Qaeda is ‘on its heels’

During Tuesday’s debate, President Barack Obama tempered his claims about U.S. success in fighting al Qaeda, jettisoning his oft-repeated campaign-trail claim that the terrorist organization is "on its heels." "I said that I’d end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we’d refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

During Tuesday's debate, President Barack Obama tempered his claims about U.S. success in fighting al Qaeda, jettisoning his oft-repeated campaign-trail claim that the terrorist organization is "on its heels."

"I said that I'd end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we'd refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda's leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead," Obama said during his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

During Tuesday’s debate, President Barack Obama tempered his claims about U.S. success in fighting al Qaeda, jettisoning his oft-repeated campaign-trail claim that the terrorist organization is "on its heels."

"I said that I’d end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said we’d refocus attention on those who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have gone after Al Qaeda’s leadership like never before and Osama bin Laden is dead," Obama said during his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

That paragraph is part of Obama’s regular stump speech, and he made nearly identical remarks at two campaign stops last week. But in those previous instances, Obama said that al Qaeda was "on its heels," a claim he didn’t repeat in front of Tuesday night’s national audience.

"Four years ago, I made a few commitments to you. I told you I’d end the war in Iraq, and I did. I said I’d end the war in Afghanistan, and we are. I said we’d refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 — and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is no more," he said in a campaign stop in San Francisco on Oct. 9.

Two days later, in another campaign stop in Miami, Obama said nearly the same thing.

"Four years ago, I told you we’d end the war in Iraq — and we did. I said that we’d end the war in Afghanistan — and we are. I said that we’d refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 — and today, al Qaeda is on its heels and Osama bin Laden is dead," he said.

The attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on 9/11 was reportedly the work of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is thought to have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).

This month, the White House has been slowly but surely adding qualifications to its claims of progress in destroying al Qaeda, which has seen its ranks in North Africa increase recently.

For example, on Sept. 19 White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan has "allowed us to take the fight to al Qaeda in the region in a way that we had not been able to before; that led to the decimation of al Qaeda’s leadership."

By Oct. 10, after reports emerged tying al Qaeda links the Benghazi attack, Carney was specifying that al Qaeda "central" was hurting in two specific countries.

"Well, what we have said all along, what the president has said all along, is that … progress has been made in decimating the senior ranks of al Qaeda and in decimating al Qaeda central in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region," adding that al Qaeda "remains our No. 1 foe."

Carney repeated his qualification that al Qaeda is hurting in Southwest Asia, but not necessarily in North Africa, two days later.

"[Obama] has made clear that he would refocus attention on what was a neglected war in Afghanistan, refocus our mission on al Qaeda, and decimating al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan — he has," Carney said Oct. 12.

In his debate Oct. 11, Vice President Joe Biden also declined to say that al Qaeda was completely decimated or on its heels during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan.

"The fact is we went [to Afghanistan] for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans — al Qaeda," Biden said "We decimated al Qaeda central; we have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.