ORONO, Maine — The United States has made progress in disrupting al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the political instability in other countries in the region is presenting daunting new security threats, according to a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer who will visit the University of Maine this week.
Bruce Riedel will speak at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the University of Maine’s Buchanan Alumni House, where he plans to discuss the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden and the future of the war on terror. Riedel’s presentation will be free and open to the public.
Riedel, who has served on the board of advisers for the School of Policy and International Affairs at UMaine for five years, retired from the CIA in 2006 after 30 years of service. He was a senior adviser on South Asia and the Middle East to the past four presidents as a staff member of the National Security Council at the White House. He also was deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Near East and South Asia at the Pentagon and a senior adviser at NATO in Brussels.
“We have made significant progress in the battle against al-Qaida in the past four years,” Riedel said during a telephone interview Monday afternoon. The killing of bin Laden in May 2011 and drone attacks that have killed other high-level al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan have weakened al-Qaida’s operations in those countries, according to Riedel.
“At the same time, we face serious challenges as we go forward,” he said.
Al-Qaida’s influence is spreading across the region, a result of political upheaval spurred by the Arab Spring — a series of demonstrations, protests and violence in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other Arab countries.
“We’re seeing a very profound transition in the Arab world in the last two years,” one more significant than any event in the Arab world in the past century, with former police states attempting to move to more democratic forms of government, Riedel said.
“It also creates a certain degree of chaos,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was killed on Sept. 11 during an assault on the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi. Officials at first said the attack was sparked by a protest over an anti-Muslim video trailer produced in the United States, but the White House later said it believed an al-Qaida affiliate could have been responsible.
The threat of further attacks remains high, and the U.S. needs to find ways to keep its diplomats and embassies safe, Riedel argued. “Al Qaida has always thrived in chaotic, broken states,” he said.
He called Stevens’ death “a tragedy,” but said diplomacy can be dangerous and “that’s the price of doing business sometimes.”
As U.S. officials investigate what happened in Benghazi, Riedel said he believes they will find the compound was “vulnerable” and not up to the security standards it deserved.
He argued that the State Department needs generous funding to appropriately meet the growing security needs at its embassies, which are “the frontline overseas.”
Riedel said he doesn’t believe either presidential candidate has appropriately addressed how he would handle foreign policy if elected. Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama will participate in a town-meeting style debate from 9-10:30 p.m. Tuesday, the night before Riedel speaks at UMaine.
The candidates should take the opportunity to clarify their plans on how to proceed in Afghanistan and what level of commitment the U.S. would maintain after withdrawal in 2014.
He also would like to hear the candidates discuss how they plan on handling the country’s tenuous relationship with Pakistan and other Arab nations in the future.
“I think [Pakistan] is the most difficult relationship the United States has today,” he said, citing the heavy presence of al-Qaida there, Pakistan’s fast-growing nuclear arsenal, and the fact that bin Laden was hiding in the country.
“The stakes in Pakistan are huge,” he said.
The U.S. has to determine how to withdraw 60,000 troops from Afghanistan and hand control over to Afghan forces without “undermining the pressure we’re applying in Pakistan,” he said.