WASHINGTON — Twice in the last week, the United States has focused its vast manhunting machinery on tracking down and striking terrorist leaders in anarchic countries that for the White House once embodied the promise of the Arab revolutions across the Middle East.
A drone strike in Yemen killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who had built a terror franchise feared in the capitals of the West. Days later, the Pentagon dispatched F-15 jets to Libya to kill Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who in 2013 planned the seizure of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 foreign hostages died. On Tuesday, it was still uncertain whether he had been among those killed in the attack.
The strikes may prove to be lasting victories for the mode of long-distance warfare embraced by President Obama, but the ultimate impact of killing terrorist leaders like Mr. Wuhayshi remains to be seen. The administration and its foreign allies have been unable to stem the chaos in Yemen and Libya, and hopes that a new democratic order could emerge after the fall of dictators have been reduced to far more humble goals.
In the 18 months remaining in Mr. Obama’s presidency, and with Qaeda and Islamic State fighters filling a power vacuum in both Yemen and Libya, the occasional killing of militant leaders might be the most the administration can hope to achieve in the two war-racked countries.
“At the moment, we’re very limited in what we can do in places like Yemen and Libya,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He said that in Yemen, Obama administration officials had once spoken about economic development, improving water supplies and rebuilding civil society.
“Now,” he said, “we’re pretty much back to counterterrorism operations.”
Mr. Wuhayshi is the most senior Qaeda operative killed since Osama bin Laden in 2011 — he had assumed the role of the global terror network’s second-ranking leader — and American officials said his death would disrupt Qaeda operations throughout the region. In a statement released on Tuesday, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said its military commander, Qassim al-Raymi, had been chosen as Mr. Wuhayshi’s successor.Image Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images
“Let it be known to the enemies of God that their battle is not only with one person or figure, no matter how important,” a senior Qaeda operative, Khaled Batarfi, said in a statement. “To the infidel America: God has kept alive those who will trouble your life and make you taste the bitterness of defeat.”
A spokesman for the National Security Council, Ned Price, on Tuesday called Mr. Wuhayshi’s death a “major blow” to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He said it “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
“The president has been clear that terrorists who threaten the United States will not find safe haven in any corner of the globe,” Mr. Price said.
The 2011 collapse of the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen led to glimmers of hope for a brighter future there. Mr. Saleh had governed the country for decades, pitting various factions inside the country against one another to shore up power. His successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, became a close partner of the Obama administration, working to develop a counterterrorism strategy as well as a broader campaign of economic and political development in Yemen.
But Yemen dissolved into full-blown civil war last year as Shiite Houthi rebels took over Sana, the capital, and forced Mr. Hadi and his ministers into exile. Al Qaeda has gained strength in the anarchy and has forged new alliances with Sunni tribes to fight the Houthis. In April, the group seized control of Al Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city, reportedly capturing millions of dollars from the vaults of the central bank.
Adding to the violence in Yemen is an air campaign led by Saudi Arabia to dislodge the Houthis from control of Sana. The Obama administration is backing the offensive with intelligence and logistical support, which has put the United States in the strange position in Yemen of attacking Al Qaeda and the terror group’s main enemy, the Houthis, at the same time.
“If you’re looking for logic here, you’re not going to find much,” said Stephen Seche, who was the United States ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. Still, Mr. Seche said that America’s ability to mitigate the violence and political stalemate in Yemen and Libya was so limited that the Obama administration had little choice but to focus on the narrow mission of counterterrorism operations.Video In a video statement made by a man identified as Khaled Batarfi, a senior operative, Al Qaeda in Yemen confirmed that its leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi was killed in a U.S. airstrike.CreditCreditReuters
As the revolt against Mr. Saleh was taking hold in Yemen in 2011, Libyans rose up against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. When he appeared to threaten to kill thousands of civilians, a broad coalition of European and Arab countries joined the United States to contain and then oust the Libyan dictator.
This “leading from behind” approach of the Obama administration drew derision from some Republicans. But the campaign was effective, relieved the United States of assuming the whole burden of the campaign and seemed to promise at least a possibility of peaceful progress.
Those prospects were swiftly overtaken by a geographic, tribal and ideological power struggle.
“The hope was to work with allies and local groups to reduce or contain the chaos,” said Daniel L. Byman, a professor at Georgetown and the research director of the Middle East program at the Brookings Institution. “But the violence took on a life of its own.”
When Mr. Obama ran for president in 2008, he was sharply critical of the George W. Bush administration for failing to plan adequately to keep order after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Mr. Byman noted. Now, Mr. Obama faces similar accusations about Libya, Yemen and other countries.
But Daniel Benjamin, who was the State Department’s top counterterrorism official from 2009 to 2012 and is now at Dartmouth, said the idea that proper planning might have changed the outcome ignored the scale and pace of the greatest change in the Middle East since World War I.
“The forces that drove the Arab Spring were of such enormous dimensions that it’s unrealistic to think any president or any group of leaders could steer these events,” Mr. Benjamin said.
Some point to the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States committed hundreds of billions of dollars and the lives of thousands of troops. Both countries remain mired in conflict.
“We have to recognize after Afghanistan and Iraq the limited ability to shape events even by using overwhelming military force,” Mr. Schiff said. “The battles can be won. They just don’t stay won.”
Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Baghdad.A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: For U.S., Killing Terrorists Is a Means to an Elusive End . Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe