Obama faces resurgent al Qaeda in 2014

President Obama and his national security team are facing a number of security threats in the new year.

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From turmoil in Afghanistan to the growth of al Qaeda cells, defense and intelligence officials are grappling with a host of challenges.

Here are the top five threats facing the nation in 2014.

AFGHANISTAN
The Pentagon and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are at odds over the terms of a bilateral security agreement that would set the ground rules for U.S. forces after 2014.

U.S. officials pressed Karzai to ratify the pact by the end of 2013 but backed down over concerns that a deal might collapse.

President Obama is considering a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, but many fear the “zero option” would lead to a repeat of Iraq, where the lack of U.S. forces allowed for a resurgence of al Qaeda and a wave sectarian violence against Iraqi forces and civilians.

Defense officials also fear that the Taliban could quickly return to power.

A recent assessment by U.S. intelligence officials on postwar Afghanistan, first reported by The Washington Post, predicted the Taliban would become increasingly influential in Afghanistan, even if the U.S. leaves several thousand troops behind for training after 2014.

SYRIA
Concern is also mounting in Washington about the rise of al Qaeda in war-torn Syria.

Most recently, the group's Iraqi cell and offshoots in Syria have united into the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. The White House and intelligence officials say the group aspires to hit the U.S. and allied targets in the West.

There are also signs that militant Islamist groups have gained the upper hand in Syria’s civil war.

The unexpected departure of Gen. Salim Idris, head of the secular U.S.-backed Syrian Military Council, "is a big problem" for administration officials who saw the group as the legitimate successor to President Bashar Assad, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last month.
Washington was recently forced to suspend aid shipments to Syrian rebel groups, after members of the Islamic Front took over several warehouses in northern Syria, raising the possibility that the U.S. might have to reassess its strategy.

RESURGENT AL QAEDA
Al Qaeda's resurgence hasn’t been limited to Syria and the Middle East.

The group's Yemeni faction, dubbed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the North African affiliate, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are the two most dangerous and most active terror cells looking to strike inside the United States.

The State Department in August was forced to shutter 19 embassies across the Middle East and North Africa in response to an AQAP plot that was picked up by U.S. intelligence.

Most recently, fighters from the Yemeni branch launched a deadly suicide bombing in the country's capitol of Sanaa, targeting Yemen's Defense Ministry.

In Africa, meanwhile, AQIM leaders have strengthened their ties to local terror groups like Al Shabaab and the Nigerian-based terror group Boko Haram.

U.S. military and intelligence officials are struggling to infiltrate the African-based terror groups. The relatively small network of intelligence assets on the continent pales in comparison to the resources available in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CHINA
U.S. military strategists also face a challenge in curtailing China's aggressive expansion in the Asia-Pacific region.

Chinese leaders instituted a series of new rules for U.S. allied military aircraft operating in the skies above the Diaoyutai islands, known as the Senkaku islands in China, in the East China Sea.

The rules, which are part of Beijing's so-called "Air Defense Identification Zone," require U.S. forces to identify themselves and their mission to Chinese forces.

Prior to creation of the restricted zone, the area over the East China Sea was considered international airspace.

China's decision drew strong rebuke from the Pentagon, who refused to recognize the no-fly zone. Hagel said the move "increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations" between Washington and China.

China’s recent actions are a reflection of wider geo-political perceptions of the Obama administration, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Hill in December.

“Countries like China will push because they think they can get away with it,” he said.

IRAN
The U.S. is trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, but there’s no guarantee of success.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators agreed to a six-month deal that requires Iran to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent for six months, dilute half of the 20 percent enriched uranium and stop upgrading various enrichment facilities.

In return, the Obama White House agreed to lift sanctions on Iran's petrochemical, precious metals and auto sectors.

But congressional Republicans and several U.S. allies, led by Israel, have been adamantly opposed to the deal, arguing the pact would allow Tehran to continue its effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

With criticism mounting, it’s possible the nuclear talks will end in failure, and put the U.S. and Iran on the path to conflict.