The Jan. 12 front-page article “Obama, Karzai hasten handoff” included this statement by President Obama: “We achieved our central goal, or have come very close to achieving our central goal, which is to de-capacitate al-Qaeda, to dismantle them, to make sure that they can’t attack us again.”

If Mr. Obama believes that we are close to eliminating al-Qaeda’s capacities, he should tell the French soldiers who recently went into combat in Mali to prevent that country’s takeover by al-Qaeda-allied guerrillas. Or the Syrian rebels who are losing their struggle to keep al-Qaeda’s offspring from taking over the revolt against Bashar al-Assad.

That al-Qaeda is a formal organization, one that can be “dismantled,” is a dangerous misconception. It obscures the fact that al-Qaeda is a symptom of ferocious religious beliefs sweeping the Middle East and metastasizing throughout northern Africa. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but bin Ladenism thrives.

While Egypt slips steadily toward radical Islamist control, Somalia’s al-Shabab harbors al-Qaeda fighters fresh from Afghan battlefields. The violent extremist Boko Haram network threatens not only Nigeria but also Chad, Cameroon and Niger. And Mali’s neighbor, Mauritania, has been combating al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) without success since 2005.

The abrupt enthusiasm last year within the adminstration for the United States to achieve a “strategic balance” in the Pacific resembles the decision of a family to flee a violent urban neighborhood for a safer suburb. Perhaps the Pacific may offer some safe harbor until bin Ladenism finds voice in Indonesia’s al-Qaeda-affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah, or in Abu Sayyaf of the Philippines.

Robert Andrews, Washington

The writer was a special assistant to the secretary of the Army from 2007 to 2009.