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August 10, 2009

How Big Is The Threat from Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Wall Street Journal, my old colleague Seth Jones makes the reasonable argument that if America wants to achieve success in Afghanistan its energy must be focused on the local level and not building up the central government. Here's his solution:

In some areas, local tribes and villages have already tried to resist the Taliban, but have been heavily outmatched. The solution should be obvious: They should be strongly supported. This may include helping establish village-level “community watch” programs centered on the jirga, the legitimate governing institution in Pashtun areas. In some places, jirgas are composed primarily of tribal leaders, who adjudicate disputes and mete out justice. In others, they include religious and other figures. Finding ways for organizations like the Afghan army to support village-level forces, such as developing a quick reaction force when villages come under attack, would give the people a reason to ally with the central government.

Ok, fair enough, but considering that the Afghan army can't even be relied upon to support the Marine offensive in Helmand Province how exactly are they going to be marshaled to do what Jones ambitiously describes - and how long do US troops need to be in the country to achieve that goal? It's not that I don't agree with Jones's overall point, but the lack of specificity on how he would do it does not exactly inspire me with confidence.

But part of the problem stems from Jones's description of the the threat emanating from Afghanistan - and the faulty assumption on which it lies:

Nearly eight years after the attacks, U.S. and other Western intelligence indicates that al Qaeda is still the most significant threat to the U.S. homeland. Al Qaeda’s key sanctuary has moved from key areas like Jalalabad in 2001 to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan today. That’s about the distance from New York City to Philadelphia.

Earlier this year, the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, noted that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area “is the headquarters of the al Qaeda senior leadership” who are planning attacks on the United States. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also warned that “three quarters of the most serious plots investigated by the British authorities have links to al Qaeda” operating from the border region.

A litany of terrorist attacks and plots has been incubated in this area. The successful March 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, July 2005 attacks in London, foiled 2006 plot to blow up airplanes flying from Britain to the U.S. and Canada, and more recently thwarted plots in Germany, Denmark, Spain and France have a common theme. They all link back to al Qaeda or other affiliated terrorist groups operating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

What’s more, the two most successful insurgent groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban and Haqqani network, have developed a close strategic relationship with al Qaeda. In fact, some assessments indicate that their links are even closer than before 2001. If Americans should have learned anything from September 11, it was that the United States cannot accept a situation where al Qaeda and its allies enjoy a sanctuary to plan and train for terrorist attacks against the United States.

There are several points here that seem dubious at best. First, Jones argues that potential attacks link back to groups operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border - but those groups are all in Pakistan right now, not Afghanistan. And if the US didn't maintain a robust military presence in Afghanistan what would stop the US from using the same drone aircraft to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda that are being utilized in Pakistan?

And the simple fact is that while the Madrid attacks and the London bombing were "incubated" in Af/Pak they were prepared and implemented in Western countries - same goes for the September 11th attacks, which were plotted in Hamburg and executed, in part, by using American flight schools. In fact, the direct links between the Madrid bombers and Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan seem tenuous at best. What's worse, many of the current arguments about Al Qaeda seem to ignore the fact that the terrorist group has been diffused and even franchised around the world since September 11th. We continue act as though drawing down our military engagement in Afghanistan will somehow make America vulnerable again to precisely the same sort of terrorist attack as we were hit with 8 years ago; as if the nature of our enemy and their capabilities hasn't fundamentally changed since then.

And yet Jones oft-repeated, rarely scrutinized rationale for why the US must remain in Afghanistan seems to reflect the reigning Washington Consensus on Afghanistan. Take for example, Senator Carl Levin's statement on Face the Nation yesterday:

So, you know, Afghanistan is a little but different from -- a lot different from Iraq. For one thing, Afghanistan is the place, along with the Pakistan border, that the attackers were trained and harbored, that hit us on 9/11. We took our eye off that ball when we went to Iraq, but now we’ve got our eye on that border. We cannot allow that border to become a safe haven again.

Ugh. Do I have to mention the fact that Al Qaeda has HAD a safe haven since 2002. It's in Pakistan and as near I can tell they haven't been able to execute any serious terrorist plot against the United States since then. Al Qaeda is a non-state actor, which means they can operate in any ungoverned space they can find on the map - Somalia, Yemen, Congo . . . the FATA in Pakistan!

As John Mueller said recently in Foreign Affairs:

No convincing evidence has been offered publicly to show that al Qaeda Central has put together a single full operation anywhere in the world since 9/11. And, outside of war zones, the violence perpetrated by al Qaeda affiliates, wannabes, and lookalikes combined has resulted in the deaths of some 200 to 300 people per year, and may be declining. That is 200 to 300 too many, of course, but it scarcely suggests that "the safety of people around the world is at stake," as Obama dramatically puts it.

This is exactly right. From a cost benefit analysis, trying to build up local community organizations in Afghanistan because if we don't the Taliban might take over Kabul again and then might set up a safe haven for Al Qaeda (which for some reason the US would be powerless to dismantle or disrupt) seems a tad less cost effective way to deal with the threat of terrorism then say improving homeland security and actively containing Al Qaeda leadership in Af/Pak.

Jones says in his piece "The reality, then, is that the United States is stuck in Afghanistan and Pakistan for now." Yeah we are: if we keep believing tired arguments about why we have to remain stuck there.


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I had heard the Afghan president saying fighters for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while still a threat, were not strong enough to topple his government....

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