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October 07, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Empowerment Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

My befuddlement over Bill Galston's comments regarding General McChrystal are matched only by my befuddlement over the comments made by Secretary of Defense Gates yesterday regarding the potential costs of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan

The  thing to remember about Afghanistan is that that country, and particularly the Afghan-Pakistan border, is the modern epicenter of jihad. It is where the Mujahedeen defeated the other superpower. And their view is, in my opinion, that they now have the opportunity to defeat a second superpower, which, more than anything, would empower their message and the opportunity to recruit, to fundraise and to plan operations.

  . . . There's no question in my mind that if the Taliban took large – took control of significant portions of Afghanistan, that that would be added space for al Qaeda to strengthen itself and more recruitment and more fundraising.

But what's more important than that, in my view, is the message that it sends that empowers al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, in many respects, is an ideology. And the notion that they have come back from this defeat -- come back from 2002, to challenge not only the United States, but NATO -- 42 nations and so on -- is a hugely empowering message, should they be successful.

I'm really not sure how to reconcile these comments with those that I read in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:

Hunted by U.S. drones, beset by money problems and finding it tougher to lure young Arabs to the bleak mountains of Pakistan, al Qaeda is seeing its role shrink there and in Afghanistan, according to intelligence reports and Pakistani and U.S. officials. Conversations intercepted by the U.S. show al Qaeda fighters complaining of shortages of weapons, clothing and, in some cases, food.

That report comes on the heels of a Guardian story from last month that indicates al Qaeda is down to 200 core operatives. So to be as blunt as possible who really cares if our withdrawal from Afghanistan "empowers al Qaeda"? They are a shell of an organization that is being consistently hounded not just in the FATA, but in Somalia and Indonesia. What's more, their resonance in the Muslim has declined precipitously. They lack the very capacity or ideological influence to turn such a "retreat" into a fundraising and recruitment opportunity.

It seems to me what would empower al Qaeda is not only statements like the one above by Gates, but indeed the very notion that the United States would allow themselves to be bogged down in a protracted, military intervention to prevent an organization that hasn't launched an attack on the United States in more than 8 years from getting a public relations boost. 

And when it comes to empowering al Qaeda, while Gates may be correct that leaving Afghanistan will be a boost to the organization so too would the continued presence of US troops in the country - just as the continued presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and the perception of US meddling in the region gave impetus to al Qaeda in the 1990s.

By Gates's logic, the US is held hostage to the propagandizing of al Qaeda. It makes their "interpretation" of US behavior more important than the behavior itself. As I wrote a few weeks ago when David Richards made a similar argument "If NATO decides it is no longer in the alliance's vital interests to remain in Afghanistan or that the current mission is not realistic or achievable, this is practically irrelevant because al Qaeda will interpret this as a victory and become even more empowered - even though they have very little power and influence at this given moment. You're basically giving al Qaeda a veto over any actions taken by the US and NATO. It's no way to run the foreign policy of a mature superpower." 

But perhaps the worst element of this argument is that it feels like a continuation of Dick Cheney's one percent doctrine. If there is even a slight chance that al Qaeda will be empowered by a US and NATO retreat from Afghanistan then we must stay. It's akin to running foreign policy via worst case scenarios as opposed to a careful weighing of costs and benefits. I can't imagine that anyone can reasonably argue that the benefit of not giving al Qaeda a public relations victory is worth the lives of American soldiers and more than $65 billion in taxpayer dollars. But that's the underlying logic of Gates argument.

Consider for a moment that by one estimate, 18,000 Americans die every year because they don't have health insurance. If you do a bit of creative extrapolation that means that about 144,000 Americans have died since September 11th because they lack health care coverage. Yet for 8 years we basically accepted in this country that hundreds of thousands of Americans would die rather than use the levers of the state to do something about it. The same lack of attention exists around drug treatment and prevention, prenatal care, education, the effects of climate change etc. But when it comes to the possibility that al Qaeda might be empowered by the lack of application of US military force . . money and attention has no limit. This is not to say that we shouldn't worry about al Qaeda, but the allocation of resources devoted to the threat from a desiccated terrorist organization, when actual Americans are dying or being hurt right here in this country, is shameful.


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Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Empowerment Version

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