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December 07, 2009

Getting the Focus Right?
Posted by Patrick Barry

How would you rate the likelihood of an Al-Qaeda return to Afghanistan absent a U.S. policy of surge\prolonged surge\escalation? The answer should reveal a lot about whether you think the core interest of thwarting a terrorist attack on US soil depends directly on achieving a certain level of stability in Afghanistan.  Over the weekend, General Jones drew a strong correlation between the ultimate goal of defeating Al-Qaeda, and the secondary objective of stabilizing Afghanistan in an interview with Wolf Blitzer:
Wolf Blitzer: All right, less than 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and the United States needs 100,000 troops to fight less than 100 al Qaeda operatives?

General Jones: Well, the mission is obviously to keep it that way.

Ok. Of course no one wants the 9/11 people returning to Afghanistan.  But Jones' statements in support of keeping Afghanistan Al-Qaeda-free coincided with new evidence casting further doubt on the possibility of that happening.  Not only was there this letter from longtime jihadi and Taliban adviser Egyptian-born Abu Walid al-Masri saying that the Taliban wouldn't welcome Al-Qaeda back, in part because "the majority of the population is against al-Qa'ida," but the Taliban, in its response to the President's West Point speech, makes the same point as Blitzer: there's a disconnect between the shift in U.S. policy, and the actual threat posed by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. 

Even if Al-Qaeda was allowed to return to Afghanistan, there's little reason to think that it would, an observation made by David Kilcullen at an NSN event last month. Kilcullen noted that in many ways, Pakistan is a much richer operating environment.  Not only is there a radicalized and ungoverned population willing to give it shelter, but there also aren't likely to be 100,000 U.S. troops in Pakistan anytime soon. Pakistan is also arguably a better safe-haven for terrorists planning destablizing attacks in the region than Afghanistan, a fact illustrated by the Mumbai attacks last year.

All of this goes a long way toward confirming for me a point commonly made by skeptics of the Administration's approach: stability in Afghanistan is only a core U.S. interest to the extent it impacts Pakistan, and that preventing instability in Pakistan is only a core U.S. interest to the extent it benefits Al-Qaeda terrorists targeting the U.S. That's a fairly complicated, but not impossible, case to state before the American people. It worries me that Administration officials are only making it in pieces.


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McChrystal's request likely includes both combat forces and trainers for Afghan security forces.As far as I know among all Americans, the divide is almost even, with 48% in favor, 45% opposed. Most of those opposed say Obama should begin to withdraw U.S. troops rather than commit more.

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