The South Asia Channel

Don’t put all the security eggs in the al Qaeda basket

Don’t put all the security eggs in the al Qaeda basket

By Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman

Faced with commander McChrystal’s grim new security assessment, the Obama administration stands on the brink of making major reforms to its Afghanistan strategy — one that is further complicated by reports of election fraud that diminish the legitimacy of its partner government in Kabul. Still the debate within the White House is said to be circling back to whether the president’s stated goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan — to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” the al Qaeda terrorist network — can best be accomplished by a lengthy, on-the-ground and resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban insurgency or through more targeted strikes and use of special operations forces against foreign, internationally-oriented terrorists.

But such a focus is not only misleading, it’s detrimental: If U.S. policymakers decide to view Afghanistan solely in terms of al Qaeda, determining the best strategy will be impossible.

Recently, National Security Advisor Jim Jones described al Qaeda’s presence in the country as “very diminished,” and said the country was not in “imminent danger of falling.” In its attempt to maintain public support for the Afghan mission the Obama administration mischaracterizes the threat to U.S. interests in this region, not to mention undercutting support for any future efforts that extend beyond defeating al Qaeda. The problems in Afghanistan are far more encompassing. Even if the United States dismantled al Qaeda tomorrow, there would still be demand for U.S. engagement. Afghanistan is a crucial piece of regional stability and its security is linked to the United States and its allies such as European countries, Pakistan, India and others. 

In fact, the insurgency’s momentum in Afghanistan is driven far more by the Afghan government’s ineffectiveness and corruption than by al Qaeda’s desires to establish a caliphate and/or expel international forces. The August 20 elections, marred by abuse and backroom deals, confirmed Afghans’ worst suspicions about their central government and its desire to serve Afghans. The warlords and regional powerbrokers that the U.S., NATO and Karzai governments have relied upon since 2002, have only strengthened the insurgency’s draw. A further reduction in governance, economic, and military support by the United States and its allies would likely increase reliance on such figures to hold the provinces together while our special forces hunt foreign terrorists — doing little to impede the momentum of the Taliban and associated militant groups.

Narrowing to a counterterrorism focus thus increases the likelihood of a Taliban expansion in Afghanistan. This could result in a number of terrible outcomes for both the Afghan people and the broader region that extend beyond the threat of al Qaeda, including a civil war and an accompanying humanitarian crisis, the risk of more terrorist attacks against India, Pakistan, and beyond, and the potential for escalating proxy conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

The Afghan insurgency maintains ideological and operational linkages with a range of militant groups in Pakistan, even though these groups are organizationally distinct and not unified in their priorities. These networks include those targeting the Pakistani state such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, sectarian terrorist groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and India-focused groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. While the Afghan Taliban leadership’s goals are primarily locally focused, their shared experiences with these groups make it likely that they will provide assent, if not active participation, in their campaigns against Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Furthermore, a withdrawal of U.S. and NATO support from state-building efforts might cause regional players to increase their support for different factions in Afghanistan who are sympathetic to their agendas. Elements of Pakistan’s security establishment still view some elements of the Afghan insurgency as malleable strategic assets despite the internal threat posed by these groups. If the United States were to downgrade its focus to limited counterterrorism strikes, one result could be the revival of direct Pakistani efforts to use those militant groups against its traditional rival, India. Other regional players, such as Iran, India, and Russia may chose to support their favorite strongmen to fight against the Taliban in a return to Afghanistan’s civil war of the 1990s.

Progress in stabilizing Afghanistan and diminishing its insurgency ultimately requires governance reforms and institution building that neither troops nor Predator drones can provide. First and foremost, the Obama administration must focus on developing political and economic strategies that can coerce, cajole, or co-opt the Afghan government into taking these necessary steps to ultimately secure stability in Afghanistan.

To date, the United States and NATO have lacked a consistent focus on political efforts in Afghanistan, and political support at home for undertaking this critical mission is waning. Phrasing interests in the region solely in terms of al Qaeda misframes the debate over what must be done to the detriment of both U.S. and regional security. While al Qaeda cannot be ignored, a wider conflagration in South Asia would have even wider repercussions.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior National Security Policy Analyst and Colin Cookman is a Special Assistant for National Security at the Center for American Progress.