Afghanistan and Pakistan at the SFRC
AfPak Channel editor and New America Foundation senior fellow Peter Bergen is testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon at 2:30pm at a hearing entitled “Confronting al Qaeda: understanding the threat in Afghanistan and beyond.” Peter’s prepared testimony draws a distinction between al Qaeda’s threat to the U.S. homeland and to U.S. interests ...
AfPak Channel editor and New America Foundation senior fellow Peter Bergen is testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon at 2:30pm at a hearing entitled “Confronting al Qaeda: understanding the threat in Afghanistan and beyond.” Peter’s prepared testimony draws a distinction between al Qaeda’s threat to the U.S. homeland and to U.S. interests and allies abroad:
Today the al Qaeda organization no longer poses a direct national security threat to the United States itself, but rather poses a second-order threat in which the worst case scenario would be an al Qaeda-trained terrorist managing to pull off an attack on the scale of something in between the 1993 Trade Center attack, which killed six, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, which killed 168. While this, of course, would be tragic, it would not constitute a mass casualty attack sufficiently large in scale to reorient American national security policy completely as the 9/11 attacks did.
Today the al Qaeda the organization continues to pose a substantial threat to US interests overseas and could still pull off an attack that would kill hundreds of Americans as was the plan during the ‘planes plot’ of 2006. No Western country is more threatened by al Qaeda than the United Kingdom, although a spate of arrests and successful prosecutions over the past four years have degraded the terrorist’s group’s capability in the UK.
Peter notes several factors that are putting pressure on al Qaeda: “ramped-up American drone attacks in the tribal regions of Pakistan where the group is headquartered; far better intelligence on militants based in those tribal areas; increasingly negative Pakistani public and governmental attitudes towards militant jihadist groups based in Pakistan; and similar sentiments among publics and governments around the Muslim world in general.”
Peter also points out al Qaeda’s four strategic problems which he assesses will lead to its “long-term destruction”: al Qaeda keeps killing Muslims civilians; has not created a genuine mass political movement like Hizbullah; has no positive vision of the future; and its leaders have constantly expanded their list of enemies.
New America Foundation president Steve Coll testified before the SFRC as well last week about Afghanistan’s impact on Pakistan and observed the following about the Obama administration’s options in the region.
If the United States signals to Pakistan’s military command that it intends to abandon efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, or that it has set a short clock running on the project of pursuing Afghan stability, or that it intends to undertake its regional policy primarily through a strategic partnership with India, then it will only reinforce the beliefs of those in the Pakistani security establishment who argue that nursing the Taliban is in the country’s national interests.
To the extent that U.S. actions in Afghanistan reinforce this view within the Pakistani security services, it will contribute to instability in Pakistan and weaken the hand of Pakistani political parties and civil society in their long, unfinished struggle to build a more successful, more durable constitutional system, modeled on the power-sharing systems, formal and informal, that prevail today in previously coup-riddled or unstable countries such as Turkey, Indonesia, the Philippines, Argentina and Brazil.
If the United States undertakes a heavily militarized, increasingly unilateral policy in Afghanistan, whether in the name of “counterinsurgency,” “counterterrorism,” or some other abstract Western doctrine, without also adopting an aggressive political, reconciliation and diplomatic strategy that more effectively incorporates Pakistan into efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, then it will also reinforce the beliefs of those in the Pakistani security establishment that they need the Taliban as a hedge against the U.S. and India.
If the United States adopts a “counterterrorism-only” policy in Afghanistan and substantially withdraws from Afghanistan, it will risk deepening instability along the Pakistan-Afghan border, and it will reinforce the narrative of its failed, self-interested policies in Pakistan during the Musharraf period and in earlier periods, undermining the prospects for a Pakistan that evolves gradually toward internal stability and a constructive regional role.
On the other hand, if the United States signals to Pakistan’s military command that it intends to pursue very long-term policies designed to promote stability and prosperity in South Asia and Central Asia, and that it sees a responsible Pakistan as a decades-long strategic ally comparable to Turkey and Egypt, then it will have a reasonable if uncertain chance to persuade the Pakistani security establishment over time that the costs of succoring the Taliban and like groups outweigh the benefits.
Between withdrawal signals and blind militarization there is a more sustainable strategy, one that I hope the Obama Administration is the in the process of defining. It would make clear that the Taliban will never be permitted to take power in Kabul or major cities. It would seek and enforce stability in Afghan population centers but emphasize politics over combat, urban stability over rural patrolling, Afghan solutions over Western ones, and it would incorporate Pakistan more directly into creative and persistent diplomatic efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and the region.
That is the only plausible path to a modernizing, prosperous South Asia. It is a future within reach and it is a model for evolutionary political-military success already established in other regions of the world that recently suffered deep instability rooted in extremism, identity politics, and fractured civil-military relations, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Both Peter Bergen and Steve Coll are longtime observers of the region, and I encourage you to peruse their testimonies carefully.
Update: I live-tweeted the hearing today; check it out here.
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