Terms of Engagement

An Unnecessary War

Afghanistan used to be the central front in the war against terrorism. Now it's a distraction from it.


First as candidate and later as president, Barack Obama famously described Afghanistan as “a war of necessity:” a war the United States could not afford to lose. Obama restated the case in the speech he gave last December announcing his decision to add 30,000 troops to the battle, asserting that Afghanistan and Pakistan constituted “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda,” and adding that the threat would “only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity.” The only way to counteract this threat, Obama insisted, was to bolster American military capacity, and to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy to “increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.”

Most of the debate around Obama’s war plans has centered on that counterinsurgency strategy: Is President Hamid Karzai too corrupt and erratic, are the Afghan people too hostile to foreign forces, is institution-building too intrinsically difficult, and are Afghan security forces too inept to justify the massive and belated effort to build Afghan stability and capacity? But this is actually the secondary issue. The central question is: Is it necessary? Would withdrawal in fact gravely jeopardize American national security?

The recent tentative overtures which Gen. David Petraeus has made to Taliban leaders show that this is no idle question. Although the official American position is that the Taliban must accept the authority of the state, a far likelier outcome is that U.S. and Afghan forces would withdraw from areas which would then be effectively occupied by the Taliban. How bad would that be?

In their recent report, “A New Way Forward,” the members of the Afghanistan Study Group, a panel convened by the New America Foundation, argue flatly that Obama was wrong in thinking that Al Qaeda would “operate with impunity” in the space vacated by NATO forces. “Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is very small,” they write, and thus containable with classic counterterrorism measures. Moreover, the Taliban “would likely not invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence” in a re-Talibanized Afghanistan. In fact, the authors argue, “the current U.S. military effort is helping fuel the very insurgency we are attempting to defeat.” University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape, a member of the panel, has concluded after a study of 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks that foreign military presence itself is the chief trigger of terrorist attacks.

How plausible is all this? Let’s take the claims one at a time. Administration officials have estimated that no more than 400 or so members of al Qaeda remain in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda is arguably a spent force, depending increasingly on zealous but ineffective volunteers. Marc Sageman, a CIA veteran now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has asserted in congressional testimony that more than three-quarters of the terrorist plots against the West executed or foiled over the last five years have been carried out by “homegrown terrorists” with no organizational connection to al Qaeda — a phenomenon he calls “leaderless jihad.” Focusing vast resources on any piece of geographical space is thus a strategic mistake.

On the other hand, the terrorism expert Peter Bergen argues that “the numbers are a red herring.” Osama bin Laden only had 200 loyalists at the time of 9/11, after all, and still managed to do a great deal of damage. What’s more, he adds, since al Qaeda “has infected other groups they’re embedded with,” including the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani body which carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, counting al Qaeda alone is misleading. And the lack of recent spectacular attacks hardly proves that al Qaeda central is history. Today’s headlines that packages containing explosive devices were sent from Yemen to two synagogues in Chicago may indicate that al Qaeda is still capable of mounting terror operations overseas. Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert who helped shape the Obama administration AfPak policy and now serves as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written that the failed plots of the “Christmas bomber” and of the Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi show that al Qaeda has in fact regrouped. Had either succeeded, no one would be talking about the organization’s decline.

Bergen also takes issue with the claim that the Taliban wouldn’t be as foolish as to let al Qaeda tag along if and when they re-occupy much of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban are not “rational actors,” he says. “Housing al Qaeda was not a rational act. And there’s no reason to believe they would behave any differently from the way they did before.” Nor, says Bergen, is it correct to say that the Taliban have no goals beyond overthrowing the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some sub-groups do; others don’t.

How can one predict whether or not Taliban leaders will do what Westerners would deem the rational thing? Patrick Cronin, a national security specialist with the Center for a New American Security and a signatory of “A New Way Forward,” is candid enough to say, “We don’t know.” The Taliban might well put out a welcome mat for al Qaeda-style groups. The Haqqanis, who have carried out many of the suicide attacks against NATO forces and have worked closely with al Qaeda, are “the nub of the problem,” Cronin says, because a Haqqani presence in eastern Afghanistan would offer a new platform for international jihadists. But Cronin notes that Pakistani security forces, which have long sponsored the Haqqanis, do not want to see an al Qaeda connection and have been trying to “rein them in.” The Haqqanis may have to be included in any final settlement — Pakistan will insist on it — but NATO forces will continue pounding the frontier areas.

But “can the effort succeed?” and “how bad would failure be?” are not quite the same question. On the first, much evidence has piled up; and most, though not all, of it points to “No.” Counterinsurgency strategy doesn’t work with a corrupt and illegitimate government, and an insurgency that can take shelter beyond the Pakistani border. But experience to date tells us almost nothing about the second question. Paul Pillar, another veteran CIA officer and signatory of “A New Way Forward,” argues that the Haqqani-al Qaeda link “is not immutable.” That may be; but there’s no more evidence on that subject than on the rationality, or irrationality, of the Taliban. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Leslie Gelb has consistently argued that a troop reduction in Afghanistan, like the withdrawal from Vietnam, would provoke apocalyptic fears but prove to be an anti-climax. I find that notion appealing, though not necessarily persuasive.

But all costs are relative. And against the uncertain benefits of maintaining a very large military presence in Afghanistan over the next three to four years are the very large costs of staying in such large numbers. The $100 billion a year or so in resources may be the least of it. Whether or not Pape is right that foreign military presence itself is the cause of terrorism, it is surely a provocation in the eyes of millions of Muslims, some tiny fraction of whom will be moved to attack the West. And whether or not Sageman is right that al Qaeda-centric terrorism has given way to leaderless jihad, the focus on Afghanistan absorbs assets needed for criminal justice and surveillance efforts in all the other places where terrorism now germinates. The war is a terrible drain on Washington’s attention, and on U.S. soft power and prestige. “It’s hard to be taken seriously in Asia when we are still bogged down in Afghanistan,” as Cronin says.

There are very few true wars of necessity. The Civil War was one; World War II was another. When Mullah Omar refused to give up Osama bin Laden, a war in Afghanistan became necessary. But then the war changed character, and the nature of the adversary changed as well. A war against Islamic terrorism, in some form, remains necessary. But the war in Afghanistan does not.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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