Rethinking Objectives in Afghanistan
The United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda. It should stay that way.
The sense of unknown was pervasive during the CIA’s nightly al Qaeda threat briefings in the first years after 9/11. Was a second catastrophe in progress? Were its perpetrators deployed? Might they use chemical, biological, or nuclear material? Our knowledge of al Qaeda grew quickly in 2002 and afterward, but we knew that our window into the group was nowhere near good enough to assure policymakers, legislators, and the American people that we in the agency, where I served from as deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center from 2003 to 2005, could prevent another strike.
The United States entered Afghanistan to resolve this threat, to hunt those who had orchestrated the 9/11 murders, and to disrupt, then dismantle, the network that would organize future plots. The Bonn diplomatic process that resulted in the creation of Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul supported this goal of uprooting and eviscerating al Qaeda. We would help Afghanistan choose legitimate, competent leaders who would not allow terrorist safe havens on Afghan soil. But there was not going to be any nation-building effort, and certainly not on the scale of the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe. U.S. troops weren’t fighting in the hills of Tora Bora as a result of civil unrest and Taliban atrocities: After all, we chose not to intervene in Afghanistan before the attacks, despite rampant human rights abuses and seemingly interminable chaos. We simply wanted to stop attacks at home.
Now, nine years later, the link between terrorism and the war is obscure. Americans now wonder why their sons are still fighting and dying for the Karzai government, with its periodic criticism of coalition operations and reputation for corruption, including during elections this year. Yet we are still there, perhaps because we have incurred such a cost by intervening in Afghanistan that we cannot bear to consider disinvesting. Perhaps because our national reputation is at stake: Cut out now and we will be perceived as shortsighted (remember the Somalia and Lebanon withdrawals during the 1990s), not a characteristic of great powers. This is not to say we should be cautious about setting withdrawal timetables; instead, our question might be how we maintain a counterterrorism capability rather than whether we have the capability to oversee a return to some sort of Afghan normalcy.
We shouldn’t delink these problems, though, for brutal but inescapable national security reasons: If our initial intervention stemmed from the attacks, should not follow-on decisions, such as whether to speak to the Taliban about reconciliation, relate directly to the al Qaeda fight? If we want to destroy al Qaeda, does our current strategy of isolating the Taliban — which has a far greater penetration of Afghan society and provincial life that we or the Kabul government ever will — make sense? It does if we want to build a civil society; it doesn’t if we want local Taliban leaders to limit an al Qaeda presence because it might interfere with their goal of creating an Afghan emirate.
Over the long term, the Taliban, a Pashtun movement with limited aims, will not threaten U.S. national security interests; al Qaeda, if it resuscitates, just might. More pointedly, a deal with Taliban elements might help us pursue al Qaeda and limit our investment in Afghanistan, but it will result in human rights abuses and, possibly, a new civil war. We might remember that these problems, however disturbing from a Western perspective, were not sufficient cause for us to intervene in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. We went in for national security interests, not to extend good governance. If we believe that we now owe more to the country, after nine years of intervention, we should be clear about the implications: We won’t be able to create a civil society; this expanded goal is not a part of a counterterrorism strategy; and our investment in blood and money will have to be far greater than it is today. We underinvested nine years ago; we are paying the price now.
If we return to linking these two issues — al Qaeda and our intervention in Afghanistan — we would have to accept a painful reality that no force presence is likely to change. No power, from the British to the Russians to any Afghan government, has exercised control over the country’s ethnically diverse provinces. Coalition power has proved equally limited: When insurgents, in this case the Taliban, benefit from local support, even the most heavily armed and technologically adept foreign forces in history — U.S. soldiers and Marines — face an uphill battle in uprooting them.
Assuming both sides are willing to cut a deal instead, there remains, then, the question of whether the Taliban would have the capability to police the country — and whether Taliban leaders, themselves Islamist ideologues, would acquiesce to the presence of foreign fighters who intend to attack the United States. Taliban leaders obviously harbored Osama bin Laden and friends in the past, but it’s not clear how deep their commitment was — they are local tribal leaders, after all, not global jihadists.
To prevent an al Qaeda resurgence, the conversation, long term, might center on how we maintain an intelligence-collection capability to detect terrorist training and how we strike quickly when we find any information suggesting that training is taking place. The fight against al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
Without foreign occupiers for al Qaeda and its allies to fight in Afghanistan, our job in Pakistan might become narrower, and more achievable. It is a safe bet that Pakistani authorities do not much care whether tribes along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan cross into Afghanistan to fight against coalition forces that are viewed negatively throughout Pakistan. But if we eliminate the cause for cross-border activity by bringing in Taliban elements, U.S.-Pakistan tensions will diminish — we won’t need help policing resupply routes through hostile tribal areas, for example, and we won’t need to run cross-border military operations. Conversely, Pakistan might have more motivation to help when it sees a government in Kabul that allows the Pakistani Army to believe that its long-term goal of strategic depth — a comfortable flank in Afghanistan that helps keep the focus on India — isn’t being undermined. Far from believing that we are an ally in this campaign, Pakistan now sees us as an unreliable, sometimes duplicitous, partner. Our support for an Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council is a good strategic move, but in the short term it will help cement Pakistanis’ view that we will abandon them eventually in favor of a far more attractive strategic partnership with their rival in New Delhi.
It’s an equally safe bet that Pakistani officials, including in the security apparatus, are deeply concerned about the Pakistani Taliban and its allies as they attack Pakistani civilians outside the tribal areas and threaten to expand the extremist presence into cities such as Peshawar and Karachi. If we can eliminate the allure of cross-border operations for jihadists in Pakistan’s tribal belt, we might be able to more effectively accomplish what the British — and the Pakistanis — have done in the past: pit one Pakistani tribe against another, with a focus on isolating those that harbor al Qaeda elements. Rough politics, maybe. But we’re not going to eliminate al Qaeda by Hellfire missile alone, and the Pakistani security forces have spent nine years showing us they’re not going to do it either, especially not for us. The only remaining lever is those who own the territory — the tribes — and they don’t operate by our rules.
We should go into any of these policy evolutions with our eyes wide open. A return of the Taliban in Kabul might well result in a renewed civil war as the Northern Alliance that joined us to oust the Taliban grows nervous that we will allow the return of their enemy, and rearms. Let’s not sidestep the potential human rights implications either: Abuses will escalate, sharply. But we fought the Taliban because they harbored terrorists, not because they failed to provide a healthy civil society. For the future, nation-building will remain a mirage in Afghanistan, with nine years of futility as proof. But destroying al Qaeda is a reachable goal, and a far more salient one for the United States. We’ve now turned these priorities around.