Is Afghanistan Really a Critical Base for Terrorism?
If al Qaeda needs Afghanistan as a safe haven, we can't afford to leave.
The complexities of Afghanistan defy salvation by the answer to any single question. Still, one issue lies at the center of the future of America's mission there: does the al Qaeda-led global jihad need it for a safe haven? If an Afghan foothold allows al Qaeda Inc. to plan attacks against the United States, whether directly or indirectly, then there's a good case for sticking around for a while. If al Qaeda can just set up equally effective operations elsewhere, regardless of what the United States does in Afghanistan, then there's a good case for getting out sooner rather than later.
President Obama has now answered. He plans to send 30,000 more troops to engage in a targeted yet robust counterinsurgency campaign aiming to secure the population, build up government forces, and defeat irreconcilable elements of the Taliban allied with al Qaeda and its friends.
Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard, has questioned this strategy. He argues that "defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan isn't the key to thwarting al Qaeda." That is true, but it's also a straw man. There is no single key. Al Qaeda must be confronted on many fronts, in many lands, using all instruments of national policy.
It is enough that Afghanistan is a central front. According to Peter Bergen, a journalist who interviewed Osama bin Laden as early as 1997, al Qaeda training camps are critical to its ability to mount meaningful attacks. As he points out, virtually all recent plots targeting the West, including the recent case of Najibullah Zazi, link to operatives who underwent intensive training in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And we can't quite go into the latter.
Contra Walt, al Qaeda needs more than "safe houses … and a supply of potential martyrs." It needs trainers, time, freedom of movement, and access to networks that can resource them. These are all harder to come by in alternate countries like Yemen and Somalia where the group's roots are shallower and American countermeasures and intelligence operations are logistically quite simpler. To say that al Qaeda could just as well set up shop elsewhere is to misapprehend the continued payoffs of bin Laden's three decade-long investment in Afghanistan and its Taliban elements.
Indeed, notwithstanding occasional grumblings and second-guessing, the Taliban's synergies with al Qaeda should not be underestimated. If the country slides into Taliban hands once again, it is difficult to conclude that chief Taliban leaders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Mullah Omar would turn on al Qaeda.
Mullah Omar's daughter is married to bin Laden's son-no small connection in that part of the world-while the Haqqani family and bin Laden are old friends. Al Qaeda, moreover, provides the Taliban with important military and financial assistance. These handouts would become more valuable if the United States leaves, as an early departure would likely provoke yet another civil war in Afghanistan. Given its less than stellar treatment of Tajiks, Turkmen, and Hazaras in the past-all important ethnic groups in Afghanistan-the Taliban would have to prepare itself for stiff resistance. Having al Qaeda in its back pocket would make those preparations much easier.
Some argue the Taliban will not risk tolerating an al Qaeda presence for fear of replaying the events of 2001 that dislodged them from power. But it is a stretch to think the United States could make a credible threat after withdrawing in what the Taliban will see as surrender. Notwithstanding criticisms they have leveled at their friends in al Qaeda, it is not at all apparent there has been a strategic break. The hope of a chastened Taliban is a thin reed upon which to rest U.S. national security decisions of such consequence.
Certainly, nationalism and Pashtun pride courses through the veins of Taliban leaders. And one can't say the same for al Qaeda. Nevertheless, the presence of nationalism does not imply the absence of religious fundamentalism. The Taliban did not come to power to run a state that picks up the garbage or makes the trains run on time. It sought to impose stark vision of Islam on the people of Afghanistan, a vision al Qaeda largely shares.
If the future of America's mission in Afghanistan depends on whether al Qaeda needs an Afghan foothold, then the answer is clear. Al Qaeda does need an Afghan foothold, and so the United States must take the necessary steps to stop that from happening. The Taliban and al Qaeda have not changed their stripes, and we have seen first-hand the consequences of their alliance. That is why President Obama's long-anticipated decision, though difficult and fraught with risk, is nevertheless the right choice.
Michael Lieberman is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project.