Al Qaeda Allies Remain Strong

Originally published in New York Times
April 3, 2012

U.S. soldier plays with local Afghan refugee children in Kabul, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force)

President Obama has repeatedly defined the minimum necessary objectives for U.S. national security in Afghanistan: disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and create conditions that will prevent its return. Osama bin Laden is dead, but al Qaeda remains viable. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker recently told The Telegraph, “Al-Qaeda is still present in Afghanistan. If the West decides that 10 years in Afghanistan is too long then they will be back, and the next time it will not be New York or Washington, it will be another big Western city.”

Al Qaeda thrives in political vacuums. The organization infected Afghanistan during the chaotic inter-ethnic civil war of the 1990s, hosted through friendship with anti-Soviet fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar’s Taliban. Al Qaeda’s leaders still maintain ties with Mullah Omar and the Haqqani family. Our efforts in Afghanistan aim at preventing al Qaeda’s return by preventing the Taliban and Haqqani Networks from gaining control of the Afghan state, as well as by preventing the lawlessness and civil war that allow al Qaeda to flourish globally.

Military pressure has kept al Qaeda and the Taliban from re-emerging in Afghanistan. The Taliban attempted to return to their Afghan strongholds after 2005. By 2009, it controlled districts around Kandahar City and poppy-rich Helmand Province. The surge of forces and change of strategy President Obama ordered in 2009 shattered Taliban influence and command structures in the south. The leaders fled back to Pakistan, fractured from their followers. U.S. forces have fought alongside organized, trained, and determined Afghan troops who are preparing to hold the gains. Breaking the southern Taliban has marginalized one group whose return would bring safety to al Qaeda.

The Haqqani Network remains, however. The surge strategy envisioned a subsequent effort against their safe havens in eastern Afghanistan. That effort remains essential. U.S. forces must drive the Haqqanis from those safe-havens and set conditions in which Afghan troops can hold.