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June 19, 2011

Success Against al Qaeda Depends on Success in Afghanistan

Originally published in The Weekly Standard

The New York Times reports today that senior officials within the Obama administration are pressing for an accelerated withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. The “rationale” for that pressure is supposedly the success of America’s efforts against al Qaeda and the fact that “the counterterrorism campaign, which was favored by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2009, has outperformed the more troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign pushed by Mr. Gates, Gen. David H. Petraeus and other top military planners.”

This rationale—or rationalization?—is specious. It demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between our efforts in Afghanistan and our successes in Pakistan, as well as of the inseparability of effective “counter-terrorism” operations from the counter-insurgency strategy President Obama announced in December 2009. Simply put, if the U.S. abandons the mission in Afghanistan before achieving the objectives President Obama announced at West Point, the “counter-terrorism” operations in Pakistan will also fail.

It is natural for the administration in office to take full credit for progress it inherited from its predecessor, and President Obama certainly deserves enormous credit for taking the risky decision to launch the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. But the present administration did not invent the strategy that made that operation possible, and the success of that operation was not independent from our efforts in Afghanistan.

We should recall that tough fighting conducted by conventional American military forces in 2002 drove al Qaeda into Pakistan in the first place. The Taliban regime may have been brought down largely by American airpower and CIA operatives with bags of cash, but al Qaeda’s leaders did not flee the country when the regime fell. They attempted to reconstitute, rather, in southeastern Afghanistan, particularly in the mountainous terrain in Zormat district of Paktya province known as the Shah-i Kot valley. It required a significant military operation conducted by conventional American forces—Operation ANACONDA—to drive them from that mountain fastness and persuade them that they could not rely on refuge in Afghanistan. Thereafter, they established themselves in Pakistan, at bases familiar to them from the days of the anti-Soviet war but from which they had not operated since the Soviet withdrawal. They continued to cooperate closely with the Haqqani Network, the group with which they had been most closely allied while fighting the Soviets, which operates in Paktya and the surrounding provinces of Khost and Paktika. But American forces—both conventional and unconventional—have remained in those provinces continuously since 2002.

The al Qaeda leadership has therefore never seen an opportunity to move back into terrain that had been historically extremely congenial to them. Instead they made their homes among the tribes of Waziristan and, over time, even in metropolitan Pakistan. American unconventional forces with intermittent assistance from the Pakistani government and military have continued to hunt them down. When President Obama came to office, the group had already been severely degraded and reduced to a relatively small number of senior leaders in Pakistan. The group did not have a significant presence in Afghanistan—largely because, as Ambassador Ryan Crocker noted during his confirmation testimony, the U.S. remained there. Al Qaeda has, nevertheless, sought to re-establish itself more quietly in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by the periodic forays of mid-level commanders that allow U.S. strike forces to kill them in Afghanistan.

It is faulty logic of the worst kind to take the situation in Afghanistan that makes it so inhospitable to al Qaeda as a given, regardless of the presence or absence of U.S. forces or their activities. If the U.S. withdraws prematurely from Afghanistan and the country collapses again into ethnic civil war, then al Qaeda will have regained its original and most dangerous sanctuary.

Al Qaeda is not finished because of bin Laden’s death, moreover. Senior leaders continue to live and work in Pakistan, coordinating operations with other al Qaeda franchises around the world to attack Americans and America. What is the strategy for finishing this fight if we abandon Afghanistan prematurely or put progress toward stabilizing that country at risk?

Where did the helicopter assault force that killed bin Laden launch from? Afghanistan. That is a location that will become even more important now that Pakistan has publicly expelled both the CIA and Special Forces operatives who were working against al Qaeda and working with the Pakistani counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism forces themselves. If the U.S. loses its Afghan bases, as well as its position in Pakistan, the president’s ability to continue the struggle against al Qaeda will be severely degraded.

There is a direct connection between American and international efforts in Afghanistan and the successes we have had against al Qaeda in Pakistan. Any rationalization that relies on separating those two undertakings is, in fact, misinformed and dangerous. Counter-terrorism in Pakistan cannot be separated from the success of the current counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan.