In a recent article from Foreign Policy entitled An Unnecessary War – – Afthanistan used to be the central front in the war against terrorism. Now it’s a distraction from it, the author argues that policy makers may be taking their eyes off the “bigger” picture and one that is more critical to US security.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- The threat that emanates from Afghanistan is marginal and requires a reallocation of resources and a change in strategy and policy, given the fact that recently failed operations were either born or bred in Pakistan’s tribal regions,Yemen, and western European capitols or attempted by “home-grown” operatives and confederates.
- If it is true that AQ has metastesized into a “headless” jihad with limited global reach, then it would make more strategic and operational sense to concentrate US/NATO efforts where the threat roosts with a robust counter-terrorism strategy.
- Afghanistan is proving history correct that to continue to engage in an economy-of-force COIN effort with limited resources only creates a never ending supply of new insurgents (and jihadists).