President Obama has now presented the nation with a sober, solemn assessment in explaining the need for an additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan: Al Qaeda remain in “common cause” with the Taliban; they have metastasized into Pakistan; they have again infiltrated our shores. Answering those who have grown complacent, the President reminded America that “this is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat.”
Yet many are unconvinced. Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), for instance, responded to the President’s address that more troops would not make America more secure because “Al Qaeda can go any place. They don’t have to be in Afghanistan.” Senator John Kerry stated that many members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs, “either don’t see the nexus or don’t accept” that al Qaeda and the Taliban remain in league with one another.
Many observers outside the beltway agree. Harvard’s Stephen Walt argues that “Afghanistan is increasingly a distraction… all [Al Qaeda] needs are safe houses in various parts of the world and a supply of potential martyrs.” Since Al Qaeda franchises are already operating in Yemen and Somalia, “denying its founders a ‘safe haven’ in Afghanistan will not make that network less lethal.” His colleague at Michigan Juan Cole agrees: “neo-Talibanism does not imply the return of al-Qaeda.”
But far from being a “distraction,” Afghanistan remains a central front. One need not only take President Obama’s word for it. According to Peter Bergen, who interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1997, al Qaeda training camps are vital to its ability to mount attacks. Virtually all recent anti-Western terrorist plots, including the recently disrupted plot of Najibullah Zazi—link up to operatives who underwent intensive training in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And to cite Pakistan’s role as a reason to oppose the troop increase misses the point: it is the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan that has reduced the threat there and pushed it over the border. In sum, Al Qaeda needs more than safe houses and shaheeds. It needs time, training, shelter and resource networks. Such necessities are far more difficult to obtain in remote Yemen and Somalia (al Qaeda’s top alternatives) where their roots are shallower and where, as littoral states, U.S. countermeasures and intelligence are logistically simpler.
Commentators like Walt and Cole also posit that the Taliban, bitten once, will be twice shy. But it does not follow that the bad taste left in the Taliban’s mouth after the U.S. invasion will lead it to renounce its friends. Such a perspective places undue weight on schisms between al Qaeda and Taliban leaders such as Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who each criticized bin Laden following the 1998 African embassy bombings and 9/11. Still, neither time did they expel or betray him. Bygones were bygones by 2007 when, after retreating from Iraq, al Qaeda was met with open arms back in Afghanistan. As Abdel Bari Atwan (who, like Bergen, has had the pleasure of interviewing bin Laden) notes “the alliance between [al Qaeda] and the Taliban is currently stronger than it has ever been.” Veteran Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai (yet another who has interviewed the al Qaeda leader) explains that even if the Taliban grew wary of al Qaeda, the groups have now “given blood to each other…the bonds are much stronger.”
Even if the material benefits and ideological affinities of the alliance were diminished, it is hard to imagine the Taliban being chastened once we’ve walked off and wagged our finger. The Taliban are more likely to calculate that the costs of returning to Afghanistan would simply be too staggering for the U.S., and difficult to justify absent another attack on the scale of 9/11. More likely al Qaeda and company would wage “pinprick” strikes that would reduce the risk of a massive U.S. reinvasion of their stronghold. Now that we have toppled their regime, overrun their country and killed their leaders, it is not hard to imagine the Taliban countenancing such behavior—with a vengeance.
Even if the Afghan Taliban’s current leadership were somehow to trade al Qaeda for Kabul, the up-and-comers in their ranks appear more motivated by an expansionist theology than do the elders. The Taliban today, even under the best view, is not necessarily the Taliban of tomorrow. In any event, the Taliban’s primary driver—Pashtun nationalism—does not imply the absence of religious fundamentalism and the global ambitions that accompany it. An analysis of the Taliban’s “night letters” to villagers, for instance, suggest that they are framing their insurgency as part of a larger transnational struggle against infidel forces.
All this is to say nothing of the intimate relationship enjoyed by al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, who have succeeded in provoking even Pakistan off the fence and into Swat and Waziristan. Pakistan’ willingness to see this fight through will depend to a great extent on what they see the U.S. deciding. This is perhaps one of the primary, if unspoken, objectives of the surge. Pakistan’s history of hedging its bets is based on its perception of U.S. perfidy. An anemic U.S. presence on the Afghan side of the line will undermine Pakistan’s incentives to truly sever its connections with jihadist groups in Afghanistan and with their colleagues seeking the restoration of Kabul and Kashmir. President Obama, recognizing this reality, offered Pakistan America’s hand in friendship—based on “mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust” even “after the guns have fallen silent.” They must first feel secure enough to accept it.
As we know, the swords of even the world’s mightiest army cannot unravel the Gordian knot of Afghanistan. But neither can the knot be finessed by a counterterrorism strategy, more civilian aid or a “Bonn II” conference. Despite the great costs and sacrifice, Obama’s recommitment to Afghanistan is—much as we might wish otherwise—the only realistic course.
Michael Lieberman is an attorney whose practice focuses on national security and international law. He is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He holds a J.D. from Berkeley Law and an M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His complete biography is available here.