The New York Times reported 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-Qaida and the fact that “the counterterrorism campaign, which was favored by Vice President Joe Biden in 2009, has outperformed the more troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign pushed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David 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 Barack Obama announced in December 2009. If the U.S. abandons the mission in Afghanistan before achieving the objectives Obama announced at West Point, the “counter terrorism” operations in Pakistan will also fail.
We should recall that tough fighting conducted by conventional American military forces in 2002 drove al-Qaida 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-Qaida’s leaders did not flee the country when the regime fell. They attempted to reconstitute, rather, in southeastern Afghanistan.
It required a significant military operation conducted by conventional American forces — Operation Anaconda — to drive them from that mountain vastness 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.
The al-Qaida leadership has 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.
It is faulty logic of the worst kind to take the situation in Afghanistan that makes it so inhospitable to al-Qaida 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-Qaida will have regained its original and most dangerous sanctuary.
Al-Qaida is not finished because of Osama bin Laden’s death, moreover. Senior leaders continue to live and work in Pakistan, coordinating operations with other al-Qaida franchises around the world to attack Americans and America.
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-Qaida and working with the Pakistani counter insurgency and counter terrorism forces themselves.
There is a direct connection between American and international efforts in Afghanistan and the successes we have had against al-Qaida in Pakistan. Any rationalization that relies on separating those two undertakings is, in fact, misinformed and dangerous.
Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.