Why we must win in Afghanistan
|Aren't we losing?
No. Over the last few years, we have retaken numerous key insurgent safe havens, command bases, and logistics hubs in Afghanistan, especially in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where most of the surge forces went. The Taliban has failed to retake almost any of that terrain despite repeated attempts, and the population in many of those areas is now standing up against the Taliban by volunteering for Afghan Local Police units. Enemy-initiated attacks were lower in 2012 than in the previous year for the first time since 2008. Taliban senior leadership is fragmenting and bickering over whether or not to negotiate with us and the Afghan government. Taliban leaders are increasingly out of touch with their own fighters in southern Afghanistan and with the population in general.
In fact, while the meme in Washington is that we have lost, the meme in villages in Afghanistan is that Afghans should stand up against the Taliban. We saw a new phenomenon this year in an area previously actively supportive of the Taliban (Andar District in Ghazni Province, southwest of Kabul), where the local population formed an anti-Taliban uprising. News of that uprising spread through Afghanistan, and many villages across the country are talking about doing the same thing. This won't be the equivalent of the Anbar Awakening and won't suddenly end the war, but it is a major indication that Afghans are feeling that the Taliban, not the United States, will lose.
|Honestly, isn't it true that we can't win?
No, and neither is it true that we don't know what winning is. Winning is helping the Afghans create an environment in which al Qaeda and affiliated movements cannot re-establish safe havens from which to plan attacks against the US and our allies. Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is currently minimal, but the group has shown a strong desire to re-establish itself in Afghanistan if it can. Its key allies in that effort are the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. We have deprived the Taliban of almost all of its important safe havens and bases in southern Afghanistan (Helmand and Kandahar Provinces), and Afghans in those areas are now standing up to resist attempts of the Taliban to re-establish control. We have faced more challenges in eastern Afghanistan, particularly against the Haqqani Network, because the president chose to withdraw the surge forces prematurely, before we could conduct the necessary clearing operations. Nevertheless, even in areas in the east that had formerly supported the Taliban and the Haqqanis, Afghans are starting to resist them and ask for our assistance in doing so. We have blunted determined efforts by the Haqqanis to light up Kabul with spectacular attacks and recently killed the operational commander of that network (and a son of its founder), Badruddin Haqqani.
The Afghan National Security Forces now number around 330,000 and are aggressively taking the fight to the enemy in many areas with limited coalition support. They cannot yet carry the fight themselves, and important high-end operations that only US forces can undertake still remain. But their ability and willingness to fight has improved dramatically, as evidenced in part by the fact that they take four to five times as many casualties as we do every week. We drove al Qaeda from its safe havens in Afghanistan in 2002. We have prevented it from returning. We are setting conditions whereby Afghans will be able to keep it from returning with diminishing US assistance over time. Yes, we can still win.
|After 11 years without an attack on US soil, aren't we overstating the threat?
There have been two attacks on US soil since 2009 and two more attempts disrupted after they were well underway. In December 2009 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully got an explosive device (in his underwear) onto an aircraft and attempted to detonate it over US soil. The attempt failed only because the device was faulty — not because we disrupted the attack. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad got a vehicle loaded with explosives into Times Square in New York City. Again, the attack failed only because he had built the bomb badly and it was discovered before it exploded. If he had designed the bomb properly (which is not all that hard to do), the attack would have succeeded. In Fall 2010, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (in Yemen) hid bombs in printer cartridges and got them into the parcel delivery system headed to targets in the US. The bombs were discovered en route. In April 2012, a Saudi informant tipped Riyadh off about another underwear-bomb plot, which was disrupted while underway by Saudi and US officials.
Al Qaeda franchises have grown dramatically in strength and capability since 2009. Al Qaeda in Yemen retains a much larger safe haven in that country than it had in 2009, despite recent successes by US direct-action operations and Yemeni counterinsurgency operations. It has used that safe haven, as we have seen, to attempt attacks on the US even as it fought against Yemeni forces. Al Qaeda in Iraq, almost destroyed and operationally insignificant when Obama took office, has re-established itself following the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. It is now conducting regular spectacular attacks in Iraq (including against the limited number of US facilities that remain there). But it has also spread its operations into neighboring Syria, where it is radicalizing the originally moderate groups opposing Bashar al Assad's regime and developing new safe havens from which to expand operations in the future. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, born in Algeria, was an almost-irrelevant group limited to kidnap-for-ransom operations a year ago. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently revealed, it has now expanded across North Africa and was responsible for the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed our ambassador. It has also spread into Equatorial Africa, using unrest in Mali to establish a foothold there.
These groups are all directly linked to and affiliated with the core al Qaeda group now led by Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, from Pakistan. We have killed leaders of that core group for 11 years, but it can recover very quickly if it regains freedom of action in Afghanistan, especially since it can now harness the strength and expansion of franchises that did not exist in 2001.
|Why should we do all the fighting when none of our allies or anyone in the Middle East is willing to?
Our enemies are trying to kill us every day. We need to defeat them regardless of what our friends do. We are not fighting for anyone but ourselves, and we are the ones who will suffer if we fail or turn away from the battle. Neither is it true that our allies have done nothing. African Union countries have sent thousands of soldiers into Somalia to fight against the al Qaeda affiliate there (al Shabaab) and have, at great cost, driven it out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and key port, Kismayo. The Saudis conducted a concerted campaign against al Qaeda operatives within their country that has driven all of the al Qaeda leadership out of Saudi Arabia. Many of those leaders fled to Yemen, where the Yemeni government has been actively fighting (sending numerous brigades) against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—the franchise there that threatens Yemen and the US directly. After al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attacked our consulate in Benghazi, thousands of Libyans turned out to protest that attack, and the Libyan government started arresting and rooting out the organization's operatives and affiliates. The Muslim world is joined in battle, and many more Muslim soldiers are fighting against al Qaeda affiliates than are Americans.
|Even if we want to stay, aren't our allies all pulling out?
No. Tens of thousands of British, German, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Georgian, and even Jordanian soldiers are still in Afghanistan today. They are generally reducing the size of their contingents as American forces withdraw, but there has been no rush to the exits by our allies, despite the White House's poor leadership. As of October 8, 2012, the US contributed 68,000 of almost 105,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, meaning that our allies still have around 37,000 soldiers there.
|Will any victory be worth it as long as Pakistan is a terror hub?
Failure in Afghanistan will look like failure in Iraq looks today, only worse. There will be no US bases conducting counterterrorism operations if we give up our efforts now because Afghanistan will collapse into civil war. No Afghan government is likely to permit, let alone support, US counterterror bases in Afghanistan if we have left the Afghans to die. Limited US counterterrorism forces could not defend themselves from resurging enemies in a chaotic and collapsing Afghan state. Since Afghanistan is landlocked (unlike Yemen and Somalia), and since we no longer can use bases in Pakistan, we would be unable to conduct counterterror operations in Afghanistan from a technical, logistical perspective — it's just too far to fly from the Indian Ocean. The end of counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan will permit al Qaeda and its affiliates to re-establish sanctuaries there that we will not be able to disrupt, let alone destroy. The terror hub in Pakistan, now under some degree of pressure by Pakistani forces and a great degree of control by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which does not want to see a 9/11-style attack conducted from Pakistani territory, will become a terror-exporting base in a lawless Afghanistan. The constraints imposed by the Pakistanis on their terror-minded guests will disappear when those guests move into Afghanistan. In short, if you worry about the Pakistani terror hub now, you'll fear it greatly when it's supersized by a premature US withdrawal in Afghanistan.
|Don't the attacks on us by Afghans prove we can't rely on them once we leave?
Attacks by members of the Afghan National Security Forces on American and international troops, although tragic and headline-grabbing, remain extremely low both in total numbers and as a percentage of Afghans fighting. There have been a total of 63 incidents since 2009, including 34 this year, out of an Afghan force of more than 330,000, meaning that something like .01 percent of the Afghan security forces were involved. The attacks do not indicate in any way that the Afghans have turned against us or that the Taliban has heavily infiltrated the Afghan security forces. On the contrary, literally hundreds of thousands of Afghans are fighting the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and our other common foes every day. They are taking four to five times as many casualties as we are, yet they keep signing up for the fight — and we should remember that the Afghan army, like ours, is an all-volunteer force. The perpetrators of the green-on-blue attacks are distressing anomalies, not harbingers of the future.
|Don't massive corruption, Hamid Karzai's craziness, and our commitment to leave by 2014 add up to a reason to call it a day right now?
Corruption, Karzai, Obama's deadlines, premature troop withdrawals, and many other obstacles and missteps are all challenges that must be met and overcome. The United States has overcome far more daunting challenges than these in previous struggles. Afghanistan needs only to be sufficiently governed to prevent civil war, Taliban resurgence, or vital power vacuums. This limited goal is achievable, even in a frustrating environment.
We're in Afghanistan because enemies who want to kill as many Americans as possible covet it as a sanctuary from which to do so. Those enemies will seek to regain that sanctuary if we leave and will proceed to develop plans and operations to kill Americans. Abandoning the fight now does not make that threat go away. Those who advocate throwing in the towel out of frustration with Karzai, corruption, deadlines, or anything else must answer to the absolute moral imperative of describing an alternate approach for dealing with the threats that will remain and, in fact, grow. No one has yet offered a compelling alternate approach. It is an American conceit that the world exists only when we pay attention to it. Reality proves otherwise. The problems in Afghanistan will threaten US security even if we go away. That is what we learned on September 11, 2001, and it remains true to this day.
The bottom line is that there either is or is not an imperative national security interest for the US in Afghanistan. We are confident that there is, and so we must and will overcome these problems to the extent necessary to succeed.
|Can't the Afghans just do more for their own security?
When the Taliban fell in 2001 there was no Afghan army at all, nor any police or other security forces in this war-ravaged country of some 30 million people. As recently as 2009, the international community was planning to build an Afghan army and police force of well under 150,000 combined, on the grounds that Afghanistan could not afford anything larger. That argument was (and is) nonsensical — the cost of supporting one Afghan soldier is a tiny fraction of the cost of deploying an American soldier to Afghanistan. The current Obama administration plan to cut the Afghan security forces by more than 100,000 in the couple of years following 2014 is therefore also nonsensical — or worse, since it means putting 100,000 unemployed, military-trained males back on the streets while pulling out almost all (or, if one listens to the vice president announcing policy on national television, all) of our forces.
In other words, we have been building the current Afghan National Security Forces in earnest for about four years. Considering that timeline, they are doing pretty well. They are overwhelmingly light infantry who were trained and moved into the field as rapidly as possible to support and then free up American and international forces. Our commanders — quite rightly — did not take the time to build up logistics units, artillery, and other critical enablers when we needed to get Afghans fighting as quickly as possible. But those enablers are now the key constraint on the Afghans doing more for their own security. Our trainers and even combat forces partnered at all levels with Afghan troops are now working hard to help them develop the skills and units they need to do more, but this task cannot be performed overnight. The Afghans are, in fact, doing all that they can right now.
Afghan National Security Forces, furthermore, take about four to five times more casualties than Coalition forces. The Afghans are investing their human treasure in this fight.
|Did we really accomplish anything with the surge in Afghanistan last year?
The surge began in 2009. Since then, we and our international and Afghan partners have deprived our enemies of critical safe havens, command-and-control centers, bases of recruitment and support, and logistical hubs in the following areas: Marjah, Nad Ali, and Garmsir Districts, Helmand Province; Arghandab, Zharay, Panjwayi, Dand, and Malajat Districts and areas of Kandahar Province; Khost and Sabari Districts of Khost Province; Chamkani and Dand Patan Districts of Paktia Province; and Sar Howza, Sharana, Yusuf Khel, and Yahya Khel in Paktika Province.
We have disrupted Taliban command-and-control and operational networks across southern Afghanistan and into the east. We have supported the establishment of the Afghan Local Police program, in which Afghan village elders partner with local chiefs of police to field their own villagers to fight against the Taliban; the size of the force has grown from a few hundred in mid-2010 to more than 16,000 today. We have helped field well over 100,000 new members of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. Provinces now have their own Afghan quick-reaction forces that can respond to crises. We have developed Afghan Special Forces capabilities to conduct night raids and other forms of direct-action operations with little or no support from the US. The surge accomplished quite a bit.
|Doesn't the country's tribal politics mean there will always be an opening for al Qaeda?
Afghanistan's tribal politics are unquestionably complex. There will always be winners and losers, and al Qaeda and its associates will continue to reach out to the losers and offer their help. Many Afghan villagers are illiterate — but they're not stupid. On the contrary, they are remarkably clever in their ability to find ways to survive despite incredible poverty and more than three decades of continuous war. They know that harboring al Qaeda means inviting unwanted attention from the Afghan government and from the US military. As long as we support the Afghan security forces and maintain a sufficient presence in the country to be able to respond rapidly and decisively to indications that al Qaeda is re-establishing itself, Afghans will remain extremely loath to welcome such dangerous guests. Should the US withdraw completely and allow the situation to collapse into uncontrolled chaos and civil war, however, the calculus of survival for Afghan villagers will shift and al Qaeda may come once again to seem the lesser of many very dangerous evils.
|Can't we manage the terrorist threat in Afghanistan with counterterrorism operations?
"Counterterror (CT) operations" is a shorthand for the targeted killing of individual terrorist leaders. These operations can be conducted either with special mission units or from aerial platforms. In either case, they require an enormous amount of intelligence accurate enough to place a bomb or a team at a given location just at the moment that the terrorist leader is there. The limitations on America's ability to generate that kind of intelligence — and on the number of special mission units and other platforms that could take action in response to it — are highly classified, but very real. Counterterrorism operations are among the most complex and demanding of any military operations. They cannot simply be dialed up at will.
They also require facilities in reasonable proximity to the targets. Most people who talk about a CT option in Afghanistan describe a very small US footprint there that would make such facilities available. The US must be present, because without those facilities, there can be no CT campaign. But those facilities do not exist in a vacuum. The soldiers or platforms operating from them may be small in number, but they must be housed, fed, maintained, equipped, supplied, and, above all, protected. The footprint for each facility, therefore, is not small. Then there is the problem of getting supplies, equipment, and people to and from those facilities. Are the roads secure enough to travel on? If Afghanistan has returned to chaos and civil war, then the answer to that question will assuredly be "no." In that case, we would have to fly everything in and out of these bases from some central location. It's hard to fly a lot of supplies in helicopters, so we'd want fixed-wing airstrips. Runways are long, making the perimeters even longer. The perimeters need to be defended against direct attack. The aircraft, soldiers, and crews need to be protected against long-range rocket and mortar attack. Quick reaction forces must be on hand in case someone tries to overrun one of the facilities. Medical facilities must be available to care for the wounded immediately. By the time you're done adding up all the real-world requirements for a "light footprint," you're looking at involving many thousands of American service members.
Since we decided at the outset of this hypothetical CT campaign just to let Afghanistan go back to the state of nature, those thousands of Americans can expect to be constantly under attack. It is quite likely, in fact, that they will end up devoting most of their CT expertise to attacking enemy groups that are directly threatening them rather than going after larger national priorities. After all, CT forces that are on the verge of being overrun can't go chasing after al Qaeda leaders in the hills. Even if one imagines that a targeted campaign of killing leaders is an effective way to defeat a terrorist organization — and no historical precedent exists to support that hypothesis — the challenges of trying to implement such an effort in a collapsing Afghanistan are insurmountable.
|If you balance the massive cost, the 11 years, and the lives lost, is securing Afghanistan really worth it?
The cost of the war must be balanced against both the benefits of success and the likely costs of failure. The benefits of success, in this case, are largely preventive — that is, they would prevent the extremely damaging consequences of failure. One could argue, in truth, that our problems with Pakistan could be materially eased if a stable and solid Afghanistan stripped Islamabad of the ability to export its violent Islamist proxies across the Durand Line rather than dealing with them itself. Securing Afghanistan would also help solidify our relationship with India, our key strategic partner on the Asian continent and a vital counterbalance to China. But those positive outcomes are less important than the need to prevent al Qaeda and its affiliates from regaining what had been their capital and crown jewel in the context of their global resurgence. The likely costs of failure in Afghanistan are the re-establishment of al Qaeda operational bases from which more attacks on the US and our allies will be planned and conducted, the further strengthening of the global jihadist narrative that terrorism in the service of violent Islamism is an inevitably successful means to defeat superpowers, and the destruction of what little remains of American credibility in the world. Those costs are very high — much higher, in fact, than the likely costs of remaining to finish the job at the force levels likely necessary to do so.
|If we need to be in Afghanistan because it's a terrorist haven, doesn't that mean we need to be in Yemen? Somalia? Mali? And maybe even back in Iraq?
Afghanistan is special to our enemies. Osama bin Laden and most other senior al Qaeda leaders cut their teeth fighting the Soviets there — being a mujahid from Afghanistan continues to be one of the most important credentials in the global jihadist movement. Bin Laden formed his first major alliance with Jalaluddin Haqqani and established his first bases in Haqqani's lands in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. When Mullah Omar's Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, offering bin Laden hospitality, bin Laden swore allegiance to Mullah Omar as "commander of the faithful." Al Qaeda recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Omar's theocracy, as the only "righteous" Islamist state actually to govern a country. Afghanistan has deep significance for al Qaeda. Restoring it to them on top of their gains in Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and elsewhere would be giving back the crown jewel of jihad to a resurgent global terrorist network.
|Weren't the American people promised that if we finished the job in Iraq, al Qaeda wouldn't be back? But they are.
Yes. But we did not finish the job. President Obama decided to withdraw all American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 rather than attempt to complete the arduous process of getting to an agreement with the Iraqis about extending their presence. He did not even succeed in getting — or, as far as we can tell, even try to get — an agreement to permit limited numbers of counterterrorism forces to remain in Iraq. As of January 2012, therefore, a grand total of 150 American uniformed personnel were in Iraq, all under embassy authority and almost all engaged in working through contracts. Had Obama persevered in the negotiations with the seriousness and urgency they deserved and retained even a limited American military presence in Iraq, we might well have been able to blunt the re-emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq. The group's regrowth is the direct result of Obama's retreat.
|Give me one simple reason why we need to be there 11 years after 9/11. Isn't this just a recipe for endless war?
It takes two to dance, but one to make war. Our enemies are at war with us and will continue to be even if we leave Afghanistan. Their ability to wage war will, in fact, increase materially. Retreating from Afghanistan now is a recipe for endless war. Worse still, it is a recipe for endless war fought on American soil, American embassies, the hotels in which American tourists stay abroad, American airplanes — in short, a war taken directly to our way of life. Winning in Afghanistan will not end that war by itself, but it is absolutely a vital prerequisite.
|If we haven't won yet, when and how do we end it, get out, and close the book on Afghanistan?
We began a new strategy in Afghanistan in 2009, recognizing for the first time in this war that we actually faced an insurgency and that we had to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy to defeat it. President Obama announced that strategy in December 2009. The last "surge" forces arrived in late 2010. We've had two years to make a great deal of progress. We need another two to expand and solidify that progress. This strategy is not a repetition of anything we've done earlier in Afghanistan, and it has an inherent and logical timeline. We end the war by completing the current strategy on that timeline, not by following an arbitrary timeline set by politicians or, more horribly, by the editorial board of the New York Times.
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