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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Al Qaeda returns to Afghanistan

Why is the U.S. failing to keep terrorists out of the country?

The view from a .50-caliber M-2 machine gun position at Firebase Phoenix overlooking the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007. Photo: U.S. Army/Spc. Jason Mace

The Wall Street Journal published a bombshell of a revelation today: Al Qaeda, the terror group that killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, has expanded its presence inside Afghanistan. Matthew Rosenberg and Julian E. Barnes report that the U.S. bombed an Al Qaeda training camp in the Korengal Valley last September – the first time such a thing has happened in years.

The Korengal, as it is known, is also called the Valley of Death because of the intense, unending violence that has unfolded in the area. The fight to secure the Korengal was the subject of the Sebastian Junger documentary “Restrepo.” Before the September air strike on that Al Qaeda training camp, the main force of the U.S. Army had withdrawn from the area, citing the acute security challenges and inability to achieve much progress.

Al Qaeda camps, however, do not magically spring up overnight, or even over a single summer. Indeed, as one reads further into the Journal’s story, it becomes apparent that the camp was not an Al Qaeda training camp per se, but rather hosted some foreign fighters and a few senior trainers from the terror group. That’s bad, but it is not as bad as Al Qaeda colonizing every square inch of Afghanistan where there aren’t very many U.S. troops.

The Journal’s story also brings up another angle to consider: the Special Forces. For the most part, the few, scattered Al Qaeda-allied compounds in northeastern Afghanistan have been tracked and monitored by small groups of elite soldiers — and not the large Army brigades that make up the 30,000 surge forces President Obama authorized last year. This would suggest that focusing more on these Special Forces troops – the “CT Approach,” as Vice-President Biden has called it – would be just as effective at disrupting Al Qaeda as the 100,000 soldiers currently there.

The broader context

What else can we conclude about the presence of small Al Qaeda bases existing in Afghanistan? The “core objective” of the war, as President Obama has said repeatedly, is to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan. That is clearly not working if, despite the addition of 30,000 troops, Al Qaeda can begin constructing bases in the country. Similarly, despite the “crushing blow” leveled to mid-level Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership that General Petraeus recently discussed, the terrorists can still seemingly build bases at will. The surge is clearly not working.

The Journal piece also suggests that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have begun working together again. This comes after months of stories about how the surge was driving a “wedge” between the two groups, and quotes from many Taliban members, who insisted they didn’t much care for Al Qaeda. “There is debate within the U.S. military and intelligence community about the scope of the Al Qaeda problem in Afghanistan,” the Journal explains. In other words, even in the classified ranks no one really knows what is going on.

Things are not looking any better in Pakistan. The Washington Post is reporting that inside Pakistan, Al Qaeda is also gaining strength. The Obama Administration, in a report to Congress on the war’s progress, is now saying that, despite months of offensives by the Pakistani military to destroy terror havens in northwestern Pakistan, “there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan.” In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the military seems unable to create the set of conditions necessary to prevent Al Qaeda from returning.

Looking ahead

So how should the U.S. government respond to this news? A debate is raging within the Obama administration about how to achieve the looming drawdown of troops — whether to do so quickly or slowly, and under a variety of circumstances. Because this sort of news is vulnerable to demagoguery, one could easily see the two camps building their cases along these lines:

  • Al Qaeda moved into an area where we reduced our troop presence, ergo we should never reduce our presence going forward. Perhaps, we should even increase our presence in new areas to prevent Al Qaeda from making a comeback.
  • Because a surge of troops did nothing to halt Al Qaeda’s return, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, we should accelerate the drawdown process and cut our losses.

Both arguments are, in fact, flawed. It is wrong to lay the blame for what happened solely at the feet of withdrawing troops. For example, many militants crossed the border into Afghanistan during the very Pakistani assaults meant to pressure them in their redoubts in the tribal areas. However, a surprising number of troops were unable to secure peace in a wide swath of territory in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, so there is little reason to assume that yet more troops would actually resolve the issue.

What the news of Al Qaeda’s resurgence shows is that both approaches to the war — withdrawal and escalation — fail to focus on the right objectives. The number of troops in Afghanistan doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they’re doing. The substantial increase in troops under President Obama — nearly 50,000 troops over the last two years — hasn’t been directed at securing the eastern border with Pakistan. Instead of having troops secure the border to prevent further infiltration and cross-border militancy, the lion’s share of those troops were sent south, to battle local Taliban fighting over local issues. Meanwhile, the east and the north of the country have seen their security deteriorate substantially, and concrete gains in the midst of the surge in the south remain difficult to specify.

At the same time, the military and the Obama administration seem incapable of processing bad news about the war. According to the White House report on the war, the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda is showing clear progress. How that reconciles with reports about the expansion of Al Qaeda into Afghanistan is unclear. During his war review last year, General Petraeus explicitly rejected the assessment of his own intelligence analysts, who have said the reality of the war was much worse than generally thought.

That doesn’t mean the “Withdraw Now” crowd is right, however. A change in policy does not automatically mean a withdrawal. Very few people would actually argue that Al Qaeda poses no threat (even a diminished Al Qaeda trying to set up shop in the remote mountains of Northeastern Afghanistan). But withdrawing troops and relying solely on an “offshore” policy — mostly air strikes and the occasional Special Forces raid — doesn’t move us any closer to a solution than maintaining 100,000 troops in the country for the foreseeable future.

What does need to happen is an honest accounting of what is really necessary to keep the focus on Al Qaeda. If the Obama administration believes that the viability of a strong Afghan government is contingent upon the permanent denial of a safe haven to Al Qaeda, then we should work toward that. However, the administration’s current war strategy, which leans heavily on troops and building local militias (to do more fighting), do not actually serve this larger goal.

There’s so little focus on the politics of the war, and on its strategy, that we shouldn’t be surprised to see Al Qaeda coming back. The war in Afghanistan is inherently a political one, and it is the politics of the war that must be addressed. The military strategy should flow from and be in service to the political strategy. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has it backwards. Until we fix that, we should expect more Al Qaeda incursions and more political setbacks.