The Blog

The 'Real' al Qaeda

Dems talk Afghanistan, but do nothing.

12:00 AM, Apr 9, 2008 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ONE THEME THAT emerged clearly at the Senate hearings with General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker was the need to abandon Iraq in order to deal with the real center of the war on terror in South Asia. A series of questioners put on the airs of grand strategic sophisticates to remind Petraeus that whereas his brief includes only Iraq, theirs covers the entire world--and from their viewpoint, the fight that matters is not the one that Petraeus and Crocker and their subordinates are winning in Iraq, but the one in the "Afghan-Pakistan border region," as it was so often called. Petraeus and Crocker pointed out repeatedly and accurately that al Qaeda's leaders themselves continually refer to Iraq as the central front in their war against us, but to no avail. The real fight, they were told each time, is in the Afghan-Pakistan border region against the real al Qaeda that the Intelligence Community says has only grown stronger. And, the general and the ambassador were lectured, keeping too many troops in Iraq was preventing the United States from prevailing in this more important fight. Let's consider this thesis in a little more detail.

To begin with, numerous senators spoke of the Afghan-Pakistan border area as though there were no border--forces poured into Afghanistan would somehow directly affect what was going on in Pakistan or, alternatively, the real al Qaeda was on the Afghan side where U.S. troops could get at them. Speaking ethnographically, of course, there is no border--the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan cuts the Pashtun nation just about in half, and the porous border has seen decades of happy smuggling. But the border is very real both to our forces and to their enemies. Our troops know that they cannot cross into Pakistan, and the enemy knows it too. That's why the bases of the "real" al Qaeda are not in Afghanistan--American troops in Afghanistan report very few al Qaeda fighters and those they do come across are mostly operating out of Pakistani bases. The al Qaeda bases that harbor Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the other al Qaeda leaders plotting the attacks against which the Intelligence Community warns are in Pakistan--principally Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Chitral in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

Pouring troops into Afghanistan does not address those problems. Even advocating an invasion of those areas (with or without Islamabad's consent) makes little sense--al Qaeda works also with Kashmiri separatists, who have their own terror training bases outside of these areas, and we can be certain that the Pakistani government that supports the Kashmiri fighters will not be enthusiastic about American forces taking them out. And, even if they were, by this point we're pretty much occupying half of Pakistan. We could line a lot of soldiers up along the (20,000-foot) mountains along the border, but how does sealing the terrorists into their own base camps in Pakistan help? The problem isn't that they go into Afghanistan, but that we have no good plan for getting them out of Pakistan. That is a problem worthy of many senatorial hearings, and it would be nice if any of the advocates of losing in Iraq to fight the real enemy in South Asia had a solution to propose. It should be a sine qua non, in fact, for anyone who proposes accepting defeat in Iraq first to offer a concrete plan for doing something against the supposedly realer al Qaeda enemy in Pakistan.

Afghanistan is extremely important in its own right, of course, and if we fail in Afghanistan, then we will indeed offer al Qaeda another potential base from which to operate. Considering how well established it already is in Pakistan and how little Afghanistan--one of the most desperately poor countries on earth--has to offer the terrorists, it's a bit hard to see why they would relocate, but we should certainly deny them the opportunity. There are many other reasons to succeed in Afghanistan as well, moreover, including the possibility of developing a stable, democratic ally in the heart of a key region that is a producer rather than a consumer of security.