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Strategic Retreat

The war on terror is far from over. Why are we coming home?

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By BILL ROGGIO and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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President Obama is right that American troops and their allies have made “significant progress” in parts of that war-torn country, but the gains are tenuous. Other areas of Afghanistan remain infested with jihadists. And the insurgency organizations based across the border in Pakistan will be happy to take advantage of a security vacuum once the Americans are gone. 

Within hours of the Abbottabad raid, those seeking to end America’s military involvement in Afghanistan were on the march. Speaking to reporters the day after President Obama announced bin Laden’s death, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed the view that the successful raid should “reinforce” the president’s desire to draw down forces. 

“I think there is going to be a lot of strong feeling on the part of most Democrats and many .  .  . independents and even some Republicans,” Levin said, “that the decision of the president to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan starting in July [2011] should be a robust reduction. It shouldn’t be just a symbolic reduction; it should establish the point [that] the security of Afghanistan needs to be in the hands of Afghans.” 

Levin’s timing was off, but not by much. In June 2011, President Obama announced that 10,000 troops sent to Afghanistan as part of a surge he ordered would be withdrawn by year’s end. The remaining 23,000 surge troops would leave by September 2012, Obama declared. In October 2011, the president announced the U.S. pullout from Iraq by the end of that calendar year. 

The Obama administration is desperate to find a way out of Afghanistan. The problem is that the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their allies have not been defeated. So, then, how to justify retreat? The administration makes three key arguments, each based on politicized intelligence. 

First, administration officials argue there are only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives inside Afghanistan at any one time. It is not clear how anyone could possibly know the exact number of al Qaeda fighters, as they typically do not hand over rosters to Western officials. But the administration’s intent is clear: to downplay the centrality of Afghanistan in the fight against the terror network that attacked us on September 11. If al Qaeda is barely present in Afghanistan, the logic goes, there is no reason for U.S. forces to be there either. (Never mind that al Qaeda’s core leadership is based in Pakistan, and a foothold in Afghanistan gives American forces a place from which to launch operations against them, such as the raid that killed bin Laden.)

The administration’s estimate relies on an absurdly narrow definition of al Qaeda. Fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a close ally in both ideology and operations, are excluded. So are other non-Arab groups, even though bin Laden’s grand strategy was to bring these organizations under al Qaeda’s banner. The deceased al Qaeda master made strides in that direction long before September 11. 

NATO’s command in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), regularly issues press releases on its raids. A review of these statements from March 2007 forward shows the presence of al Qaeda and affiliated foreign groups such as the IMU in 94 districts in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Al Qaeda’s own martyrdom statements confirm ISAF’s reporting. In other words, the enemy’s footprint is much larger than the administration would have us believe. 

Second, administration officials contend—as Vice President Biden told Newsweek in December—that the Taliban “is not our enemy.” This was a rather callous statement given that the Taliban has spilled much American blood over the past 10 years. But the intent is plain to see. It is easier to justify retreat if you can claim that the Taliban—former ruler of what it still calls the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and the backbone of the insurgency there—isn’t an enemy at all. 

The Obama administration has tried to open peace talks with the Taliban on a number of occasions and has failed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has listed the goals for the talks as (1) the Taliban lays down its arms, (2) the Taliban accepts the Afghan constitution, and (3) the Taliban separates itself from al Qaeda (implicitly conceding that the two work together, though this is inconsistent with both Biden’s opinion of the Taliban and claims that al Qaeda has little to do with the insurgency). There is no reason to believe the Taliban is serious about meeting these goals. In January, the Taliban opened a “political office” in Qatar to facilitate negotiations; the administration took this as a significant step. In announcing its new office, however, the Taliban stated that this 

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