Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Al’Qaeda View: America Is Now Divided

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on October 12, 2009

tired american soldier

First and foremost, I would like to say that I am indeed a supporter of an enhanced U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. I firmly believe, like many others, than an American defeat in Afghanistan would be severely detrimental to U.S. national security…not because the Taliban would threaten the United States with direct force, but because of the symbolic effect a U.S. defeat would have for Islamic jihadists throughout the globe. Whether or not Al’Qaeda is a major problem for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan is irrelevant at this point. What is relevant is the fact that Al’Qaeda militants will certainly exploit a Taliban victory to their advantage.

Citing yet another defeat of a superpower in Afghanistan (Great Britain in the 19th Century and the Soviet Union in the 20th) would only increase the recruitment ability of anti-American groups…regardless of ideological affiliation. We must remember that weakened resolve will not only translate into benefits for Al’Qaeda; it will also give a much-needed boost to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and Palestinian rejectionists in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Interestingly enough, President Obama’s decision to weigh all options- while necessary and understandable- may have a similar effect. Floundering for the next few weeks may very well give the United States a weak image internationally…a development that may not be so terrible if terrorist organizations were not spreading at unprecedented speed. Yet, as reality dictates, this could not be further from the truth. At the same time U.S. soldiers are engaged in Afghanistan, Al’Qaeda proxies are gaining strength in Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and (of course) Pakistan. With all of these developments, is waiting really the best option for the United States?

There is one more point I would like to bring up. It appears that Civil-Military relations have hit a significant roadblock, with National Security Advisor James Jones virtually telling General McChrystal to shut-up and keep his opinions to himself. Of course, discussing the war-effort and contradicting the President in public should be frowned upon…especially during a period of contention. Yet, at the same time, the U.S. Military is not entirely at fault. The White House response could have been much more constructive than the harsh rhetoric that was emanated just last week.

Again, I cannot help but wonder if this strained Civil-Military relationship will result in devastating consequences for American interests in the immediate future. What White House officials see as a minor rut, terrorists and Islamic militants view as a divided U.S. Government unable to unite in the face of a common threat.

Note:  This post was originally published on March Lynch’s blog at foreignpolicy.com

-Daniel R. DePetris


7 Responses

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  1. Khairi Janbek said, on October 12, 2009 at 2:35 am

    I think it would be correct to say, that Pakistan is currently the bigger problem. But then again, all the billions poured into the country went into the Pakistani military coffers and their hardware requirements, leaving very little; if anything tangible at all, to support the economy of a country which is governed by an incompetent and corrupt government, whose practices are seen by many international credible experts, as contributing to the increased Talibanisation of Pakistan.

    But there is another dimension also, which rarely seems to get the headlines, and that is the ambiguity surrounding the many stakeholders in the situation of Afghanistan. One would would maintain that, it is in the ineterests of the Pakistani High Command-ISI (pakistani Intelligence), to continue finding it convenient, to keep relations with Taliban-Afghanistan, because they believe, it serves the interests of Pakistan.

    For a start, Pakistan accuses India of fomenting Baluch separatism in Afghanistan to affect instability in Pakistan, therefore, Islamabad feels the need to check Indian expanding influence by maintaining bi-lateral relations with Taliban-Afghanistan. The relations with Taliban play also an important role with Chinese-Pakistani relations, especially nowadays that Beijing is sensitive about the possible Talibanisation of its own Uighur problem, and needs the “mediation” of Pakistan in this respect.

    For both, Saudi Arabia and Iran, influence in Afghanistan is a zero-sum game. Therefore, Saudia hopes that its good relations with Pakistan will work for its own purposes against Iran’s influence in the country; here Taliban comes into inter-play also. Tajikistan has also its serious Talibanisation problem, and needs Pakistan’s influence to stem the tide, and not only in Tajikistan but also in the Fergana Valley on the borders of Uzbekistan. Not to mention of course, Russia and its own internal security problems in the caucasus, in addition to having Islamic extremisim on its borders.

    At the end of the day, all those stakeholders in Afghanistan have their own concerns, which are independent of the concerns of the USA as well as at times, run contrary to the concerns of the USA, but all their roads lead to Islamabad. Consequently, one really does not see, how President Obama can ignore the idea of an international conference on Afghanistan, given the fatc that, there are so many non-Afghan stakeholders in the country, willing to undermine the US influence; directly or indirectly through Pakistan.

    khairi janbek.paris/france

  2. MikeDC said, on October 12, 2009 at 2:37 am

    From my layman’s perspective:

    1. Escalation cannot come without using the prospect for more support to goad the Afghan government into a runoff and/or other steps to gain it legitimacy. COIN as a strategy, as I understand it, requires building those “pillars”. So in short, we threaten to no escalate and not support the new government without concrete steps to bring in opposition partners, have a run-off etc.

    On the ground, my understanding is that the COIN approach is to build legitimacy at the local levels by working closely with and training local forces and communities.

    2. I don’t disagree with this, I think it’s largely the answer to Q1. However, it’s obvious the strategy we plan to use needs to be agreed upon and we set the stage for implementing it (and by the way, aren’t we just really talking about implementing the strategy we ginned up in March?). In general, moving quickly because the fact that the situation isn’t close to immediate collapse obviously doesn’t mean it’s not deteriorating. You could rephrase it as “sure, things won’t collapse, but they will get worse the longer we wait”. And support for doing something about it will decline as the war drags on. If we’re in a hole, we best stop digging deeper ASAP.

    3. Can’t answer this question as I’m not a general, but it seems rather intuitive that: a) there is never going to be the political support for a re-evaluation and a second escalation a year down the road, so you better ask for everything you think you might need now. b) After overcoming the technical issue of getting the troops there, I don’t see an upper bound on how many would be effective.

    4. The approach in Afghanistan has to be to make them better off enough to want to independently kick out/not live with/fight off the Talibs and AQ who will eventually come back from Pakistan. It seems to me that even if Pakistan is a bigger problem, in some way it’s not a solvable problem, whereas setting up Afghanistan to be resistant to caving in as a safe-haven is. When we do solve the Pakistan problem, if we haven’t solved the Afghan problem, we’ll have simply replaced the former with a new version of the latter.

    5. I want to see Afghans fighting each other less and being able to independently fight off the Talibs and AQ.
    Quick Answers

  3. Jason Sigger said, on October 12, 2009 at 2:38 am

    “What are the things which, if observed over the next year, would lead you to support a different policy? … For Nagl, it was Pakistan giving up its nuclear weapons (?).

    Yesterday John Nagl said that we shouldn’t think of the Afghanistan war having gone on 8 years, since COIN was only now being tried. ”

    I am still trying to wrap my mind around those two things. If Pakistan gave up its nukes, he would reconsider how we are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. That’s just so insane on so many levels, but not nearly as crazy as saying “hey, let’s ignore the 800 dead and thousands of injured Americans and billions of dollars spent for the last eight years, because there’s a new team now. Mulligan…”

    Just unbelievable that such a man is in charge of a major influential think tank.

  4. Pat said, on October 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Nice, thorough, and pragmatic analysis Daniel. I write about Afghanistan at http://afghanistan.foreignpolicyblogs.com/ and about foreign affairs and US foreign policy in general at http://www.greatpowerpolitics.com. I found this site from your comments on Walt’s page. In regards to your ‘symbolic effect’ part of this debate, I am in large agreement. Just from the Obama administration’s long (too long?) decision making process about what to do next, one can sense the gaining of power within the Taliban and Al Qaeda movements.

    In a general sense, when we look shaky, they get stronger, and vice versa. Could you imagine if Obama finally decided on say about 20,000 more troops to do counterinsurgency, but then changed his mind again in about 1 1/2, 2 years? For the home opposition (taliban, al qaeda) these dithering signs shout aloud that their innate advantage (home turf) will win out. It is this logic why I think the Iraq surge was so successful. All of a sudden, most of the insurgents (who were not radical islamists) realized that the US was not going anywhere and this changed their policies.

    • Dan said, on October 16, 2009 at 8:04 pm

      Pat, first and foremost, thank you for your kind words. Any comments are highly appreciated (SPREAD THE WORD ON YOUR BLOGS IF YOU CAN!!)

      Your point is well-taken. President Obama is really playing with fire here. As I said earlier, deliberating and taking all perspectives into account is an extremely important part of a comprehensive and sound foreign policy. This is even more so when your country is engaged in a war. Nevertheless, there is a tremendous difference between internal debate and internal stagnation.

      What has this deliberation gotten us, besides a stray in civil-military relations, continued U.S. casualties on the ground, international condemnation and a confused American public? This development is even more astounding considering the “black-and-white” recommendation made by General Stanley McChrystal…someone who actually understands what needs to be taken in order to turn the situation around.

      As I am sure you already know, there is a rumor circulating around Washington that the White House will adopt a middle-of-the-line approach to appease the advocates of escalation and the supporters of counterterrorism. It seems rather obscene to play party-politics when your decision could potentially cost the lives of U.S. servicemen/women.

  5. britt knowlton said, on June 2, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Hello Daniel,
    My name is Britt and I am an associate producer at a documentary film company in Maine.

    We are doing a show for Discovery Military about veterans returning home with PTSD. I came across your close up photo on the veteran’s face from your 10/12/09 blog and it would be perfect for our show. Do you own the rights to it? if not do you know who does?
    Please give me a call (# on our website) or shoot me and email.
    Thanks very much Daniel,
    Britt Knowlton

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