Obama's Retreat in Afghanistan

I did a short diary on this subject a few days ago contending that the conundrum facing the Obama Administration in Afghanistan is that it knows it can’t lose the war and, yet, it believes winning the war is wrong.

My analysis was flawed because I failed to take into consideration the chutzpah required to break out of this binary scenario. We are on the cusp of a campaign by the White House to convince us that Afghanistan simply isn’t important.

Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post’s Newsweek magazine, takes the position that our objective in Afghanistan should be to reduce it to a suppurating wound. He takes the position that we need to buy the Taliban to convince them to stop fighting, a rather stunning misreading of what we accomplished in Iraq with the Sons of Iraq movement, and accept that their dominance of a substantial part of Afghanistan is something we just have to deal with.

At least he concedes that keeping al Qaeda out of Afghanistan is a goal though how he plans on accomplishing that in an environment of warlordism is more than a little unclear.

In today’s Washington Post, former CIA weenie Paul Pillar argues that Afghanistan as a terrorist haven is a mistaken presumption that threatens to make Afghanistan [cue ominous scary music] another Vietnam.

For those of you who don’t remember, Paul Pillar is the CIA official who attempted to aid the election of John Kerry by attacking the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy shortly before the 2004 election in what was billed as an “off the record” address. Thankfully he was outed by Bob Novak. He also claimed that secular Ba’athists in Iraq would never cooperate with al Qaeda and defended the CIA’s gross shortcoming in Iraq intelligence pre-2003 by saying, in essence, so what?

Rationales for maintaining the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan are varied and complex, but they all center on one key tenet: that Afghanistan must not be allowed to again become a haven for terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda. Debate about Afghanistan has raised reasons to question that tenet, one of which is that the top al-Qaeda leadership is not even in Afghanistan, having decamped to Pakistan years ago. Another is that terrorists intent on establishing a haven can choose among several unstable countries besides Afghanistan, and U.S. forces cannot secure them all.

The debate has largely overlooked a more basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven? More to the point: How much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose. When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.

When one gets belong the historical illiteracy in this statement, I’d refer Mr. Pillar to read the 9/11 Commission Report. According to that document the plan for the attack originated in Khandahar (page 155), the leaders were recruited in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan (page 160), and the “muscle” for the hijacks were talent scouted and recruited in Afghan camps (page 248).

He asserts that the internet is the new battleground

In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.

By utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists’ organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters. A significant jihadist terrorist threat to the United States persists, but that does not mean it will consist of attacks instigated and commanded from a South Asian haven, or that it will require a haven at all. Al-Qaeda’s role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless.

While one would be ill advised to deny that use of the internet, one would be an utter moron to argue that the internet is a substitute for a safe haven or that jihadi use of the internet goes back two decades.

A victory in Afghanistan, no matter how distasteful the idea is to Obama, is critical for several reasons.

First, terrorists do require a national actor to provide safe haven. Contrary to what some would have us believe, 9/11 was not produced in Adobe Flash and it did not use the internet to any appreciable degree. Terrorists require safe areas in which to train, safe areas in which to house their infrastructure, they need valid passports to allow them to legally cross borders, they need embassies to receive shipments of money, documents, or weapons. While the internet is important, the internet is no substitute for a safe haven.

Second. Even were Pillar correct winning in Afghanistan is vital because winning is all that is important. Any analysis of the war in Iraq will show that the Sons of Iraq movement came into being when it became obvious that the United States was not going to go away. Warfare is actually a series of cliches, success begets success, nothing wins like a winner, etc. Our withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and our lack of response to the bombings of our embassies in East Africa, the bombing of our facilities in Saudi Arabia, and the bombing of the USS Cole all sent the message we were an easy mark. It has taken 8 bloody years in Afghanistan and Iraq to put the lie to that message. And the fact is, unless we choose to lose in those two wars we cannot lose.

Third. Given the importance, Mr. Pillar’s opinion notwithstanding, of sanctuaries to transnational terrorist organizations, it is vital that no country believes it can pick up the pre-9/11 policy of hosting terrorist organizations hostile to enemy nations and maintaining the fiction that you aren’t supporting them.

Fourth. Lots of young men have died in Afghanistan. The have died there for as good a reason as any nation has ever had for sending it’s young men in harm’s way. They deserve better than to have their families told that it didn’t matter.

Lastly, this Administration must be held accountable for something. To date it has delivered on only one promise, that Barack Obama would be elected president. The man in the Oval Office lambasted President Bush on the subject of Afghanistan and he must be held accountable for his words.

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