November 1, 2009  

Why we can’t walk away

There is certainly a lot of hand-wringing, chin-rubbing and forceful exhaling going on these days over the increasingly challenging war in Afghanistan, where nearly 70,000 U.S. troops are duking it out with the Taliban, al-Qaida and war lords.

Now into the ninth year since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan, support for the protracted fight among the American public, including members of Congress, is slipping as the Obama administration wrestles with a strategy with its trademark on it.

On the surface, it is understandable: There has been little good news of late in spite of the blood, sweat and tears of our brave troops and others, including U.S. diplomats and civilians, who are often on the front lines, too.

War assessments range from “serious” to “dire” to “deteriorating.” Some long-term supporters of the war are saying it is time for Uncle Sam to pull up his tent stakes and come home. Others agitate for the U.S. to reduce its footprint and opt instead for a strategy where American troops support Afghan indigenous forces with training, intelligence, logistics, air and special operations capabilities.

So while the Obama administration – and the American public — mull Afghanistan, it is important to remember, especially in the long shadow of the eighth anniversary of Sept. 11, that the stakes are still high for us in that seemingly remote South Asian nation.

Of course, we do not want to turn Afghanistan over to the Taliban, a repressive, Islamist terrorist group, which has surged in recent years from safe havens in the Pakistani tribal belt along the inhospitable border with Afghanistan. Indeed, after battling American and coalition (largely NATO) forces for years, the current breed of Taliban fighter is reportedly even more anti-West than his predecessors were in the 1990s. This is not good news; they are serious about the fight.

The Taliban is set on having control over Afghanistan (again), which is a distinct possibility without appropriate opposition, according to recent assessments. Already making plans for such a takeover, the Taliban has killed more than 100 Afghan tribal leaders who might block their ascent to power in Kabul. The creation of a fundamentalist “Talibanistan” would put the country in the hands of an acknowledged terrorist group, resulting in serious security repercussions for the region — and beyond. With the Taliban in charge in Afghanistan, al-Qaida would almost certainly have a free hand to return and set up camps similar — or larger — to what they had in the late 1990s in the run-up to Sept. 11, allowing them to recruit, plan and train for terrorist attacks abroad — including against the U.S.

With military pressure being applied on the Pakistani side of the border, al-Qaida would surely return to its old stomping grounds in large numbers, where it would almost certainly be able once again to strike a deal with its former landlords, the Taliban. And as some have suggested, even if al-Qaida were not invited back by the Taliban, could they keep its inspirational leader Osama bin Laden from returning if he wanted to, making Afghanistan a magnet for followers?

This means that failing to defeat the Taliban insurgency will have global consequences in that Afghanistan would become, once again, an al-Qaida safe haven from which it could freely propagandize, plot and operate, advancing its global jihad.

Simply put: Al-Qaida in Afghanistan cannot be defeated without prevailing over the Taliban as well. Like a parasite in a symbiotic relationship, al-Qaida feeds off host Islamist insurgencies such as the Taliban’s — and from them, gains strength. (Likewise, the Taliban benefits from its links to al-Qaida, including ideological inspiration and military and terrorist training.)

Losing to the Taliban in Afghanistan would also put wind in the sails of other violent Islamist movements across the planet, which would see hope in the defeat of the world’s most powerful country by a relatively small group of insurgents. Indeed, like al-Qaida, some might also choose to make Afghanistan an operating base. For instance, the Taliban has long had ties with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — or IMU — which fought alongside Mullah Omar’s group during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s and is active in nearby Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

With the fall of Kabul to the Taliban — and with the Taliban’s assistance — we could very well see the creeping “Talibanization” of Central Asia and the strengthening of terrorist groups such as the IMU, undermining the already-threatened stability of that region.

Dealing a blow to the Taliban in Afghanistan, on the other hand, would have a salutary effect well beyond that country, increasing the security of those who find themselves in terrorist cross-hairs, whether in Europe or Asia.

But while the war in Afghanistan is often reduced to a fight on terror, it’s about what happens next door in Pakistan, too. Failing in Afghanistan could lead to (more) challenges in already-troubled neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban — and other Islamist extremists — have the national government in Islamabad squarely in their sights. The Taliban wields significant influence in Pakistan along the vast Afghan-Pakistan border. Indeed, according to some experts, the Taliban is actually more popular in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, increasing the threat from the group. But while Islamabad has made gains in pushing the Taliban back, it was just last spring that the Taliban controlled the Swat Valley, coming within 60 miles of the nation’s capitol. At the time, some predicted that the fall of the Islamabad government was in the offing. (There is a certain irony in that the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] directorate supported the creation of the Taliban in the 1990s to protect Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan.)

Unfortunately, Taliban troubles continue to grow in such regions as Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as well as urban areas such as Quetta in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, from where analysts believe senior Afghan Taliban leaders are running their operations into southern Afghanistan. The last thing any security analyst wants to see is the Pakistan government fall to terrorists like the Taliban, which would unleash a Pandora’s Box of problems for those with anti-terror and regional interests.

But, it is a distinct possibility, especially if Afghanistan goes bad.

Losing in Afghanistan to the Taliban — or even ceding a large swath of ground — could allow Afghan territory to become the reverse-image of Pakistan today, which the Taliban uses as a sanctuary for the cross-border assaults into Afghanistan. The inverse of this situation could quickly evolve, making Afghanistan the launching pad for the Taliban, al-Qaida or other Islamist groups to attack and topple the Pakistani central government. One outcome is that Pakistan, which is already home to a number of Islamist terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, could become even more of a hotbed for regional and extra-regional terrorism. Even worse, if the Taliban topples the Pakistan government, it is conceivable that an even bigger nightmare might come to pass: The terrorist Taliban comes into possession of Islamabad’s arsenal of a few hundred nuclear weapons. What this would mean for the prospects of nuclear terrorism, proliferation or the use of these weapons between states is anyone’s guess — and a good basis for insomnia.

In the end, Pakistan and Afghanistan are inextricably linked: Failure in one country will contribute to failure in the other — just as success in either Afghanistan or Pakistan will increase the likelihood of a positive result across the border.

But it is not just Pakistan that has a lot at stake in Afghanistan. Neighboring India, the South Asian giant, is also nervous about Afghanistan’s future, which is another area of competition — and proxy conflict — with rival Pakistan. The now-nuclear armed India and Pakistan have come to blows (and near-blows) a number of times since their independence from the British Empire in 1947. Not surprisingly New Delhi is worried about Islamabad having significant influence in neighboring Afghanistan. India, a markedly terrorism-afflicted state, also worries that Afghanistan could become an operating base for Islamist extremists under the control of Pakistan with the aim of seeking to influence policies regarding Muslim-dominated Kashmir, a long-contested area between Islamabad and Delhi. Indeed, most experts acknowledge that Pakistan views the Afghan Taliban as an asset, seeing them as an ace-in-the-hole to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan, especially if the western forces were to leave precipitously. India and Pakistan, both powerhouses in their own rights, are not only important partners of the United States in fighting terrorism, but in dealing with a host of other key issues, such as nuclear non-proliferation and Iran. Positive relations between them are critical to American interests.

Iran is also quite interested in happenings in neighboring Afghanistan and has been supporting its former nemesis, the Taliban, and others with weapons, including IEDs, used in fighting coalition forces. It is not clear what sort of relationship a post-conflict Taliban would have with the Iranians, since they have been sworn enemies in the past, but it is very likely Tehran would seek influence in Afghanistan to check unwelcome policies right next door.

American and coalition success in Afghanistan is important for containing Iranian influence in the region, which has been surging not only across the Middle East, but into neighboring regions such as Central Asia. We could also see big power competitors of the United States, namely Russia and China, move significantly — although not militarily — into the region to influence outcomes since Afghanistan is on their periphery and both have concerns about Islamist movements among their populations.

And, of course, failure in Afghanistan will affect America’s stature in the world.

As the Afghan situation unfolds in the months to come, both friends and foes will be watching closely for even subtle signs of American intentions, especially its commitment to continuing the fight.

Not surprisingly, a lot of strategic hedging is going on among stakeholders in Afghanistan as America works out its strategy. Even a seeming lack of resolve will have consequences, as Afghanistan Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said recently in a speech in London: “Uncertainty disheartens our allies, emboldens our foe.”

But it goes beyond that.

Perceptions of who is winning and who is losing and who is staying and who is going affect the civilian population in Afghanistan — one that is famous for bending with the prevailing political winds. Having the population on the right side is critical to any counterinsurgency campaign.

It is also not outlandish to assume that defeat in Afghanistan to the Taliban would leave the United States looking soft and undependable with both allies and enemies, having a negative effect on American interests across the globe.

For example, failure in Afghanistan will ripple into NATO, where America’s leadership will be undermined, perhaps, convincing the Europeans of the soundness of their parallel effort to establish a European Union defense policy and force. Asian allies would certainly wonder about their American partner, too.

Moreover, coming up short in Afghanistan certainly would not encourage the likes of the recalcitrant regimes in Iran or North Korea to come around to our way of thinking on negotiations over their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

And as the Pakistani foreign minister, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, plainly told the Wall Street Journal recently about a U.S. withdrawal before the Taliban is defeated: “This will be disastrous … you will lose credibility … who is going to trust you again?”

Beyond big power politics, and although seemingly counterintuitive, Afghanistan has proven via the horrors of 9/11 that in some cases it is the weakest nations — especially failed states — that can be the source of some of the most significant national security threats.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal, perhaps less than eloquently, put it: Leaving Afghanistan before the job is done would create “Chaos-istan.” That certainly would not be in anyone’s interest, except maybe terrorists and criminals.

Obama was right to say this is a war of necessity, that the “safety of the people around the world is at stake” in Afghanistan, and that “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans.”

Among experts, this is not disputed.

The challenge now for the American national security establishment is to develop and resource the right strategy for succeeding in Afghanistan – because failure just does not present any attractive outcomes for U.S. interests.

PETER BROOKES is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.