U.S. in Afghanistan: Nation Building to Nowhere?

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Last week, President Obama sketched out the results of a 60 day strategic review of Afghanistan. In addition to the 17,000 troops already promised, an additional 4,000 will flow in to assist in training the Afghan army and police. The military effort will be matched with a broad-ranging civilian reconstruction program, and $1.5 billion in aid to the Pakistani people every year for five years to bolster that country’s resistance to Islamic terrorism.

We are making this significant investment, Obama said, because “al-Qaeda and its allies - the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks - are in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

But if defanging al-Qaeda is the core American interest, one should ask whether there aren’t more effective ways of achieving it.

Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama’s strategy succeeds. The U.S. is able to gradually beat back the Taliban insurgency inside Afghanistan while convincing the Pakistanis to dial-back support for the Taliban. Violence drops, opium production stalls and reconstruction booms. Are we therefore safer from Islamic terrorism?

Defeating the Taliban might be essential to restoring stability inside Afghanistan, but the Taliban were mere abettors to the international jihad that struck the U.S. on September 11th, not its perpetrators. With the Taliban defeated or co-opted, the U.S. would still have to deal with al-Qaeda.

Presumably, as Obama’s strategy unfolds, al-Qaeda will become sensitive to the shifting strategic tides and begin charting their own exit strategy from Pakistan’s tribal region. Unfortunately, the world is awash with potential safe-havens for a displaced al-Qaeda. They could potentially return to their original home base in Sudan or bin Laden’s ancestral home of Yemen. Somalia, too, provides just the right mix of abject chaos, an Islamist insurgency and toothless central authority that would make for an ideal sanctuary. Lebanon’s Bekka Valley is another potential home for transient jihadists.

To be sure, being displaced from Pakistan would deal a serious blow to al-Qaeda, just as losing Afghanistan threw the terrorist group off balance in 2001 and 2002. But barring immediate and comprehensive action inside the new safe haven by U.S. forces, they would likely regroup. Having been whacked in Pakistan, the mole would rear its head in another backwater.

What’s more, the threat from Islamic terrorism spans beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas. The radicalization of European Muslims presents a whole different level of threat – one that no amount of state-building inside Afghanistan can address. Today, many radicalized European jihadists travel to Pakistan for guidance and cash, but it’s not difficult to imagine self-actuating groups that carry out lethal attacks with minimal overseas assistance. The terror attacks in Mumbai, India, where multiple gunmen assaulted civilian targets, could be easily replicated with no formal safe-haven.

Even in the best case scenario, a secured and rebounding Afghanistan still leaves the U.S. with a potent threat from radical Islam. And, needless to say, there is a fair chance that the best case scenario won’t be achieved, particularly with respect to Pakistan. Why should we believe, for instance, that the Obama team can do what the Bush administration could not: convince Pakistan to give up the Taliban? Bush tried to bully and bribe Pakistan into complying, with limited success. The Obama administration’s innovation is to bring India into the equation, reasoning that easing tensions between India and Pakistan will reduce Pakistan’s habit of treating the Taliban and other Islamist groups as useful proxy forces.

In other words, for the Obama gambit to work, they have to resolve a dispute just as long and as nettlesome as the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Good luck.

Meanwhile, the example of Iraq looms large. Ostensibly evidence that the U.S. can succeed in counter-insurgency and nation building, Iraq could just as easily be read as a cautionary tale. The U.S. still maintains a significant contingent of ground forces in Iraq. The same voices proclaiming victory also caution that the U.S. cannot actually capitalize on said victory by drawing down, lest the country fall apart. By their own admission, it is unclear if we have achieved anything durable in Iraq. In any event, the U.S. is held hostage by the internal politics of another nation.

This is the future that Obama is courting for America: a nation yoked to the unpredictability and caprice of internal Afghan and Pakistan politics, no longer the master of her strategic destiny. While China, and to a lesser extent Russia cultivate their power, America will spend her resources policing Byzantine tribal disputes, harassing indigent opium farmers, and cajoling reluctant neighbors and allies to pitch in. Al-Qaeda, the alleged purpose and focus of the mission, would be diminished but not defeated. The ideology which lures men and women to jihad will continue to transit the Internet and be preached in mosques around the world.

None of this should understate the dilemma the Obama administration faces in Afghanistan. Even a minimalist approach, which leverages intelligence, precision air strikes and local clients to beat back al-Qaeda, entails a continued presence and investment in the country with no guarantee of success. Simply bombing terror camps without a broader commitment to improve the country will surely alienate Afghans, tipping additional numbers toward insurgent violence. Leaving Pakistan to its own devices surely means a continuation of Taliban patronage.

But by seeking to contain the costs and limit the scope of our commitment, such a minimalist approach frees up resources that could be used elsewhere.

The Obama administration has, however, tangentially grasped at a mechanism that would improve America’s battle against Islamic terrorism. By linking Pakistan’s support for the Taliban with its geopolitical stand off with India, the administration is acknowledging that terrorism springs from the toxic interplay between religious radicalism and political tension. But rather than enmesh ourselves in the politics of India-Pakistan and the fundamentalism of the Taliban, we should be focusing on the politics of the U.S. and the Middle East, and the fundamentalism of al-Qaeda.

Conceiving of Islamic terrorism as a problem with roots in every other nation’s behavior but our own is a recipe for future, likely fruitless, forays into nation building. Conceiving of Islamic terrorism as a global insurgency with roots in the dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East, however, would give us the conceptual tools to begin fighting back more effectively.

The key to any successful counter-insurgency is not simply securing the population, but ensuring they are not sympathetic with the goals of the insurgents. For the U.S., that means altering its perception among the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East.

Rather than asking the Indians and Pakistanis to bury the hatchet, we could be asking ourselves whether the Saudi royal family, Egypt’s President-for-Life, and the torture prone dynasty in Jordan are worth American patronage and protection. Rather than pouring money into Pakistan with little accountability, we could instead pour money into renewable sources of energy that would collapse the price of oil and deprive the Middle East of the sole foundation of its strategic worth. Rather than support Israel irrespective of their policies towards the Palestinians, the U.S. could make its support conditional on visible improvements in the lives of Palestinians and on progress toward a final settlement.

None of these policies would be easy to implement, nor would they assure us a terror-free future. But they are within the capacity of the United States to pursue effectively if she so chooses. Congress may be tough to bargain with, but it’s a sure bet that the Obama administration understands what makes them tick far better than they do their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts.

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