Why we must persist in Afghanistan

During Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ recent trip to Afghanistan, the impact of Osama bin Laden’s death on our future involvement in Afghanistan raised the most questions among American troops. Mr. Gates has been admirably firm in warning against acceleration of the American troop drawdown in light of bin Laden’s demise. But the administration has yet to mount a rigorous defense of that position, which is why the troops remain puzzled.

It is time for the administration to articulate clearly the rationale for staying the course in Afghanistan. It is time to refute the unnamed government sources who are telling the press that bin Laden’s death has devastated al Qaeda and demonstrated the infallibility of counterterrorism. Better talking points are required. Here are some suggestions:

Bin Laden’s death has done very little to reduce the threats posed by the anti-American extremists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. The fact that bin Laden lived comfortably in Pakistan for the past six years should make us more concerned – not less – for it demonstrates Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to keep out our worst enemies.

For al Qaeda, bin Laden’s death was a stiff punch in the chest, not a knockout blow. Al Qaeda has plenty of other dedicated and charismatic leaders who have been trained to operate with minimal guidance and plenty of followers willing to sacrifice their lives. Al Qaeda would have crumbled long ago had its members buckled quickly under adversity.

Other militant groups located along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border remain as potent as ever. Whether the “Arab Spring” dries up extremism in Arab lands remains to be seen. It definitely has not done so among the Pashtuns of Pakistan. The presence of al Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations in Pakistan has attracted Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and other foreigners who have ingratiated themselves with Pashtun tribes through intermarriage and illicit businesses. The extremists have recruited Pakistanis with British passports, making international travel a cinch. Pakistani militants who originally hated only the Indians now despise the West because their friends and relatives have perished in Afghanistan.

Particularly worrisome is Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which in recent years has come closer than al Qaeda to killing Americans in our homeland. Were it not for a poorly conceived detonator, they would have murdered hundreds in Times Square last year.

These organizations would pose much greater danger if we let them back into Afghanistan. Although Pakistan abets some extremists within its borders, it discourages them from attacking the U.S. homeland for fear of American reprisals. Pakistan could not exert such influence inside Afghanistan. Terrorists based in Afghanistan could orchestrate another Sept. 11 in the knowledge that our only recourse would be a prolonged counterinsurgency of the sort we just abandoned.

We cannot keep al Qaeda, TTP and their ilk out of Afghanistan with counterterrorism alone. Protecting vital counterterrorism installations requires the aggressive military patrolling of counterinsurgency. As yet, the Afghan national security forces are not strong enough to hold off the Taliban and affiliated insurgent groups without U.S. combat forces. When Afghanistan’s insurgents control the rural population, few civilians provide us information, and many tip off our enemies when we approach.

A rapid downsizing of our Afghan presence would also end Pakistan’s limited but valuable efforts to combat anti-American extremists. Pakistan would write off America and focus instead on securing Chinese assistance in dominating Afghanistan before it falls into India’s clutches.

Bin Laden’s discovery has renewed demands to pressure Pakistan into combating international terrorists and Afghan insurgents. But threats and punishments are not working better now than before. We can influence Pakistan by easing its fears of rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, through extension of our Afghan commitments beyond 2014 and persuasion of India to downsize its activities in Afghanistan.

Greater Pakistani cooperation may permit American troop levels to decline in larger increments than anticipated. But we must not declare that we are changing our overall strategy or timeline. The impression of a hastened American exit would sabotage our efforts to build the Afghan government’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities, as shown by the damage incurred in 2010 by policy statements touting a 2011 drawdown. Afghan security leaders grouped around top ethnic figures in anticipation of an ethnic civil war, and President Hamid Karzai replaced his counterterrorism leadership to appease the Pakistanis, who could help his Pashtuns in that civil war.

The explicit extension of our commitment at the Lisbon conference in November put us back on the right track. Afghan government leaders are now more concerned with fighting the insurgents than each other, and security forces are improving. More rural communities are committing themselves to the government through the Village Stability Operations program. Afghans now have several more years to build the leadership capacity required for self-sufficiency.

The morale and welfare of our troops also necessitate adherence to the present strategy. Last year’s perceptions of an impending exit distracted some American officers from the missions of defeating the enemy, engaging the population and partnering with Afghan forces. Our troops can tell whether we are pursuing an enduring solution or cloaking a fleeting commitment.

Mark Moyar, director of research at Orbis Operations and author, most recently, of A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq.

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