Is Team Obama Really Rethinking Afghanistan?

Some speculation in the press has suggested that the current White House deliberations on General McChrystal's request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan might be largely a political tactic. One theory has suggested that President Obama is running the clock, delaying his decision so he won't have to cross Democrats in Congress while health care reform is hanging fire. Another suggests that the deliberation is for show, so that Democrats will believe that Obama didn't rush to judgment, only reluctantly accepting McChrystal's request after serious deliberation and evaluation.

But two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal suggest that Obama and his advisers are indeed rethinking key assumptions which have underpinned U.S. policy.

On October 5, the Journal reported that President Obama had pressed military commanders over whether "the Taliban still has close ties to al Qaeda and whether the international terrorist group would continue to have a haven should the Taliban regain control of parts of the country."

On October 6, the Journal reported that "intelligence and military officials say they've severely constrained al Qaeda's ability to operate there and in Pakistan - and that's reshaping the debate over U.S. strategy in the region." Some officials, including aides to U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, have argued that "the Taliban wouldn't allow al Qaeda to regain its footing inside Afghanistan, since it was the alliance between the two that cost the Taliban their control of the country after Sept. 11."

So, according to these two articles in the Journal - by two different sets of reporters - the Administration is seriously examining the question of whether "defeating" the Taliban is necessary to addressing the threat to the United States from al Qaeda. This, indeed, would be re-examining a key Administration assumption.

In his speech on March 27 announcing his "new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan," President Obama based U.S. strategy on the belief that to prevent al Qaeda from having a base of operations in Afghanistan to attack the United States, the U.S. has to defeat the Taliban. Obama spoke of "the return in force of al Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership," and said he had ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops to "take the fight to the Taliban" and that there is "an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated."

To Republicans in Congress opportunistically seeking a talking point against the President, this may be called a flip-flop. To people in the truth-based community, it's a welcome recognition of reality. As Keynes is said to have remarked, "when I am presented with new information, I change my opinion. What do you do?" In the fiasco of the Afghan election, the Obama Administration has been presented with new information that the current policy is fundamentally flawed.

The White House should also re-examine two other key assumptions.

One: how significantly is any threat to the United States increased if al Qaeda has a "safe haven" in Afghanistan? In an op-ed in the Washington Post on September 16, Paul Pillar, who was deputy chief of the counterterrorist center at the CIA under the Clinton Administration, asked,

How much does a [terrorist] haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland?

And Pillar answered:

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.

In a recent interview, Pillar sharpened his case, saying that "the terror threat to the West would not significantly increase if we were to leave Afghanistan" and calling for a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal.

Finally, would a phased U.S. withdrawal necessarily "return the Taliban to power"? This is another assumption that is rarely questioned. But prior to the U.S. intervention in 2001, the Taliban did not have uncontested control of Afghanistan. They had the upper hand in a civil war against the Northern Alliance; they had the backing of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia while the Northern Alliance had the backing of Iran, Russia, and India. The U.S. essentially threw its weight behind the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban.

The New York Times reported in May that insurgent leaders had proposed in preliminary talks a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces, followed by elections:

The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.

This strongly suggests a scenario is quite plausible in which a U.S. withdrawal is not followed by a Taliban military victory, but by the election of a new government that includes the Taliban and its supporters along with everybody else.

So: the case for continuing the war - let alone escalating it - rests on three key assumptions, which must all be true to justify the war. If the U.S. withdraws its forces, the Taliban will "return to power." If the Taliban return to power, al Qaeda will have a safe haven in Afghanistan. If al Qaeda has a safe haven in Afghanistan, the terrorist threat to the United States will significantly increase.

Each one of these assumptions is quite uncertain. Together, their uncertainty makes a strong case for U.S. military withdrawal. Withdrawing our forces does not mean the U.S. will have zero influence in Afghanistan. The U.S. can use political and diplomatic tools to work to ensure that a U.S. withdrawal is not followed by a Taliban military conquest; and that the return of Taliban influence is not followed by an al-Qaeda resurgence; and even in the worst case that these efforts all fail completely, the U.S. would still have every tool at its disposal for dealing with al Qaeda in Afghanistan that is has for dealing with al Qaeda in Pakistan and Somalia. And even in this worst-case scenario, in the judgment of Paul Pillar, a former top U.S. counterterrorism official, the terrorist threat to the U.S. would not significantly increase.

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