In this post an expert in the Af-Pak region explains why America must fight in Afghanistan. It’s valuable as the rationale of the war has received far too little discussion. For professional reasons this person remains anonymous.
This subject is of extreme importance to America. The Af-Pak war may come to dominate the attention of the Obama Administration, as it did the Bush Jr. team — draining energy and political capital needed to fight the economic crisis and implement their ambitious domestic policy agenda. That could have sad consequences, since America has a long-deferred list of vital public policy reforms. The Boomers retirement, starting in the next decade, will complicate these both politically and financially.
Why are we in Afghanistan?
FM, round #1
Do the following statements seem sensible?
“The mission is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for al Qaeda and other transnational extremists. That’s what it had become before the operations conducted in the wake of 9/11. Al Qaeda wants to carry out further attacks on the US and our allies, and we need to deny them safe havens in which they can plan and train for such attacks.”
— From “The Battle Ahead – General Petraeus on US Strategy”, Ralph Peters, op-ed in the New York Post, 19 May 2009
“Failure in Afghanistan would mean not only a possible return of pre-9/11 safe havens, but also a sharp blow to the prestige of the United States and its allies.”
— “Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan“, David Kilcullen et al, Center for a New American Security, 10 June 2009
Both of these are absurd, IMO.
- We’re supposed to spend billions of dollars and nobody knows how many American lives to prevent “a sharp blow to the prestige of the United States and its allies”?
- Is there any evidence that the al Qaeda “safe havens” in Afghanistan were relevant to 9-11?
The Afghanistan camps primarily trained fighters against the Northern Alliance. The most important training of the 9-11 terrorists took place in the US. Whatever minimal additional training was required could have been done anywhere in the wilds of the Western US. It’s easy to camp there for a month and see nobody, if you stay off the trails. The Forest Services and Bureau of Land Management have a small force of professional staff to patrol the vast areas under their supervision.
Reply, round #1
The 9-11 hijackers received several months’ training in Kandahar, which was where Bin Laden had set up one of his training camps after we bombed the one in Khost. Of course, as you note, such a camp can be run anywhere there is no government presence. I don’t think you could realistically set up a hidden, undiscoverable training camp in the U.S., although you could wander around for a long time and never see a cop.
FM, round #2
They were in Kandahar for several months. That does not imply that they received or needed several months training for 9-11.
You could not set up a USMC training camp undetected in the US. But the 9-11 hijackers did not need weapons training — other than box cutters. I doubt they needed lecture halls, mess halls, obstacle courses, parking lots, fancy firing ranges. But they could camp in tents for a month, moving every week, and conduct training for a 9-11 event.
Reply, round #2
No, it doesn’t. But they didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Camps in the Kandahar (the Tarnak farms out near the airport) provided a criticalindoctrination period. They also trained there — physically, mentally, ideologically. Saying that all they needed were box-cutters so why bother with everything else is like asking why we put tank drivers in the Army through boot camp. That training period is still crucial for an organized resistance movement.
As for the mechanics of buying plane tickets at the same time and entering flight school — you’re right, some dusty tents in the desert won’t help you much with that.
Now, the nature of these groups has changed over the past eight years. They are much more cellular, much more Internet-friendly, and much better able to communicate and indoctrinate online. But that doesn’t meant the camps themselves are not still important or necessary, or that they wouldn’t benefit from having stable territory to organize. Many of those changes into a diffused group are in reaction to attacking the territory they once used in Afghanistan.
Getting too organized was bad for the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). But being too disorganized has prevented al Qaeda’s previous signature of high-profile, devastating, coordinated attacks. Having that training ground surely counts for a lot.
FM, round #3
You are confusing two separate issues. An “organized resistance movement” requires extensive training. Intelligence, counter-intelligence, operational security, weapons, logistics, reconnaissance, communications, codes — even urban insurgents must perform these functions.
But the 9-11 were 9-11 guys were single mission terrorists. They needed simple training, but it probably required neither a long time (i.e., months) nor elaborate fixed sites — as required for actual armed forces (even irregulars). That they received ideological training at Afghanistan camps does not mean that ideological training required camps.
Their leadership element needed more sophisticated training or prior experience. But neither requires camps. And those people were probably not on the 9-11 aircraft.
These are the key points, IMO:
- The Afghanistan camps were probably not relevant to 9-11, and even total domination of Afghanistan will not hinder 9-11.
- If our activities in the Af-pak theater promote recruitment for al Qaeda, which many experts have warned it will, we are increasing the odds of another 9-11.
Reply, round #3
But that must be balanced by the ample evidence that intentionally disrupting al Qaeda, of which destroying their easy safe haven in Afghanistan was a part, has contributed to the whole “no attacks on American soil” thing.
FM, round #4
The majority of our impact on al Qaeda resulted from standard police and security work. Disrupting their funding and communications networks, assassination of their leaders, cutting of their sources of State support, etc. As for the camps, would the Taliban really risk certain death from the sky by allowing new al Qaeda camps? If they did, on what scale — how large, how long — could they operated before we detected and destroyed them.
The initial invasion of Afghanistan was probably a good thing to do, an effective reprisal. Showing that aiding America’s enemies has a high costs. But the calendar show that time has marched on, and citing 9-11 as a pretext for unrelated actions is merely “waving the bloody shirt“.
None of this provides any substantial support for the Afghanistan War. We are repeating our mistake in Iraq, invading and occupying a country at vast cost with no important national interest at stake. There were no significant WMD’s in Iraq. Invasion and occupation is not needed to prevent al Qaeda from staging another 9-11. It might increase al Qaeda’s capability to do so, through increased recruitment and convincing some that we are foreign infidel invaders.
This ended the discussion.
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- About America’s national defence strategy and machinery
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – studies & reports
Posts about our wars in Afghanistan:
- Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
- Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
- Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
- How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
- Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
- We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
- Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
- A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
- Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
- The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
- Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
- Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
- Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
- “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
- America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009
- New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
- The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan, 1 June 2009
- Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”, 9 June 2009