Today’s news about the Ak-Pak War, about al Qaeda’s strength

Summary:  Our descendents will read about the Af-Pak War and conclude that early 21st century Americans were either fools or insane.  As seen in these two stories from today’s news.

(1)  Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that the government estimates that there are somewhat “more than 300” al Qaeda leaders and fighters hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas (“New Estimate of Strength of Al Qaeda Is Offered“, New York Times, 1 July 2010).  How nice of them to tell us.  How long have they known this?   In addition AQ has another 50 – 100 in Afghanistan (per CIA Director Panetta). 

(2)  Now read “We must crush the Taliban and Al Qaeda in a ‘long war’ in Afghanistan“, John R. Bolton (former U.S. ambassador to the UN), op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, 1 July 2010:

“U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are straightforward: first, defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda efforts to reconquer Afghanistan and make it a base for international terrorism , and second, ensure that Afghan turmoil does not weaken or endanger Pakistan, permitting its nuclear weapons arsenal to fall into the hands of radical Islamists”. 

Bolton gives no evidence that either of those things is likely.   Esp that the few hundreds of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose any substantial threat to us.   His assertions are variants of the two most common  justifications for the war:

  1. to prevent another 9-11, and
  2. to build a stable and “good” Afghanistan.  Good defined in many ways, and steadily down as the war winds on (see here for the “protect women” version)

The second reason is so absurd that it needs no rebuttal, as most Americans reject it as either impossible or not worth the cost in blood and money.  The first of these is the big lie of the war (see Wikipedia).  Afghanistan had little or no role in 9-11.  Whatever we do in Afghanistan does not prevent another 9-11.

  •  The 9-11 attack was planned in Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, and Hamburg.
  •  The most important and relevant training of the 9-11 terrorists took place in the US.
  •  The Afghanistan camps primarily trained fighters against the Northern Alliance.  The training they provided for 9-11 could easily have been done elsewhere.  For more on this see “The ‘safe haven’ myth“, Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 18 August 2009, or “Who’s Afraid of A Terrorist Haven?, Paul R. Pillar, op-ed in the Washington Post, 16 September 2009.

The 9/11 Commission’s investigation:  what role did Afghanistan play?

The most complete public collection of information about 9/11 is The 9-11 Commission’s Report.  For details about the role of the training in Afghanistan, see page 156, Chapter 5, Al Qaeda Aims at the American Homeland.  Pretty weak basis for a long war, as the important planning and training was done in Europe and the US:

In the fall of 1999, the four operatives selected by Bin Ladin for the planes operation were chosen to attend an elite training course at al Qaeda’s Mes Aynak camp in Afghanistan. Bin Ladin personally selected the veteran fighters who received this training, and several of them were destined for important operations.

… The Mes Aynak training camp was located in an abandoned Russian copper mine near Kabul. The camp opened in 1999, after the United States had destroyed the training camp near Khowst with cruise missiles in August 1998, and before the Taliban granted al Qaeda permission to open the al Faruq camp in Kandahar. Thus, for a brief period in 1999, Mes Aynak was the only al Qaeda camp operating in Afghanistan. It offered a full range of instruction, including an advanced commando course taught by senior al Qaeda member Sayf al Adl. Bin Ladin paid particular attention to the 1999 training session. When Salah al Din, the trainer for the session, complained about the number of trainees and said that no more than 20 could be handled at once, Bin Ladin insisted that everyone he had selected receive the training.

The special training session at Mes Aynak was rigorous and spared no expense. The course focused on physical fitness, firearms, close quarters combat, shooting from a motorcycle, and night operations. Although the subjects taught differed little from those offered at other camps, the course placed extraordinary physical and mental demands on its participants, who received the best food and other amenities to enhance their strength and morale.

Upon completing the advanced training at Mes Aynak, Hazmi, Khallad, and Abu Bara went to Karachi, Pakistan. There KSM instructed them on Western culture and travel.

See page 332, Chapter 10 — Wartime, and ponder the road not taken:

The State Department proposed delivering an ultimatum to the Taliban: produce Bin Ladin and his deputies and shut down al Qaeda camps within 24 to 48 hours, or the United States will use all necessary means to destroy the terrorist infrastructure. The State Department did not expect the Taliban to comply. Therefore, State and Defense would plan to build an international coalition to go into Afghanistan.

Both departments would consult with NATO and other allies and request intelligence, basing, and other support from countries, according to their capabilities and resources. Finally, the plan detailed a public U.S. stance: America would use all its resources to eliminate terrorism as a threat, punish those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, hold states and other actors responsible for providing sanctuary to terrorists, work with a coalition to eliminate terrorist groups and networks, and avoid malice toward any people, religion, or culture. (State Department memo, “Gameplan for Polmil Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan,” 14 Sept 2001)

President Bush recalled that he quickly realized that the administration would have to invade Afghanistan with ground troops.

A supporter of the war admits that the “prevent another 9-11″ story is bogus

Even some supporters of the war admit that the “prevent another 9-11″ rationale is bogus.  Such as Stephen Biddle in “Is It Worth It? The Difficult Case for War in Afghanistan“, The American Interest, July/August 2009 — Excerpt:

The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again become a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan. Neither interest can be dismissed, but both have limits as casus belli.

The first interest is the most discussed — and the weakest argument for waging the kind of war we are now waging.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in the first place to destroy the al-Qaeda safe haven there—actions clearly justified by the 9/11 attacks. But al-Qaeda is no longer based in Afghanistan, nor has it been since early 2002. By all accounts, bin Laden and his core operation are now based across the border in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Taliban movement in Afghanistan is clearly linked with al-Qaeda and sympathetic to it, but there is little evidence of al-Qaeda infrastructure within Afghanistan today that could directly threaten the U.S. homeland. If the current Afghan government collapsed and were replaced with a neo-Taliban regime, or if the Taliban were able to secure political control over some major contiguous fraction of Afghan territory, then perhaps al-Qaeda could re-establish a real haven there.

But the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn’t much different than the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa.

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