Playing Russian Roulette In Afghanistan

The Obama administration came to office pledging to reverse course in Afghanistan. But the administration has found itself in a predicament as it prepares to make a final decision on adding more troops. While some naysayers have argued that Afghanistan has little strategic value, Al Qaeda's ties to Afghan insurgent groups make it vital to increase forces and continue the counterinsurgency campaign.

Many had hoped that the U.S. would be in a better position in Afghanistan. "This is not quite where we expected to be," one White House official recently told me. U.S. General Stanley McChrystal's summer 2009 assessment of Afghanistan bluntly noted that "we face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans -- in both their government and the international community -- that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents."

U.S. support for the war, including the decision to increase troop levels, boils down to a simple question: What are America's strategic interests in Afghanistan?

For some, Afghanistan has little value for the United States. The Al Qaeda threat comes from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Instead of continuing a faltering counterinsurgency campaign, this argument continues, the United States should withdraw most of its forces and shift to a counterterrorism strategy that targets Al Qaeda terrorists with Special Operations Forces and drones.

Steven Simon, who served as senior director for transnational threats in the Clinton administration White House, notes that "Washington should concentrate on its already effective policy of eliminating Al Qaeda's leadership with drone strikes" rather than targeting the Taliban since "the moment to rescue the mission ... has passed." In September 2009, Matthew Hoh, a former U.S. Marine captain, resigned from his post as Senior Civilian Representative for the U.S. State Department in Zabol Province. In his letter of resignation, he argued that "we are mortgaging our nation's economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come."

These are serious arguments from thoughtful, experienced individuals. But they are ultimately divorced from reality. They fail to grasp the close relationship between Al Qaeda and Afghan insurgent groups, which make the prospect of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan perilous for America's national interest. It would mean playing Russian roulette with U.S. security.

Take the Taliban. The Al Qaeda-Taliban relationship has deep historical roots going back to the personal links that Mullah Mohammad Omar developed with Usama bin Laden in the 1990s. The relationship strengthened after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime, and senior Al Qaeda and Taliban officials regularly communicated and coordinated efforts to overthrow the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

In southern Afghanistan, there are pockets of Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters in Helmand and several neighboring provinces, such as Kandahar and Zabol. Taliban fighters, including Helmand shadow governor Mullah Naim Barech, provide a safe haven for a small number of Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters. In eastern Afghanistan, there are several small pockets of Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters in the area beginning around Khowst Province and moving north to Konar.

The Haqqani network has also developed close ties with Al Qaeda. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the organization's founder and a mujahideen fighter during the anti-Soviet war, established a close relationship with Al Qaeda senior leadership and adopted a jihadi message in characterizing the United States as a crusader force.

"The financial expenses that the United States spends in Afghanistan as well as the killing of dozens of the U.S. forces at the hands of the mujahidin every day reflect the victory of the mujahidin and the defeat of the aggressive Crusader forces," Jalaluddin wrote in Al-Samud, a monthly jihadist magazine.

Jalaluddin even married an Arab woman, a symbol of his support. Jalaluddin's son Sirajuddin, who was given the title "khalifa" as the leader of the Haqqani network, also developed a close relationship with Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, who helped him orchestrate a range of audacious terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. One of the most spectacular was the September 17, 2009 attack in Kabul, in which some Al Qaeda operatives based out of Peshawar, Pakistan, provided technical assistance in building the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

In addition, proponents of a withdrawal overstate the effectiveness of drone strikes using MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reapers. Drones can have a short-term impact by targeting Al Qaeda operatives and other militants, as they did with a range of Al Qaeda operatives in 2008 and 2009 such as Abu Khabab al Masri, an Al Qaeda chemical and biological expert; Khalid Habib al-Masri, an Al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan; and Abu Jihad al-Masri, an external operations planner.

But drones don't offer a long-term solution since they can't clear and hold territory. As one U.S. intelligence official said to me, "They are lethal in targeting foreign fighters. But using them as a long-term strategy would be like playing whack-a-mole."

Finally, the argument that Al Qaeda exists only in Pakistan is problematic on several fronts. Not only are there small numbers of Al Qaeda operatives and other foreign fighters in Afghanistan, but the Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan tend to be clustered along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in such locations as North and South Waziristan. It is a border which few actually recognize and which insurgents cross regularly with ease.

As senior Al Qaeda leaders have repeatedly noted, the war in Afghanistan is central to their raison d'être. "The mujahideen [in Afghanistan] are hopeful and high spirited," remarked Abu al-Yazid, Al Qaeda's chief of operations, in a 2008 interview with Pakistan's GEO TV. "They are now expanding their areas of operations and carrying out actions in northern provinces too. And by the will of God, we will be able to wrestle Afghanistan free of foreign occupation very soon."

A related contention is that it is pointless to focus on Afghanistan because Al Qaeda can easily find other sanctuaries in Somalia, Yemen, or other locations. Yet this argument fails to understand the origins and development of Al Qaeda in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have taken nearly three decades to hone.

In short, these arguments fail to grasp the link between Al Qaeda and Afghan insurgent groups. A policy focused on targeting Al Qaeda -- and not the Taliban, Haqqani network, or other groups -- would ignore one of the most egregious lessons from September 11, 2001: Taliban-controlled areas will likely be used as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups targeting the United States and its key allies.

These groups have already developed a close link with Al Qaeda, and there is no evidence -- just wishful thinking -- that senior Taliban or other leaders would break those links if they controlled more territory in Afghanistan, including Kabul itself. Taliban leaders permitted Al Qaeda and other militant groups to establish training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and a similar development would likely occur again because their relationship is even stronger today.

The United States will need to continue to develop a strategy based on protecting the Afghan population. This should include an increase in American forces which are used to build the Afghan police and army, help reconcile Taliban and other insurgents, and take advantage of the tribal and community uprisings in Afghanistan's east, west, south, and north.

The cold reality of the war in Afghanistan is that it is in America's interest to continue prosecuting a counterinsurgency campaign. And increasing troop levels to help protect the Afghan population would be a useful step.

Seth G. Jones is author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan"which was published earlier this year.