Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Assessing Options in Afghanistan

Eric Schmitt and Scott Shane survey US policy options in Afghanistan in the New York Times today. Framing the debate as whether “the United States needs a large and growing ground force in Afghanistan to prevent another major terrorist attack,” Schmitt and Shane hear from Bruce Hoffman that

the argument that terrorism can be prevented essentially by remote control was
“immensely seductive” — and completely wrong. “We tried to contain the
terrorism problem in Afghanistan from a distance before 9/11,” [Hoffman] said.
“Look how well that worked.”
Hoffman continues:

[T]he success of strikes from Predators in killing Qaeda suspects in Pakistan
depended on accurate information on terrorists’ whereabouts from Pakistani
intelligence. In Afghanistan, without such sources, “we’d be flying blind,” he

UPDATE: Peter Bergen weighs in on Afghanistan, noting that
  • More than five million refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. This is one of the most substantial refugee repatriations in history, yet it is little remarked upon because it has largely gone so smoothly.
  • One in six Afghans now has a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system.
    Millions of kids are now in school, including many girls. Under the Taliban girls were not allowed to be educated.
  • In 2008, Afghanistan's real GDP growth was 7.5 percent. Under the Taliban the economy was in free fall.
  • You were more likely to be murdered in the United States in 1991 than an Afghan civilian is to be killed in the war today.
Bergen concludes that Afghanistan is in better shape than it is made out to be.


Colin said...

Let's assume this is correct, that a stable and coherent Afghan government without symapthies to Islamic radicals is needed to ensure that Al Qaeda does not return to the country.

Given that Al Qaeda currently enjoys de facto sanctuary in Pakistan, where American forces are unable to touch them, what would be their incentive to return to the country?

Seems to me that AQ has simply traded the protection of the Taliban for that of the Pakistani tribes.

Ben said...

Your conclusion is only reasonable if you presume Pakistan will not continue its pursuit of AQ, Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Yes, AQ might enjoy de jure sanctuary in Pakistan if Pakistan cedes it sanctuary - but that is merely an identity, one based not on the current state of affairs but on "what if Pakistan stops pursuing AQ, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban."

I think the question of which side of the Hindu Khush AQ lands is dependent on the relative autonomy it may enjoy as compared to the external pressure it must endure. If Pakistan continues its push in Pakistan, an ungovernable region of Afghanistan populated by the same Pashtu tribes as in Pakistan seems the reasonable place for it to land. To say nothing of the difficulty Pakistan would face in its campaign if Afghanistan begins to function as safe haven from which Pakistani Taliban can launch attacks or retreat to.

Colin said...

"If Pakistan continues its push in Pakistan..."

What push? Pakistan has had severe problems with its incursions into the territories controlled by the tribes. Didn't they sign a cease fire earlier this year? Has that been abrogated?

Ben said...

You are mistaken. Also this.

Colin said...

Well that's encouraging, I hope they succeed in killing plenty of Taliban. That said, given that no central government has ever exerted real authority over the tribal areas I am skeptical of the long-term impact of this offensive and imagine that the region will continue to provide safe harbor to Al Qaeda for the foreseeable future. I hope I am wrong.