Respected Think-Tank Calls Afghan War A Disaster, Says Al-Qaeda Threat is Exaggerated


For years, we have been told by our elected leaders that US and British soldiers have been dying in Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda from committing another terrorist attack, or to keep them off the streets of Britain. On December 1, 2009, announcing a “surge” of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, President Obama claimed in a speech at West Point, “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

In the UK, in a televised debate on April 22, before the General Election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown played up domestic fears, stating, “To keep the streets safe in Britain we have to take on al-Qaeda wherever it is,” and this view has not noticeably changed under the new Prime Minister David Cameron, who, during a visit to Afghanistan in June, said, “I can sum up this mission in two words. It is about our national security back in the UK. Clearing al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, damaging them in Pakistan, making sure this country is safe and secure — it will make us safe and secure back home in the UK.”

As a result, it came as some surprise when, on June 27, Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, admitted on primetime US TV that al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was now “relatively small,” with perhaps less than 50 members in the entire country. “I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less,” Panetta told ABC’s Jake Tapper, adding that “there’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan” — although even there, according to a report in December 2009, there are no more than “several hundred” al-Qaeda fighters.

With figures like these so readily available, it is a wonder that more voices have not been raised, questioning the entire rationale for remaining in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, of course, is not the whole story, as combat operations are predominantly geared towards bending the Taliban to the will of the West, and it is the Taliban, rather than al-Qaeda, that tends to dominate discussions about what Western forces are doing in Afghanistan. As an example, when asked in June “to describe what winning in Afghanistan would look like,” Leon Panetta told ABC News, “Winning in Afghanistan is having a country that is stable enough to ensure that there is no safe haven for al-Qaeda or for a militant Taliban that welcomes al-Qaeda.”

However, given the obvious futility of trying to bend the Taliban to the will of the US and its allies, and the obvious exaggerations regarding al-Qaeda that are used by cynical or deluded leaders to prop up an ailing occupation and counter-insurgency, it is surely time for someone in a position of authority to try to call a halt to this aimless, destructive and seemingly endless project. Moreover, this need is made all the more pressing with the realization that the over-played “end of combat operations” in Iraq is only freeing up more soldiers to join the pointless escapade in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, on Tuesday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, described by the Guardian as “one of the world’s leading security think-tanks,” and “a respected but usually uncontroversial body,” issued a stark warning about the mistakes and failures of the Afghan mission, in its annual “Strategic Survey” of world affairs, which the Guardian described as follows:

The threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban is exaggerated and the western-led counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan risks becoming a “long, drawn-out disaster”, [because it] has “ballooned” out of proportion to the original aim of preventing al-Qaeda from mounting terrorist attacks there, and must be replaced by a less ambitious but more sensible policy of “containment and deterrence.”

As the Guardian also explained, IISS officers made clear that they had “departed from their normal practice because of the serious threat to the west’s security interests in pursuing the current Afghan strategy.” The Guardian added:

In an effort to ignite a fresh debate and bring about a new approach towards Afghanistan, they challenge claims, not least from David Cameron, that the presence of thousands of British troops in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent al-Qaeda from returning and thus increasing the threat to the UK.

As John Chipman, the IISS Director-General, explained, “It is not clear why it should be axiomatically obvious that an Afghanistan freed of an international combat presence in the south would be an automatic magnet for al-Qaeda’s concentrated reconstruction.”

Nigel Inkster, an IISS director and a former deputy chief of Britain’s intelligence service, added that al-Qaeda was now “engaged in Pakistan in very small numbers,” which “were not remotely comparable to the situation in Afghanistan pre-September 2001.” He also added, crucially, “No such threat is likely to come from al-Qaeda elsewhere, including Yemen and Somalia,” sending out a clear message of restraint to the United States, whose dealings with Yemen have been somewhat hysterical since it was revealed that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen. These responses have included drone assassinations, descriptions of an al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen as a “mortal threat,” and an indefensible moratorium on releasing any of the 58 Yemenis in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force.

Nigel Inkster’s comments also undercut claims made by Gordon Brown during the televised debate in April, when, as the Daily Telegraph described it, he “said there were already problems emerging with al-Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen and the UK would continue to have to act internationally to combat this.”

For readers interested in the IISS’s suggestions regarding a policy of “containment and deterrence” in Afghanistan, rather than the inept attempt at nation-building that grew out of the occupation’s “original strategic goal” — “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and prevent its return” — I reproduce below the remarks made by John Chipman at the launch of the IISS Strategic Survey 2010, which, with the solitary exception of commentary on the use of drone assassinations in Pakistan (in which he failed to mention that they are illegal, largely indiscriminate and horrendously counter-productive), provides a far more sensible approach to the occupation, as it nears its tenth anniversary a month from now, than can be found emanating from the mouths of politicians.

Remarks about Afghanistan, delivered by Dr. John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at the launch of the IISS Strategic Survey 2010

The counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy approved by President Obama was in sum a grand strategy for Afghanistan. The goal was very little short of a secure and stable Afghanistan. As the campaign passes the ten-year mark, public tolerance for the generation-length commitment that political and military leaders in the West have sometimes spoken about is waning.

The original strategic goal was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and prevent its return. War aims traditionally expand, but in Afghanistan they ballooned into a comprehensive strategy to develop and modernise the country and its government. Defeat of the Taliban insurgency was seen as virtually synonymous with the defeat of al-Qaeda, even though much of its organised capacities had been displaced to Pakistan. Many worry that the large presence of foreign troops is what sustains and fuels the Taliban fighters. Reconciling the insurgents to a distant government in Kabul whose legitimacy is questioned and authority weak will be hard.

Finding a constitutional dispensation that recognises the very loosely federal reality of Afghan regional fealty and governance structures would require an enormous political effort that included not just all local actors but all regional states. That in time might be necessary. In the interim, and as the military surge reaches its peak and begins to wind down, it is necessary and advisable for outside powers to move to a containment and deterrence policy to deal with the international terrorist threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border regions. At present, the COIN strategy is too ambitious, too removed from the core security goals that need to be met, and too sapping of diplomatic and military energies needed both in the region and elsewhere.

Let us recall what British Prime Minister David Cameron said on 14 June in a statement to the House of Commons: ‘I am advised that the threat from al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan has reduced, but I am also advised that if it were not for the current presence of UK and international coalition forces, al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan and the threat to the UK would rise.’

The first part of this statement is clearly a fact as the specific international threat from Afghanistan itself is insignificant while that from Pakistan is being dealt with partly by the Pakistani military and partly by the decapitating drone strikes against elements of the al-Qaeda leadership and other ‘high value targets’ in Pakistan that are being carried out by international forces.

The second part of this statement is more of a judgement. It is not clear why it should be axiomatically obvious that an Afghanistan freed of an international combat presence in the south would be an automatic magnet for al-Qaeda’s concentrated reconstruction. Al-Qaeda leadership, such as it is, may be quite content to stay where it is, while Taliban leaders who remained in Afghanistan might think twice of the advantages to them of inviting al-Qaeda back given the experience of the last decade. At least they could be made to think twice. The problem with judging that al-Qaeda would just return or that the Taliban would turn itself into an international or global threat following a major withdrawal of coalition forces is that this presumes that no other policies would be implemented to contain the terrorist threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border areas or to deter it.

It is the outlines of a containment and deterrence strategy that need now to be more firmly drawn. This is a strategy that at some point will need to be implemented. It will be needed as combat forces withdraw, and is one towards which the international community could move quickly if it was judged that there was sufficient local and regional support for a containment and deterrence approach.

Containing the international threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border and deterring the reconstitution of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan would, like all such strategies, have political, diplomatic, economic and military elements. It would require political deals in Afghanistan and among key regional powers including India, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states. It would entail promises of economic and development support to its supporters as well as the threat of military strikes against any re-concentration of international terrorist forces. It too would be a grand strategy of sorts, but unlike the counter-insurgency grand strategy, would not be so dependent on orchestrating near-ideal internal political and developmental outcomes in Afghanistan. Nor would it necessarily require the degradation of Taliban capacities to the point of near surrender, a prospect that is by no means immediate.

A containment and deterrence approach would be a strategy that was limited to dealing with the threat as originally defined by the coalition forces that intervened in Afghanistan. Outlining such an approach earlier rather than later would demonstrate that the long-term strategy need not depend on winning an ever-lengthening succession of tactical local battles against an enemy incentivised by the presence of foreign forces. It would replace the impression that an eventual drawdown of combat forces from Afghanistan would constitute victory for the enemy, with the reality of a strategy that could be maintained for a longer period while meeting the principal security goal.

The strategic debate on how to progress in Afghanistan must be focused on:

First, structuring combat forces in Afghanistan to deter and prevent the reconstitution of an organised terrorist threat from within Afghanistan. This would mean their organised redeployment to the north and the arrangement of a status of forces agreement that would allow their intervention in the south against any reconstitution of al-Qaeda jihadist capacities that could pose an international threat. That may include continued precise operations, for example, against elements of the Haqqani network, but would not include attacks on Taliban forces that posed no extra-provincial threat and were open to compromises on the reach of their power and ambitions. The military effort will have to be concentrated on developing within Afghanistan the rapid-reaction capacity to prevent the Taliban cooperating with al-Qaeda in areas that they control, defend against any Taliban effort to extend control to non-Pashtun provinces or Kabul, and to frustrate any efforts by Taliban in Afghanistan from effectively supporting anti-government forces in Pakistan. The direct combat role in Afghanistan is out of proportion to the threat that the Afghan Taliban pose outside Afghanistan.

Second, orchestrating a more con-federal Afghanistan, where the provinces accept that formal rule and external authority resides in the capital and the capital cedes practical sovereignty on most issues to the provinces. A more balanced power-sharing system would invite a less contested political-security space. However paradoxical it may sound, a balance of weakness between the capital and the provinces may be more conducive to Afghan stability. It would allow all the international cooperation in Afghanistan that remains necessary, without investing more power in a central government that cannot deliver. Ultimately, formal constitutional change to acknowledge this reality, and create a structure that simultaneously reflects Afghan provincial primacy while supporting the strong sense of Afghan nationhood, is vitally necessary. The political dispensation must in effect move to a situation where the provinces have control of their destiny but pretend to be ruled by the centre, and the centre retains power over broad international and financial policy but does not seek to interfere in most areas of provincial government.

Third, the new strategy should accept that the Afghan National Army will itself need to have a con-federal character to it. Local forces with genuine local roots willing and able to provide security could be badged ANA and have a stronger chance of being successful. General Petreus has discussed with President Karzai the creation of uniformed local security forces already. Giving national recognition to them is a way of demonstrating that the central government respects localism and contributes to the respect for regional variations by a distant central authority that is necessary.

Fourth, the US and others will have to further deepen the engagement with Pakistan and convince Islamabad that contact with a wide variety of actors in Afghanistan is necessary to create a more sustainable national order. Managing Indian and Pakistani strategic goals in the country needs to be an important priority. A tripartite dialogue between Afghanistan, India and Pakistan is desirable; not least to diminish risks that enduring conflict could escalate to civil-war proportions. Central Asian states, Russia and Iran will have competing concerns in Afghanistan that will have to be reconciled, but a less ambitious coalition military posture in Afghanistan should be used to make this possible.

Strategic Survey 2010 does not seek to lay out a new comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan. It does however argue that for Western states to be pinned down militarily and psychologically in Afghanistan will not be in the service of their wider political and security interests. The challenge of Afghanistan must be viewed and addressed in proportion to the other threats to international security and the other requirements for foreign-policy investment. With economic, financial and diplomatic activity moving at such a pace and with such varied outcomes internationally, military operations in general have to be all the more carefully considered. Precision and adaptability will be essential watchwords. For heavy, large, military deployment, the longue durée will be seen as an attitude for other times, other centuries.

The Afghan campaign has involved not just mission creep but mission multiplication; narrowing the political-military engagement to core goals as described will allow for proper attention to be paid to other areas posing international terrorist risks, and indeed to other matters affecting international security.

Note: Yesterday, the Afghanistan Study Group, described by the Washington Post as “an ad hoc group of former government officials, well-known academics and policy experts assembled by the New America Foundation,” also released a critical report, “A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan,” which echoed many of the IISS complaints. As Asia Times described it, the report calls for “an accelerated timetable for reducing the US military presence,” and “intensified efforts to reach a negotiated solution with the Pashtun-based Taliban,” and “argue[s] that the administration’s ambitious ‘nation-building’ efforts in Afghanistan [are] costing too much in US blood and treasure and that, in any event, ‘prospects for success are dim.’”

In the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel provided the following synopsis, revealing that the Afghanistan Study Group, like the IISS, is also concerned by the exaggerated threat posed by al-Qaeda, and, moreover, is appalled by the insane cost of the ongoing occupation:

The report offers a thorough analysis of why and how we must dramatically reduce America’s footprint in our nation’s longest and most expensive war. Although the war is justified by its proponents as an effort to eradicate al-Qaeda, the report notes that “there are only some 400 hard-core al-Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af-Pak theater, most of them hiding in Pakistan’s northwest provinces.”

Meanwhile, the war costs US taxpayers approximately $100 billion a year — about seven times Afghanistan’s annual gross domestic product of $14 billion and more than the cost of the Obama administration’s health-care plan. Considering that price tag alongside the number of troops killed or seriously wounded, the report concludes that “the US interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice.”

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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