A faulty Afghan election and decreasing American public support
for the war in Afghanistan are leading President Obama to question
his Administration's strategy for defeating the terrorist threat
centered in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
American domestic politics and a complicated regional picture
are apparently coloring President Obama's thinking on U.S. strategy
toward these two countries, potentially prompting him to scale back
U.S. goals in the region. That would be a mistake. While there is a
need to carefully review and refine tactics and strategies,
President Obama must shun the temptation to believe that the U.S.
can somehow defeat al-Qaeda without preventing Afghanistan from
being engulfed by the Taliban-led insurgency.
In his comprehensive assessment of the situation in Afghanistan,
which was leaked to the U.S. media earlier this week, U.S.
Commander General Stanley McChrystal lays out a strategy for moving
forward that would require the deployment of fresh U.S. troops.
This is not surprising. On several occasions, President Obama
himself has pronounced that the war in Afghanistan has not received
the appropriate resources--such as U.S. leadership, troop levels,
and financial commitments--necessary to achieve U.S. objectives.
General McChrystal argues for increasing the focus on protecting
the Afghan population from Taliban advances, a recommendation based
in part on the recent American experience in Iraq, where General
Petraeus's "people-centric" approach to counterinsurgency paid
dividends and ultimately discredited al-Qaeda and its harsh
tactics. General McChrystal also makes the case that new U.S. troop
deployments must come quickly or the U.S. risks facing a situation
in which it will be impossible to defeat the Taliban
Separating Taliban Leadership from
al-Qaeda: An Unrealistic Goal
In a March 27speech, President Obama was clear on the link
between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the threat posed by al-Qaeda
to the governing regimes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He
rightly said, "And if the Afghan government falls to the
Taliban--or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged--that country will
again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our
people as they possibly can."
But his remarks on Afghanistan at Wednesday's United Nations
General Assembly reveal that he may be second-guessing U.S.
strategy in the region. While he repeated his commitment to not
allowing al-Qaeda to find
sanctuary in Afghanistan or "any other nation" (i.e., Pakistan), he
failed to mention the Taliban insurgency that is threatening to
destabilize Afghanistan and the necessity of preventing such an
His apparent backtracking on Afghanistan can also be found in
statements he made on this past Sunday's morning talk shows in
which he openly questioned whether fighting the Taliban insurgency
is necessary to stopping al-Qaeda.
According to media reports, President Obama is considering
implementing a plan supported by Vice President Joe Biden to scale
back the American military presence in Afghanistan and focus on
targeting al-Qaeda cells primarily in western Pakistan. This
strategy would be insufficient to curb the terrorist threat
emanating from the region. Ceding territory to the Taliban in
Afghanistan would embolden international terrorists in the region,
including in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Over the last year U.S. predator strikes in the tribal areas of
Pakistan have been effective at disrupting the al-Qaeda leadership,
and President Obama deserves credit for aggressively employing this
tactic. However, the predator strikes in Pakistan must be
accompanied by sustained U.S. and NATO military action against the
Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda have a symbiotic relationship, and they
support each other's harsh Islamist, anti-West goals. It would be
folly to think a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would be anything
but a deadly international terrorist safe haven.
Success in Afghanistan requires that those Taliban who support
international terrorists are not in a position to threaten the
stability of the government. This will ultimately require a strong,
well-equipped, and well-trained Afghan national army and police
force. But this will take time.
In the meantime, the U.S. must prevent the Taliban from
regaining influence in Afghanistan, which requires increasing U.S.
troop levels. Success in Afghanistan does not require the complete
elimination of anyone who has ever associated with the Taliban. But
it does require that the Taliban leaders still allied with al-Qaeda
and supportive of its destructive global agenda do not have the
ability to reassert power in Afghanistan.
Focus on Improving U.S. Strategy
Instead of considering whether to scale back the U.S. military
presence in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration must figure out
how it can increase its diplomatic leverage with Islamabad. It is
mind-boggling that after eight years of seeking to partner with
Pakistan in countering terrorism in the region and providing nearly
$15 billion in U.S. economic and military assistance to the
country, the insurgency in southern Afghanistan is directed by
Afghan Taliban leaders located in Pakistan that are "reportedly
aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI," as General McChrystal
concludes in his report.
The McChrystal report acknowledges that most insurgent fighters
in Afghanistan are "directed by a small number of Afghan senior
leaders based in Pakistan that work through an alternative
political infrastructure in Afghanistan." However, the report fails
to spell out a strategy for neutralizing this leadership and for
convincing Pakistan to use all of the tools at its disposal to
assist the U.S. in that effort.
Pakistan has made substantial gains against insurgents
threatening stability inside Pakistan. There is more clarity within
the Pakistani military leadership and among the Pakistani public
about the threat posed to the country from Taliban elements. A
recent public opinion poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project
found that 69 percent of Pakistanis worry that extremists could
take control of their country. The poll further indicated that 70
percent of Pakistanis now rate the Taliban unfavorably compared to
only 33 percent a year ago.
U.S. officials must now build on this momentum by convincing
Pakistan to take the fight to the Afghan Taliban leadership that
finds sanctuary in and around Quetta in Pakistan's Baluchistan
Province. U.S. officials must convince Pakistan of the futility of
allowing the Afghan Taliban leadership to flourish in the region
and of the potential consequences for Pakistan's own stability of
refusing to crack down on these elements.
Emboldening a Generation of
The Taliban/al-Qaeda threat spans the border between Pakistan
and Afghanistan; thus, failure in one country will contribute to
failure in the other--just as success in one country will breed
success in the other. By appointing Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as
the Senior Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this
year, President Obama signaled that he understood this reality.
The imperfect elections in Afghanistan should not deter the
Obama Administration from providing the resources necessary to
achieve stability in Afghanistan. To be sure, the outcome of the
election was certainly less than ideal. But pulling back from
Afghanistan would be devastating, as it would embolden a generation
of international terrorists who would then be able to strike at
will whenever and wherever they choose.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South
Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.