FPI Fact Sheet: Success in Afghanistan is Critical to Prevailing in the War on Terror

June 23, 2011

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The United States made important progress in the War on Terror on May 1, 2011, when U.S. intelligence professionals and Special Forces succeeded in hunting down and killing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.  In the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, however, a debate ensued over the need to continue America’s efforts in Afghanistan.  Then, on June 22, 2011, President Obama announced his decision to withdraw by September 2012 the “surge” of 33,000 U.S. troops that he had announced in his December 2009 speech at West Point.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s decision seems to be based on the faulty assumption that bin Laden’s death and other counterterrorism successes now allow us to “drawdown from a position of strength.”  While significant gains have been made over the last eighteen months by pursuing a combined counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy, these gains remain fragile and reversible.  In an effort to rush to the exits, the President’s decision accepts a higher level of risk than military commanders were apparently comfortable with, and has the potential to set back our efforts to ensure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for those who are trying to attack America.

Answers to several questions now being posed about our effort in Afghanistan in the wake of the President’s decision are outlined below.

Now that bin Laden is dead, why is the United States still in Afghanistan?

The United States, in conjunction with a NATO-led coalition of over 40 countries, is in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people build and sustain a democratic state that will never again provide safe haven to militant extremists like al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e Taiba, and to counter the insurgent efforts of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other groups to threaten U.S. national security interests both in the region and globally.
The U.S. mission in Afghanistan was never simply to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.  Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force that broadly directed the President:  “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”  Pursuant to that congressional authorization, the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001—a government that had provided safe harbor and aid to al-Qaeda before and after 9/11.
In recent years, the United States and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have revitalized the effort to create the security conditions that will help Afghanistan transition into a durable state capable of governing itself and providing for its own security.  In particular, coalition forces have killed or captured many of al-Qaeda’s top lieutenants, as well as mid-level and low-level operators.  Boosted by President Obama’s December 2009 troop surge, they also have wrested control of certain contested parts of Afghanistan—in particular, the southern provinces bordering Pakistan—from the Taliban and its affiliates.
It must not be forgotten, however, that the threat to U.S. national security interests posed by al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces persists even after bin Laden’s death.  As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution elaborated in The Daily Beast, “The notion that al Qaeda was neutered [after bin Laden’s death] was just plain wrong.  Al Qaeda will now rebuild a new leadership cadre and command center around its surviving bosses, like Ayman al-Zawahiri.…  They will get help from the support networks in Pakistan that helped hide bin Laden for a decade.”
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan helps to ensure that militant extremists—both in the country and across the border in the tribal regions of Pakistan—remain on the defensive.  While it is true that the United States today also faces threats from al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Yemen, Somalia, and other countries, it is nevertheless in America’s long-term interest to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for those who attacked us on September 11, 2001.  Failure in Afghanistan will only increase the terrorist risk to the U.S. homeland, and will likely ensure that the United States will be drawn back into this region of the world once again.

What has the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan accomplished so far?

First announced by President Obama in December 2009, the U.S. troop surge has helped the United States and its coalition partners make significant gains towards creating the security conditions necessary for success in Afghanistan.
In August 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, who then commanded both U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, reported that the country was deteriorating in the face of a “resilient and growing insurgency.”  In response, the President decided to bolster the coalition’s Afghan effort with a “surge” of 33,000 U.S. troops.  Empowered by the surge, U.S. and ISAF forces accelerated operations in Afghanistan—in particular, in the country’s southern provinces—and throughout 2010 inflicted serious damage to Afghan insurgents.
In March 2011, General David Petraeus, General McChrystal’s successor, told Congress that the coalition had taken away the insurgency’s momentum in Afghanistan, but cautioned that such progress is “fragile and reversible”:

“U.S., NATO, and other ISAF forces, partnered and fighting side-by-side with increasingly capable ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] units throughout Afghanistan, have wrested the initiative from the insurgents, and have successfully cleared the Taliban from much of the country, including strongholds in and around Kandahar and Helmand Provinces.  We have turned up the pressure on al-Qaeda and their affiliated groups in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have significantly degraded their ability to plan and conduct operations throughout the theater.”

Coalition operations have begun to be aided by Afghanistan’s fledgling and still-maturing military and police forces.  The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have grown both quantitatively and qualitatively from coalition assistance and training.  The U.S. Department of Defense reported in April 2011 that there are now 92,000 more police and soldiers serving now than there were in 2009, and that the Afghan National Army now numbers at 160,000, and the Afghan National Police at 126,000.  The Defense Department’s report added:  “This unparalleled growth and development, combined with the ongoing ISAF-ANSF partnership, has provided Afghanistan with a surge of increasingly capable soldiers and police that has reinforced the surge of U.S. and coalition forces—a collective surge that has directly contributed to the security progress achieved during the reporting period.”
At the same time, Afghan Local Police (ALP) are now starting to play a critical role in supporting the U.S. comprehensive campaign.  Operating under local police chiefs, the ALP provide an armed, village-focused “community watch” that helps to safeguard territory against encroachment from insurgents.  Members of the ALP are nominated by a local representative council and then vetted by Afghanistan’s intelligence services.  Once vetted, they are trained by Afghan police and U.S. Special Forces members.  General Petraeus described the Afghan Local Police effort as “important,” telling Congress in March 2011:  “[T]his program mobilizes communities in self-defense against those who would undermine security in their areas.  For that reason, the growth of these elements is of particular concern to the Taliban, whose ability to intimidate the population is limited considerably by it.”
These advances in Afghanistan were only possible because of the troop-intensive and resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy that the United States has pursued.  The gains have also been most significant in those areas where military commanders focused the bulk of the surge forces.  However, there are areas in the eastern part of the country that continue to be under-resourced, and where insurgents are operating with impunity.  President Obama’s decision to prematurely drawdown the surge thus calls into question whether our commanders on the ground will be able to implement their previous campaign plan to shift the focus in the coming months to that region of Afghanistan.

What is the United States doing to improve Afghan governance?

During the Lisbon Summit of November 2010, Afghanistan, the United States, and NATO allies all agreed on the strategic goal of having the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces fully in the lead by the end of 2014.
To help achieve that goal, the United States has “surged” not only 33,000 troops into Afghanistan to defeat the insurgency, but also more than 1,100 civilian experts to begin helping the Afghan government increase its capacity at the district, provincial and national levels, and deliver its services more efficiently and transparently.  U.S. military and civilian experts are also working with officials in Afghanistan on the critical task of rooting out corruption in the Afghan government—not only the high-level forms of corruption that risk eroding the Afghan public’s trust, but also the more localized forms of corruption that can impact the lives of everyday citizens.
The United States and the NATO-led coalition are also supporting the Afghan government’s reintegration efforts for low-level Afghan militants to surrender arms, renounce violence, and promise to abide by the Afghan constitution.  Reintegration councils at the provincial level reach out to militants, disarm and demobilize them, and then bring them back into local communities.

What will happen if the United States leaves Afghanistan too quickly?

While significant gains have been made by the United States and its allies in helping the Afghan people to establish a durable state and counter the insurgency, these gains needs to be sustained and furthered.  As General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, explained to Congress in March 2011: “... [W]e need to ensure that we take a sufficiently long view to ensure that our actions in the months ahead enable long-term achievement in the years ahead."
Unfortunately, the death of Osama bin Laden has led some, including now President Obama, to ignore the strategic “long view” in the country and the region. 
Arguments in favor of a significant troop withdrawals in the near term fail to appreciate that current U.S. troop levels—even with the December 2009 surge—represent the bare minimum necessary to execute the President’s stated mission in Afghanistan with acceptable risks.  Significant withdrawals under the current strategy should not begin unless and until conditions-on-the-ground merit them.  The planned surge drawdown announced by the President on June 22nd risks wasting the recent gains in Afghanistan.  The drawdown will likely prevent further coalition gains in the eastern provinces, and could lead to higher levels of violence and instability throughout the country than was the case even before the surge.
Some critics argue that the threat from al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces can be best met, not by a comprehensive counterinsurgency and state-building campaign in Afghanistan, but by the use of actionable intelligence gathering and highly-mobile U.S. Special Forces operations similar to the effort that killed Osama bin Laden.  Such arguments, however, fail to recognize that America’s counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan are critical to enabling such military and intelligence operations in the wider region.  As Frederick and Kimberly Kagan wrote in The Weekly Standard on June 19, 2011:

“… [there is] a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between our efforts in Afghanistan and our successes in Pakistan, as well as of the inseparability of effective ‘counter-terrorism’ operations from the counter-insurgency strategy President Obama announced in December 2009.  Simply put, if the U.S. abandons the mission in Afghanistan before achieving the objectives President Obama announced at West Point, the ‘counter-terrorism’ operations in Pakistan will also fail.”

Skeptics also cite the conflict’s costs.  No doubt, America’s sacrifice has been great.  But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeatedly cautioned against using “short-term thinking” to make decisions about Afghanistan, most recently in an interview with ABC News on June 6, 2011:  “Nobody wants to give up the gains that have been won at such a hard cost, and nobody wants to give our allies the excuse to run for the exits….  We’ve invested a huge amount of money here.  We’ve invested 1,254 lives up to this point.  So what’s the cost of getting it wrong?”  In an op-ed in the Washington Post on June 2, 2011, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution explained the “cost of getting it wrong” in Afghanistan:

“[T]he costs [of the war in Afghanistan] look even more reasonable measured against the costs of defeat — defined as a Taliban takeover of at least southern Afghanistan; and associated sanctuaries for the world’s worst terrorist groups, which still want to strike American cities, gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and provoke another India-Pakistan war.  Measured against the likely alternative costs, at this point the incremental cost of sustaining the current strategy to its logical conclusion is within reason.”

A precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan will imperil the hard-fought and significant gains made by the United States and the NATO-led coalition in recent years.  Despite bin Laden’s death and other successes, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces remain determined both to overthrow the new order that is being established in Afghanistan and to attack the United States and its allies. 
Given these threats, defeating this larger network of al-Qaeda, Taliban and associated forces should remain a central objective of U.S. national security policy for the foreseeable future.  Success in Afghanistan is crucial to meeting that objective.

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