Wednesday, December 2, 2009

UPDATE: Danger, Barack Obama, danger in Afghanistan

Posted on Wed, Dec 2, 2009 at 12:54 PM

(See update below.)

With Obama nearing a fateful announcement on plans to “finish the job” in Afghanistan, our recent, cautionary interview with historian Juan Cole remains atop the most-viewed list of MT stories. With good reason.

Since Curt Guyette and I conducted that interview, a number of articles have struck me as important complementary reading for that piece.

For instance, Cole made a point of the small number of al-Qaeda that the U.S. is chasing in that part of the world:

And how many al-Qaeda operatives do you think are in the tribal areas of Pakistan? Five hundred? A thousand? What I can't understand is the argument that we need 100,000 troops in neighboring Afghanistan because there is a small number of Arab radicals hiding out in the hills of Waziristan. What can they do from there exactly? I can't imagine that they have high-speed Internet. They're just hiding out. Obviously, the way to deal with them is to have the Pakistani government deal with them.

Shortly after we published that piece, The Washington Post reported estimates that the number of al-Qaeda members in Pakistan is 300, plus about 100 in Afghanistan.

Which leads to the analogy, as far as al-Qaeda in Afghanistan goes, of occupying a country twice the size of Italy to get a Mafia clan. That’s not to downplay the danger or lethality of al-Qaeda but to underscore Cole’s contention that a massive troop “footprint” can be translated as occupation, stoking the kind of opposition that provides greater shelter for al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, over at Foreign Policy, a counterintutive analysis suggests that we shouldn’t be too anxious to entirely wipe out al-Qaeda, given the Hyrda-headed nature of the network:

Like it or not, keeping a battered al Qaeda intact (if weak) is the world's best hope of funneling Islamist fanatics into one social network -- where they stand the best chance of being spotted, tracked, and contained. The alternative, destroying the terrorist group, would risk fragmenting al Qaeda into thousands of cells, and these will be much harder to follow and impossible to eradicate. It's the counterterrorist's dilemma, and the only real choice is the least unsavory: Al Qaeda must live.

Among other pieces well worth their reading time at FP is this one (along the lines of some of Cole’s interview points) on ways in which the Afghan campaign exacerbates rather than reduces the threat of terrorism.

There’s also bin Laden expert Peter Bergen’s overview (post-Fort Hood) of the threat of “clean skins”: al-Qaeda operatives, followers and like-minded extremists without criminal records or past connections to terror.

Update: Juan Cole’s Salon post-mortem on Obama's Afghanistan speech Tuesday night follows up on the issues that he raised beforehand in our interview, particularly his view of why the surge worked in Iraq (not for the reasons the last administration trumpeted or the current one apparently also embraces) and why the strategy is unlikely to transfer to Afghanistan. For one thing, Cole points out that in the inter-ethnic civil war in Iraq, the United States backed the majority Shiites. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration (like the Bush administration before) is betting on the minority Tajiks. From the view of the Pashtuns, also a minority, but a plurality:

The only thing worse than Tajik dominance would be what the Tajiks brought along with them — Western Christian soldiers outfitted like astronauts. Ironically, the Tajik dominance of the old 1980s communist government of Afghanistan, and their alliance with Russian troops, were among the reasons that impelled the Pashtuns to mount a Muslim insurgency in the first place.

That's an insurgency, by the way, that the U.S. armed in a chain of events that entwines with the birth of al-Qaeda and leads to our current situation by way of 9/11.

Cole explores ideas similar to those in the Salon piece on his own Informed Comment blog, with "Top Ten things that Could Derail Obama's Afghanistan Plan."

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