in Kulturkampf

Leaving Afghanistan

The mission in Afghanistan is to leave. President Obama has signaled since late last year that his Afghanistan strategy was shifting into reverse; with the full cost of America’s boondoggle in Central Asia finally coming clear, withdrawal is the only victory left to claim. From the president’s speech in Afghanistan yesterday:

Today, I signed an historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries – a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins. (Emphasis mine)

The Bushies, you’ll remember, never allowed the prospect of an end to their “War on Terror.” They enlarged it wherever possible, most notably in Iraq, but within months of 9/11 it was clear that al-Qaeda was low on their list of priorities. By contrast, President Obama has kept a laserlike focus on the various remaining elements of Osama bin Laden’s organization, and foresees an end to the war:

But over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan Security Forces. We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set – to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild – is within reach. (Emphasis mine)

One of the more annoying caricatures of the current president — one drawn mainly by the pacifist fringe — is that Obama is “worse than Bush” because he has pursued al-Qaeda with such ferocity. Mind you, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was aimed directly at al-Qaeda, but the conspriatorially-minded doubt that a nebulous war can be declared won by presidential announcement — even though every war’s end ever was just as subjective.

President Obama has not used the phrase “War on Terror,” and ordered his staff to never use the word. Instead, “Global Stability Operations” has provided a benign title to the continued focus on finding and destroying al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, his administration has made outreach efforts to the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and countless Islamist organizations that are not al-Qaeda. That is hardly the description of a clash of civilizations: it is a war on al-Qaeda.

Of course, the Taliban refuse political solutions thus far. But they have picked their own separate fight with the United States, NATO allies, and Afghanistan, and so become a separate peace to win. Bear in mind that more than three thousand Afghans died of terrorism (.PDF) last year — about the same number of Americans who died on 9/11.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan described the metrics of success in Operation Global Stability the other day:

In Pakistan, al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks have continued to suffer heavy losses. This includes Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qa’ida’s top operational planners, killed a month after bin Laden. It includes Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, killed when he succeeded Ayman al-Zawahiri as al-Qa’ida’s deputy leader. It includes Younis al-Mauritani, a planner of attacks against the United States and Europe—until he was captured by Pakistani forces.

With its most skilled and experienced commanders being lost so quickly, al-Qa’ida has had trouble replacing them. This is one of the many conclusions we have been able to draw from documents seized at bin Laden’s compound, some of which will be published online, for the first time, this week by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. For example, bin Laden worried about—and I quote—“the rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced and this would lead to the repeat of mistakes.”

Al-Qa’ida leaders continue to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates. Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives. They’re struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win. In short, al-Qa’ida is losing, badly. And bin Laden knew it. In documents we seized, he confessed to “disaster after disaster.” He even urged his leaders to flee the tribal regions, and go to places, “away from aircraft photography and bombardment.”

For all these reasons, it is harder than ever for the al-Qa’ida core in Pakistan to plan and execute large-scale, potentially catastrophic attacks against our homeland. Today, it is increasingly clear that—compared to 9/11—the core al-Qa’ida leadership is a shadow of its former self. Al-Qa’ida has been left with just a handful of capable leaders and operatives, and with continued pressure is on the path to its destruction. And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qa’ida core is simply no longer relevant. (Emphasis mine)

This is exactly the opposite of neoconservative dreams of “the long war.” Soon, the Taliban conflict will be Afghanistan’s fight — which is exactly as things should be, and might have been years ago if only a different set of priorities had been in power.

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