President Obama has repeatedly said that we are fighting in Afghanistan in order to prevent the country “from becoming an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.”5 Since taking office, Obama has committed nearly 50,000 additional troops to an ambitious counterinsurgency campaign designed to oust the Taliban from the areas it controls, win the confidence of the local population, train effective Afghan security forces, and help create a competent, legitimate, and effective central government.

Unfortunately, this counterinsurgency-based nation-building strategy rests on a flawed understanding of the strategic stakes, and it undercuts our broader strategic goals.

First, the decision to escalate the U.S. effort in Afghanistan rests on the mistaken belief that victory there will have a major impact on Al Qaeda’s ability to attack the United States. Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan today is very small, and even a decisive victory there would do little to undermine its capabilities elsewhere. Victory would not even prevent small Al Qaeda cells from relocating in Afghanistan, just as they have in a wide array of countries (including European countries).

Second, a U.S. drawdown would not make Al Qaeda substantially more lethal. In order for events in Afghanistan to enhance Al Qaeda’s ability to threaten the U.S. homeland, three separate steps must occur: 1) the Taliban must seize control of a substantial portion of the country, 2) Al Qaeda must relocate there in strength, and 3) it must build facilities in this new “safe haven” that will allow it to plan and train more effectively than it can today.

Each of these three steps is unlikely, however, and the chances of all three together are very remote. For starters, a Taliban victory is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment. The Taliban is a rural insurgency rooted primarily in Afghanistan’s Pashtun population, and its seizure of power in the 1990s was due to unusual circumstances that no longer exist and are unlikely to be repeated. Non-Pashtun Afghans now have ample experience with Taliban rule, and they are bound to resist any Taliban efforts to regain control in Kabul. Moreover, the U.S. military presence has helped the Taliban rally its forces, meaning that the group may well fragment and suffer a loss of momentum in the face of a U.S. drawdown. Surveys suggest that popular support for the Taliban among Afghans is in the single digits.

Even with significantly reduced troop levels, we can build a credible defense against a Taliban takeover through support for local security forces, strategic use of airpower, and deployment in key cities without committing ourselves to a costly and counterproductive COIN (counterinsurgency) campaign in the south. And if power-sharing and political inclusion is negotiated, the relevance of the Taliban as an alternative to Kabul is likely to decline.

And even if the Taliban were to regain power in some of Afghanistan, it would likely not invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence there. The Taliban may be reluctant to risk renewed U.S. attacks by welcoming Al Qaeda onto Afghan soil. Bin Laden and his associates may well prefer to remain in Pakistan, which is both safer and a better base from which to operate than isolated and land-locked Afghanistan.

Most importantly, no matter what happens in Afghanistan in the future, Al Qaeda will not be able to build large training camps of the sort it employed prior to the 9/11 attacks. Simply put, the U.S. would remain vigilant and could use air power to eliminate any Al Qaeda facility that the group might attempt to establish. Bin Laden and his associates will likely have to remain in hiding for the rest of their lives, which means Al Qaeda will have to rely on clandestine cells instead of large encampments. Covert cells can be located virtually anywhere, which is why the outcome in Afghanistan is not critical to addressing the threat from Al Qaeda.

In short, a complete (and unlikely) victory in Afghanistan and the dismantling of the Taliban would not make Al Qaeda disappear; indeed, it would probably have no appreciable effect on Al Qaeda. At the same time, dramatically scaling back U.S. military engagement will not significantly increase the threat from Al Qaeda.

Third, the current U.S. military effort is helping fuel the very insurgency we are attempting to defeat. An expanded U.S. presence has reinforced perceptions of the United States as a foreign occupier. Religious extremists have used the U.S. presence as an effective recruiting tool for their cause. Efforts to limit civilian casualties and other forms of collateral damage have been only partially successful, leading additional Afghans to take up arms against us.

Fourth, the expanded U.S. presence and a more energetic counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan have reinforced a tacit alliance among different extremist groups whose agendas are not identical. The Taliban is itself a loose coalition of Pashtuns, many of whom are motivated by local concerns rather than by any deep commitment to global jihad. Al Qaeda, by contrast, is a global network of radical Islamists seeking to topple governments throughout the Middle East. The “Pakistani Taliban” are a separate alliance of different Islamist groups challenging the authority of the Pakistani state. The Haqqani network in Waziristan is led by a local warlord who is strongly opposed to foreign interference but reportedly also a sometime ally of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI).

Although cooperation among these disparate groups has increased in recent years, this development is largely a reaction to the increased foreign presence in the region and our efforts to convince the Pakistani government to take more aggressive action against these groups. Thus, our current strategy is helping drive these groups together, when our real aim should be to drive wedges between as many of them as possible and to win over those who do not share Al Qaeda’s anti-Western agenda or its commitment to global jihad.

Fifth, keeping 100,000-plus U.S. troops in yet another Muslim country lends credence to jihadi propaganda about America’s alleged hostility to Islam. Their presence may actually be increasing the overall danger that we face back home. Anger at U.S. military action in the Af/Pak theater inspired Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen, to attempt an unsuccessful car bomb attack in Times Square, and other home-grown terrorists appear to have been inspired by similar motivations.

Sixth, our military strategy is failing because the prerequisites for success do not exist. We have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open—where they would be easy to defeat—because they can melt away into the countryside or withdraw across the Pakistani border whenever they are confronted by superior force. Adding still more troops will not solve this problem, as it would require a much larger force than the United States has available and would generate even more local resentment.

Successful counterinsurgency efforts also require an effective local partner, and the Karzai government in Kabul is anything but. President Karzai has had nearly six years to build a legitimate and minimally effective government, and he has manifestly failed to do so. His re-election last year was marred by widespread fraud. Karzai has been unable or unwilling to crack down on corruption or rein in the warlords on whom his government still depends. The Afghan army and police remain unreliable. The large security forces we are trying to stand up will cost more to maintain than the Afghan government can afford.

Finally, the rising costs of the war in Afghanistan also include opportunity costs. The war in Afghanistan has already consumed a considerable amount of President Obama’s time and attention, at a time when the United States faces many domestic and international challenges. If the United States remains bogged down there, other challenges will receive inadequate attention and could easily get worse. We have an interest in approaching these challenges in a manner that does not encumber our ability to deal with other states in the region – like Iran.

For all these reasons, the Study Group is convinced that current U.S. strategy cannot achieve core U.S. interests at an acceptable cost. Protecting our vital interests requires a fundamentally different approach.

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This report was published on August 16 2010.

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