al Qaeda

  1. “Extraordinary Sacrifices”: We don’t need to lose any more of our precious resources in Afghanistan.

    Published: August 10th, 2011
    Author: Clarissa Griebel, Matthew Hoh

    Mathew Hoh – Director, Afghanistan Study Group
    Clarissa F. Griebel – Afghanistan Study Group

    For almost ten years the United States has been in Afghanistan. On Saturday, our forces there suffered the single largest loss of life in one day.  Just a few weeks after the President’s announcement that a withdrawal of 30,000 troops would begin this year, 30 American troops were lost when Taliban forces shot down a Chinook transport helicopter.  In addition, to U.S. casualties, which included Navy Seal Commandos, one civilian interpreter and seven Afghan commandos were also killed in the attack.  What are we still doing in Afghanistan?

    We continue to make, in the words of President Obama,  “extraordinary sacrifices”, in Afghanistan.  Our national debt is at 14 trillion and change, the war costs us approximately 2 billion dollars a week, and we have lost 1727 lives with over 13,000 physically wounded.

    And what of the additional costs for caring for our wounded troops?   An unknown number of veterans suffer from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder and countless military families have been torn apart.  There are estimates that we will spend between 3.7 and 4.4 Trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.   All of this, for a country that has a GDP of 15 billion dollars, and whose people do not want us there.

    In addition, according to the White House, there has not been an al-Qaeda threat from Afghanistan to the United States for seven or eight years.  We are fighting the Taliban who according to Paul Pillar of The National Interest:

    There is no end in sight to the violence in Afghanistan.  In the past twenty-four hours another NATO helicopter has made a “hard landing” in southeastern Afghanistan.  In the past month there have been several high profile assassinations in Afghanistan, including Kandahar’s Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi and half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s,  Ahmed Wali Karzai.  This year the civilian death toll in Afghanistan is at its’ highest since the United Nations began keeping track in 2007.  Given the seemingly endless and escalating violence in Afghanistan it is time for American troops to come home.  They are too valuable to be spent on a war that is not in our strategic interests in a country that does not threaten the American people.

    The special operations commandos and air crew our country lost on Saturday are the finest warriors the world has ever known.  They were men who readily gave their lives for their country without question or hesitation, as did the 255 other Americans who have been killed in Afghanistan this year.  As a country, we need to have the courage and the honesty to say that the United States mission in Afghanistan is not worthy of those sacrifices. We don’t need to lose any more of our precious resources in Afghanistan.

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  2. Obama’s Speech: Beyond Troop Levels and Timetables

    Published: June 29th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    In many ways, the President’s decision to withdraw 10-thousand troops this year and an additional 23-thousand next year was anticlimactic.  For weeks prognosticators had expected this level of withdrawal, and unsurprisingly Obama has staked out the middle ground between war skeptics and war boosters, the only place he is comfortable. The responses on Capitol Hill were similarly predictable.  Progressives denounced the announcement as insufficient, while conservatives denounced it as “an unnecessary risk” to “hard won gains”.

    Troop levels and timetables always receive the most attention, but what about the rest of the speech? The President talked about the gains that had been made through the surge at reducing al Qaeda’s threat:

    When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives:  to refocus on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country…We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength.  Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11.  Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al Qaeda’s leadership.  And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known.

    This is undoubtedly a slight misreading of history:  The destruction of al Qaeda had little if anything to do with the 2010 troop surge—al Qaeda has not had a large presence in Afghanistan since 2002; however his overall assessment is correct.  Al Qaeda is both significantly weaker and more fractured than at any time its history. Its presence in Afghanistan has been estimated at 50 to 100, certainly not a threat worthy of the loss of thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

    The President also emphasized the need for a political settlement with the Taliban:

    …as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.  Our position on these talks is clear:  They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution.  But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.

    Again the President is a little off on the facts although his heart is in the right place:  The military effort has, if anything made talks less likely to succeed. The Taliban field commanders have become increasingly radicalized, and distrust among the various parties is at an all time high.  With that said, the President’s commitment to reconciliation with the Taliban is an important step in the right direction.

    These were the positives, now for the negatives: Unfortunately the lack specificity in President’s address raised more questions than it answered.  Are we abandoning the failed counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says no, but the numbers don’t add up for COIN in the East next year—some commentary have already predicted that campaign to be even more violent (kinetic is the word they use) than the current effort in Southern Afghanistan.

    What neither the President, nor the pundits in DC seem to understand is that the number of troops is less important than what they are sent to do.  The focus needs to shift away from combat operations, towards building and training an Afghan army capable of protecting major cities.  The ability to conduct counter-terror operations against known international terrorist should be maintained, but used efficiently and sparingly against high level al Qaeda.  Until the president articulates this vision, the downward trends in the war will continue.

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  3. Our Plan Has Not Worked in Afghanistan

    Published: June 22nd, 2011
    Author: Matthew Hoh

    Matthew Hoh – Afghanistan Study Group Director

    As he was announcing his second increase in troops for Afghanistan in December 2009, President Obama promised that by July 2011 those troops would begin coming home. As relayed by Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, we know the president was skeptical about the United States’ war effort in Afghanistan. Now, as we review the results of that policy, we find his skepticism justified and his call for a drawdown prescient.

    President Obama announced his first surge of 20,000 troops in spring 2009. Pushing American forces well above the 50,000 mark and reinforcing a counterinsurgency campaign, he escalated a war entering its fourth decade for the Afghan people.

    Thousands of Marines and soldiers were rushed in, with the announcement that they were there to ensure free and fair Afghan elections. That summer, these troops found an insurgency fueled by resentment of their presence. Either because of hostility to foreign occupation or because our troops simply sided with someone else’s rival, akin to supporting just one side in a Hatfield-McCoy feud, 2009 became the deadliest year of the war, doubling the amount of American dead in 2008.

    Meanwhile, the fire hydrant-like stream of dollars, being pumped into the second most corrupt nation in the world , seemed to purchase only further grievances among the population against a government radiantly kleptokratic. When President Hamid Karzai blatantly stole the elections in August, American officials were forced to abandon any narrative of Americans fighting and dying for democracy in Afghanistan. Then, in October, the president’s National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, announced that al-Qaeda had fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan.

    However, given little political cover from the left, feeling little political pressure from the right and receiving nothing but a choice of small, medium or large escalation of the war by the Pentagon, President Obama in December 2009, ordered 30,000 more troops and billions of dollars into what soon would become America’s longest war.

    Predictably, by doubling-down on a policy that had proved counter-productive, betrayed our national values and failed to inflict damage on al-Qaeda, we went from being waist-deep to chest-deep in quicksand.

    This past year surpassed 2009 as the deadliest year of the conflict, killing 57 percent more American service members.

    Tragically, but unsurprisingly, 2011 has been even more deadly. Insurgent attacks from January to March increased nearly 50 percent from the same period in 2010, while American deaths from March to May of this year increased 41 percent from last spring’s totals.

    Nationwide, a U.S.-led campaign of night raids on homes has terrorized families, while a massive nation-building program funded by U.S. taxpayers has enriched a corrupt few and disenfranchised a poor majority. Again, betraying our own values, we looked the other way when elections were stolen for the second time in as many years. The number of civilian deaths are on pace to surpass the totals from 2010, the deadliest year of the war for civilians since 2001. The result: Eight in ten Afghan men now say the U.S. presence is bad for Afghanistan.

    Al-Qaeda has not existed in any meaningful capacity in Afghanistan since we successfully scattered them in 2001. Over the last decade, they have evolved into an increasingly flat or networked organization(s) of individuals and small cells around the globe that is most successfully attacked through good intelligence, international law-enforcement cooperation and surgical-strikes, such as the raid against Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Our Afghan war policy does not affect al-Qaeda.

    American troops killed or maimed in Afghanistan and others who have returned home with physical and mental injuries, increasing numbers of whom are taking their own lives, cannot be said to have made a worthy sacrifice. We must acknowledge to families that their losses did not prevent another September 11th.

    Moreover, our policies have destabilized the region, most notably in Pakistan, a nuclear nation with 170 million people.

    Indeed, President Obama was right to be skeptical.

    It is in the United States’ moral, fiscal and security interests to drawdown its forces and de-escalate the Afghan war.

    That drawdown should be significant — removing the most recent 30,000 surge troops by the end of 2011 and reducing to a total of fewer than 30,000 troops by the end of 2012. Combined with sincere political efforts in Afghanistan and the broader region, and by maintaining a focus on al-Qaeda, the United States can move Afghanistan and the region toward stability.

    Unfortunately, it is expected that President Obama will announce this evening a withdrawal of 30,000 troops over 18 months. Such a withdrawal, particularly without a change in strategy commensurate with America’s actual interests in Afghanistan, will only bring us back to where we in December 2009. Further, an 18 month long process will push the next decision point on the war to January 2013, effectively punting the war from the US’s 2012 election cycle. By not making significant cuts in our troops in Afghanistan and no real changes in our strategy, we will continue to be stuck in Afghanistan’s quicksand for years to come.

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  4. Two days with Felix Kuehn

    Published: May 18th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Felix Kuehn, a Kandahar-based researcher, came to Washington DC last week to discuss the state of the insurgency and the ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban.  You may recall that Kuehn co-authored with his colleague Alex Strick van Linschoten, a paper examining the history of the al Qaeda-Taliban connection in February.  (Here is ASG’s take).  It’s obviously very difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs the wealth of insights that Kuehn provides but here are some of the key points:

    The State of War

    On the security situation and the death of bin Laden
    Kuehn left Kandahar one day before the 40 hour siege last weekend, and expressed regret that he missed the beginning of what he expects will be a brutal summer season.  He dismissed DoD reports suggesting that the war is turning around.  In Kandahar, according to Kuehn, war wounded are up 60 % to 70 % in Jan and Feb from a year ago.

    He also believes that the death of bin Laden will have no effect on the insurgency and only a minimal impact on al Qaeda’s operational capabilities.  Bottom line, says Kuehn quoting an actual Taliban leader, is that the insurgents never fought for al Qaeda and so will be unaffected by his demise.

    Al Qaeda and the Taliban

    On the generational gap between Al Qaeda and the Taliban
    The first obvious difference between the two organizations, says Kuehn, is generational.  Al Qaeda leaders were graduating from madrasahs before the Taliban could even talk.  Al Qaeda’s roots are in the Muslim brotherhood.  Several foreign Islamic groups came to Afghanistan in the 1980s (after getting kicked out of Egypt and other Arab countries) and set up training camps.  Osama bin Laden was successful in uniting these groups under al Qaeda’s banner.

    In contrast to al Qaeda’s middle and upper-class Islamist roots, the Taliban leadership grew up in poor rural Afghanistan.  Most of the Taliban were members of the poorer, more warlike Ghilzai Pashto tribes.  Their parents typically did not have money for private education and so sent their children to madrasahs, which were free of tuition.

    On the religious divide between al Qaeda and the Taliban
    Al Qaeda and the Taliban also have fundamentally different religious ideologies.  Al Qaeda follow the strict Salafi movement from the Hanbali school, a very strict conservative interpretation of Islam.  The Taliban are mainly of the Deobandi Hanafi School which came out of India.  Kuehn points out that the Taliban often practice a form of Islamic Sufi mysticism, which al Qaeda fundamentally rejects.

    On political differences between al Qaeda and the Taliban
    The Taliban are not a global jihadist movement and have fundamentally different political aims, however both view the United States at present as an enemy.   The Taliban movement united against the lawlessness that pervaded Kandahar in the 1990s.  Fifty or sixty religious students took an oath at the White Mosque in Sangesar—an enormous risk according to Kuehn, but the movement soon gained popularity by bringing security and law and order to the country and was soon able to take over.  Even in this period al Qaeda was never close to the Taliban.  Mullah Omar believed strongly in the Umma—Islamic unity—for this reason he did not reject bin Laden, but neither did he choose bin Laden to lead foreign forces in 2001, a major blow to al Qaeda.

    U.S. Policy Going Forward

    On Kill Capture
    Kuehn’s discussion coincided nicely with the release of a report from Frontline documenting the limitations of the U.S. Kill-Capture campaign.  The news report chronicled several instances where the wrong person was targeted or even killed and the increasing radicalization of midlevel commanders.  One Taliban leader talked about following the U.S. troops back to the United States.  Kuehn is very worried about this increased radicalization among younger insurgents, who do not have the same perspectives as the older Talibs and act increasingly independent from the Talib leadership.  Last summer during the spike in violence, Kuehn describes reaching out to senior Talibs to ask whether he or van Linschoten were in any danger.  The Talib leader said the two Germans were not on any Taliban “hit list”, but he could not vouch for the new young insurgent leaders in Argandab.

    On Rapid Withdrawal
    Kuehn is most worried about the prospects of civil war in Afghanistan.  For this reason he did not advocate a rapid withdrawal of troops.  He did acknowledge that the surge forces in places like Marjah were costly and counterproductive.  The locals there just want to be left alone.  He seemed to advocate a managed withdrawal of international forces.

    On Reconciliation
    Kuehn supported reconciliation as outlined by Pickering and Brahimi, but he cautioned against some potential risks and obstacles:

    1. The lack of trust between Afghans and Americans has grown significantly.  A majority of Afghans in Kandahar believe that the U.S. was behind the Sarposa prison break.  Apparently, Afghans believe we want the violence to continue as an excuse to occupy the country.  This lack of trust that we will someday leave is the opposite of what one hears here in Washington, where “experts” claim the Afghans don’t trust us because we might leave.

    2.  The Northern Alliance opposes reconciliation and is, according to Kuehn, openly preparing for civil war.  There is some indication that members such as Sarwari, who was intel chief under Ahmad Shah Massoud are amenable to the notion of Talib governors in the South.   On the insurgent’s side, Kuehn believes they will not give up ties to al Qaeda for free, but their fear of Civil War may force them to compromise on this point.  If the U.S. and Afghan government can appeal to the insurgents’ pragmatism, an agreement might be possible.

    On Governance and Corruption
    Kuehn advocates a devolution of power from the Central Government to local regions.  Everything in Afghanistan happens on the local level, says Kuehn, and the U.S. correspondingly spends far too much time worrying about things like the Constitution, which have no bearing on anything that actually happens in Kandahar and elsewhere.

    He noted that the Taliban are far more tech literate than the Afghan government.  The Taliban have both a website and twitter feed in multiple languages, including English.  The reason for the Taliban’s tech advantage, according to Kuehn, is that most of the best qualified IT people are hired by NGOs, leaving the Government of Afghanistan with the dregs of the talent pool.  The proliferation of government contractors, NGOs and military dollars has also led to an increasingly unequal society in Kandahar which exacerbates the conflict.  Kuehn points out that there are over a thousand millionaires living in the impoverished province.

    Kuehn and van Linschoten have a book coming out this summer which covers their research into al Qaeda and the Taliban.  If his presentation is anything to go by, it will be very good.

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  5. Al Qaeda Returns: They say timing is everything

    Published: April 14th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    One day after a White House Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan stated that “al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan”, journalists from the Wall Street Journal report that al Qaeda (AQ) is moving back into Konar province and that as recently as last September, U.S. jets bombed an AQ terrorist training camp in Konar’s Korengal Valley killing two senior operatives.

    To refresh the memory, international forces abandoned the Korengal last spring, deeming the valley strategically unimportant.  The Afghanistan Study Group, including yours truly, applauded the decision.  So the obvious, uncomfortable question is this:  Does this development fundamentally change the Afghanistan Study Group’s recommendations?  The answer is an unequivocal no.

    The likelihood that al Qaeda would move back to Afghanistan from its sanctuaries in Pakistan always seemed remote, given the U.S.’s tactical capabilities.  If al Qaeda attempted to return, the thinking went, they would likely face the full fury of the U.S. military.  The bombing of the AQ training camp in the Korengal in many ways supports this analysis.  By withdrawing coalition forces and drawing al Qaeda into this power vacuum, the U.S. probably increased its ability to target the terrorists[i].   Furthermore, it is not clear how significant the withdrawal was to al Qaeda’s “resurgence”.  Subsequent reports show strikes against al Qaeda which predate coalition withdrawal, and General Petraeus is on record this week as saying that al Qaeda is “less of a presence” in Afghanistan.

    The Wall Street Journal article does not discuss the U.S.’s counter-terror operations in Pakistan, but most of the evidence suggests that our efforts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are failing and ineffective: The initial success of drone strikes in Pakistan is showing serious diminishing returns with only two high ranking terrorist on the most wanted list killed in 2010 despite a dramatic increase in aerial strikes. Furthermore, as the new progress report admits, Pakistani forces have failed to maintain control of the FATA.  According to the progress report, in one “agency” in the tribal areas, the Pakistani military has had to clear insurgents three times in the past two years.  Afghanistan seems like a much more vulnerable space for al Qaeda at present.

    Furthermore, as the Wall Street Journal makes clear, our counter-terror resources—particularly the Joint Special Operations Command—are already spread quite thin between troubled hot spots Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  If limited resources are the problem, it seems fairly obvious that garrisoning troops ad infinitum in all of these problem countries is clearly not the answer.  So, before committing ourselves to increasingly costly strategy, let’s remember that al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan is a likely strategic blunder for the terrorists.  As long as the U.S. maintains its counter-terror capabilities—a key Afghanistan Study Group recommendation—Afghanistan will be a very dangerous place for al Qaeda.

    [i] There are obvious parallels to Iraq, where al Qaeda was drawn into the chaos and eventually suffered a major strategic defeat, not to justify by any means Bush’s ill-advised Iraq invasion.