At Least It Was A Two-fer

by Joshua Foust on 5/8/2008

The David Ignatius follow-up to his first government press release disguised as a newspaper column:

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The most interesting discovery during a visit to this city where Osama bin Laden planted his flag in 1996 is that al-Qaeda seems to have all but disappeared. The group is on the run, too, in Iraq, and that raises some interesting questions about how to pursue this terrorist enemy.

“Al-Qaeda is not a topic of conversation here,” says Col. Mark Johnstone, the deputy commander of Task Force Bayonet, which oversees four provinces surrounding Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Pete Benchoff agrees: “We’re not seeing a lot of al-Qaeda fighters. They’ve shifted here to facilitation and support.”

Well duh. Actually, Ignatius is being disingenuous here: Osama bin Laden picked up shop, not “planted his flag,” in Jalalabad in 1996 and moved to Kandahar. Then after the U.S. invaded to Khost, then FATA, probably Waziristan. What does that have to do with anything? And it is rare that anyone anywhere in the country actually talks about fighting “al Qaeda”—they’re fighting various Taliban and other militia groups. Just like in Iraq, where the Defense Intelligence Agency says “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” had its maximum reach at 15% of the insurgency. There is far more to Afghanistan than al Qaeda, and to pretend the presence of foot soldiers means anything is folly.

Ignatius eventually contradicts himself by getting the facts of the insurgency mostly-sort-of-right, but then makes an even weirder point:

These anti-terrorist operations require special skills — but they shouldn’t require a big, semi-permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. Local security forces can handle a growing share of responsibility — perhaps ineptly, as in Basra a few weeks ago or in Kabul last weekend, but that’s their problem.

Second, the essential mission in combating al-Qaeda now is to adopt in Pakistan the tactics that are working in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means alliances with tribal warlords to bring economic development to the isolated mountain valleys of the FATA region in exchange for their help in security. And it means joint operations involving U.S. and Pakistani special forces to chase al-Qaeda militants as they retreat deeper into the mountains.

What? Events like the attack on Karzai last week are not only “their” problem, it is our, and it will remain so as long as we are the security guarantor of the Karzai regime. So long as we run the country, which honest people will admit we do, we have to take on responsibility. And if the security forces are so riddled with infiltrators that insurgents can launch a mortar attack in the capital on the most securitized day of the year, then the problems are not just theirs, but ours.

And who is saying we need to go invade Pakistan and replicate Anbar? Well, besides Barrack Obama and an untrustworthy smattering of flappy-jawed policy wonks who don’t know jack about the region? Barnett Rubin is right—the man lives in la la land. Which is probably why I almost never read him.

Remember that DOD-approved strategic communications plan for Afghanistan? I’d say it’s working if they are engineering this kind of coverage, no matter how ham-fisted it appears to be.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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