A Bit More History

by Joshua Foust on 9/3/2009 · 15 comments

Hey, so remember all those people saying we can rely on long-distance strikes and special forces to take care of things after we reduce America’s commitment to Afghanistan? Well

Washington D.C., August 20, 2008 – On the tenth anniversary of U.S. cruise missile strikes against al-Qaeda in response to deadly terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, newly-declassified government documents posted today by the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.org) suggest the strikes not only failed to hurt Osama bin Laden but ultimately may have brought al-Qaeda and the Taliban closer politically and ideologically.

A 400-page Sandia National Laboratories report on bin Laden, compiled in 1999, includes a warning about political damage for the U.S. from bombing two impoverished states without regard for international agreement, since such action “mirror imag[ed] aspects of al-Qaeda’s own attacks” [see pp. 18-22]. A State Department cable argues that although the August missile strikes were designed to provide the Taliban with overwhelming reason to surrender bin Laden, the military action may have sharpened Afghan animosity towards Washington and even strengthened the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance.

Following the August 20 U.S. air attacks, Taliban spokesman Wakil Ahmed told U.S. Department of State officials “If Kandahar could have retaliated with similar strikes against Washington, it would have.” Such an attack, although unfeasible at the time, was at least in part actualized by al-Qaeda on 9/11.

Right, so what say you, war critics? (Hint: there’s plenty to say, but it is not about the utility of bombing from afar, which still is just the air strike problem writ large.)


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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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{ 15 comments }

Gulliver September 3, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Hey, so remember all those people saying we can rely on long-distance strikes and special forces to take care of things after we reduce America’s commitment to Afghanistan? Well…

This is sort of a tortured parallel. I can’t understand all the people (you, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Max Boot) saying “we tried stand-off actions in the 90s, and look where that got us!” Why do you imagine that such CT-oriented operations in 2010 would even remotely approximate those of the 1990s? With a pro-American government in place now, it’s an entirely different kettle of fish: kinetic strikes would likely be much more frequent and more effective, though we obviously would still face the challenge of stale intelligence (or too little of it).

Then there’s the oft-repeated fact that al-Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan anymore. So if we’re talking about the effects of a change in approach on our counterterrorism mission, we should appreciate the fact that the current approach is not counterinsurgency but inaction and impotence. Aside from Predator strikes, we are currently doing nothing to directly engage AQ targets.

As far as ideological and political closeness, why do we imagine that a resurgent and restored-to-power Taliban would enthusiastically embrace AQ all over again? Assuming we were to withdraw the vast majority of US forces, what lessons could the Taliban (or whatever cobbled-together group of post-insurgents took control of the government) take from the last ten years? Allow AQ free movement and support and you’re fine, until they kill a bunch of Americans. Once that happens, you’ll get targeted, killed, captured, etc until you no longer host AQ. When you stop hosting AQ and it starts to look like a waste of time to track you down, America leaves again.

Does embracing AQ all over again seem like a recipe for health and success for whatever post-US, post-Karzai government emerges in Kabul?

And if our beef is with the Taliban, then why do we ignore the fact that a government is much more easy to target and punish than a guerilla army or an insurgent movement? If they were to return to power, it would be much, much simpler to hold them to account for hosting undesirable elements, or whatever else the priority was.

Joshua Foust September 3, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Tortured, perhaps. But here’s the thing—where’s your evidence that a non-Karzai administration with a significant (negotiated) Taliban presence won’t maintain (key word) its ties to the terrorist group? What we have right now is an established history of close collaboration, evidence that air strikes drove the two groups closer together, and a long drawn out campaign that has seen them integrating their operations in a way they never did during the 1990s.

I think in this case, the burden is on people who think things will be different from the established history and pattern to argue why. Right now, all you have is, “it doesn’t make sense.” Well, no it doesn’t, but the whole Taliban thing doesn’t make sense when you think about it. Why would now be significantly different?

To followup on your last point: I’m not certain governments are easier to punish. Our punishments involve economic sanctions. For a country whose economy is mostly informal anyway, those don’t really affect things too terribly. Are you asserting our right to unilaterally bomb the country whenever we choose, after leaving a campaign halfway through?

Gulliver September 3, 2009 at 5:01 pm

But here’s the thing—where’s your evidence that a non-Karzai administration with a significant (negotiated) Taliban presence won’t maintain (key word) its ties to the terrorist group?

I don’t have any evidence, obviously. We’re working in a world of complete information. Where’s your evidence that a post-American government of any stripe won’t harbor terrorists, or permit political and social extremism, or will function in such a way as to drain the proverbial swamp (if you buy into that explanation for transnational terrorism, which I don’t, really)? When Pakistan, a government that avowedly opposes terrorism, is the current home to AQ — the veritable epicenter of transnational, anti-globalist terror — how can you suggest that any future Afghan government will be capable of suppressing terrorist movements on its own territory, whether or not it is interested in doing so?

I think in this case, the burden is on people who think things will be different from the established history and pattern to argue why.

Well the established history, to use your phrase, was only “established” for about three years. And then there were some intervening events that one could reasonably expect effect certain changes in conditions and governing mentality, namely a catastrophic terrorist attack, massive intervention by a foreign power, and eight years of war (involving international actors). Perhaps it’s more appropriate to wonder why you don’t think these events are controlling in some way.

To followup on your last point: I’m not certain governments are easier to punish. Our punishments involve economic sanctions. For a country whose economy is mostly informal anyway, those don’t really affect things too terribly. Are you asserting our right to unilaterally bomb the country whenever we choose, after leaving a campaign halfway through?

Don’t you imagine that we would assert such a right? Isn’t that what the CT-oriented, “offshore balancing,” stand-off approach entails, whether the Karzai government remains or the Taliban takes over? Do you think that Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden will be permitted to parade through Kandahar or Kabul as returning heroes without getting an American JDAM dropped on their melon heads?

Joshua Foust September 3, 2009 at 6:40 pm

“We’re working in a world of incomplete information.”

That’s precisely my point. I’m not unconvinceable… but I also just can’t take it on faith. We know how they have behaved, and we know how they behave now. The posit is that they will behave differently in the future. But why is that? That’s the part I don’t get.

Gulliver September 4, 2009 at 10:31 am

We know how they have behaved, and we know how they behave now. The posit is that they will behave differently in the future. But why is that? That’s the part I don’t get.

Josh — I think I explained this above, but the reason we expect them to behave differently is that circumstances are vastly different. To turn your question around: obviously the US behaves differently towards both Afghanistan and AQ now than in 2000. But why could we expect that US would behave differently? How do you explain this shift in approach.

Well, obviously, other stuff changed. Events demonstrated that our old approach wasn’t working, or was even counterproductive. The Taliban are a thinking organization, too; why wouldn’t you expect them to adapt?

Gulliver September 3, 2009 at 5:03 pm

My second sentence should say incomplete information, obviously.

Keith September 3, 2009 at 8:06 pm

I still think there are a lot of “ifs” in Josh’s chain of logic. I think, Josh, your fear is this: If we left (and I’m a proponent of leaving), and if the Taliban were able to retake Afghanistan in our absence (which I think is less than certain given the ostensible popularity of the Taliban among Afghans), and if the Taliban re-established close ties with Al-Qaeda (likely but not assured), then Al-Qaeda would be able to attack the United States or instigate a nuclear war between India/Pakistan (despite our defensive and/or diplomatic efforts).

My point is that there are a lot of “ifs” in that chain of logic. If we are able to successfully interdict at any point in the chain, the United States will remain reasonably safe (100% safety is unachieveable).

Given that 9-11 could have been prevented with $5,000 in good cockpit door locks, I don’t think it is unreasonable to believe we could play excellent defense for the billions or trillions we are spending in Af/Pak at this point.

Joshua Foust September 4, 2009 at 6:03 am

Keith, there are a lot of “ifs” whenever you’re discussing planning. You’re right that there is a long chain involved in preventing terrorism; my question, then, is why your (or anyone else’s) “ifs” are more convincing than the “ifs” we know for a fact have happened. That’s my big issue here.

anan September 3, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Keith, are you neutral between the GIRoA/ANSF and the Taliban and her allies?

Would you support a strategy that involved the international community giving Afghanistan hundreds of billions of dollars in grants over decades, and tens of thousands of foreign civilian advisors, but no international trainers, advisors, special forces or ANSF combat enablers?

Would you support a strategy that involved the international community giving Afghanistan hundreds of billions of dollars in grants over decades, and tens of thousands of foreign civilian advisors, and tens of thousands of international military and police trainers super embedded in Major General Aminullah Karim’s Afghan National Army Training Command and the MoI’s training command; but no embedded combat advisors?

Do you think the ANSF deserves international training, equipping funding and support?

Kieth, right now Haqqani and the Pakistani Taliban are closely linked to international terrorism. Do you think helping the ANA and ANP fight Haqqani is in American and global interests? Why do you imply that the Quetta Shura Taliban is not closely linked to AQ networks? Do you think that all the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan are only the work of Haqqani or the Pakistani Taliban, and not the Quetta Shura Taliban? Can you really separate Haqqani and the Quetta Shura Taliban/Mullah Omar? Cordesman stated in his July 27th report that: “There is no prospect, however, that the ABP can seal the borders or do more in the near-term than harass the insurgency while becoming a source of casualties and more corruption. This is particularly true as long as elements of the Pakistan government and ISI covertly support key elements of the Taliban.” What elements of the Taliban do you think parts of the Pakistani establishment are currently supporting according to Cordesman?

My view is that Haqqani in particular (and the Pakistani Taliban once they consolidate behind new leaders) is very dangerous. There is a real danger of Haqqani obtaining WMD type materials. Haqqani possesses a global network that is very scary; and lots of technically savvy diverse allies. A Haqqani linked terrorist attack against Moscow, Europe, the US or India on a larger scale than 9/11 is a much bigger risk than you seem to believe. Haqqani might have been involved with the 2008 Mumbai attacks–which easily have killed a lot more civilians than actually died. Many Chechans and Uzbeks fight alongside Haqqani now. I don’t know of any terrorist group with greater global reach at the moment (aside from maybe the Pakistani Taliban . . . which might be even more dangerous since they don’t mind mass murdering orthodox Sunni Pakistanis and orthodox Sunni Arabs.)

Joshua Foust September 4, 2009 at 6:04 am

Anan, I think we can have this discussion without questioning loyalties. Unless you have a specific reason to question someone’s motives, please leave that for someone else’s blog.

anan September 4, 2009 at 1:22 pm

I don’t understand your comment Joshua? What does “loyalty” mean? I was not accusing Keith of supporting the Taliban. I was asking him if he was neutral between the GIRoA/ANSF and the Taliban.

The reason I ask is that many Americans (conservatives, moderates and liberals) are now neutral between the Taliban and the “massively corrupt and incompetent” GIRoA/ANSF. Michael Savage . . . hardly some radical . . . argued that position a few days ago. I have been starting to hear similar sentiments from ordinary but very smart Americans with little interest or knowledge of Afghanistan. In fact, the argument that it doesn’t matter much whether the GIRoA/ANSF or Taliban wins seems to be becoming conventional wisdom around the world.

Obviously I don’t agree with this widely held view. However, maybe it is no longer possible to persuade the American or international public that they shouldn’t be neutral between the Taliban and the GIRoA/ANSF. At least, pro Taliban sentiment is rare outside the American left. {Hell, even hard core Deobondi and Salafi Sunni Pakistanis strongly oppose the Taliban now.} How some American leftists back the Taliban much more than salafi sunnis is something I don’t understand.

M Shannon September 4, 2009 at 1:31 am

The tactical answer to improving Afghan security to be Afghans conducting pop-centric COIN and NATO conducting CT as required. The problem with US CT ops pre-9/11 was a lack of will and fear of casualties. The problem post invasion was a lack of Afghan forces.

Now there are enough Afghan forces but quality is lacking. The answer isn’t more US troops but to take the incremental costs of the extra US troops and channel a small percentage into improving ANSF. This will not be quick but it’s a better solution in the long run than spending billions on new US FOBs etc.

Dafydd September 4, 2009 at 8:08 am

There is little possibility of splitting the Taliban from Al Qaeda in the near or medium term.

If we stay in Afghanistan, the Taliban will need all the freinds it can get. Al Qaeda funding contacts in the Gulf will be highly important to them.

If we leave, the Taliban will remember that we went in because of their refusal to betray their Al Qaeda allies to us and will therefore very publicly restate their alliance to reinforce the impression of a Taliban victory.

While I accept your point that long distance strikes with a bit of special forces did not work in the past, and will not work any better in the future, I am at a loss to discern why you think that continuing the war is a good idea.

Do you think there sufficient will to win this war in the west? I don’t. I see no way that we are going to adopt any sort of strategy or tactics that will take us anywhere near victory. Obama can’t even get health care reformed, why suppose he can get the sort of committment & sacrifice required to win in Afganistan?

If we are going to lose, sooner rather than later would be my choice.

Brian September 4, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Can someone explain to me what makes Karzai’s government “Pro-US”?

The way I see it, he laughed in the face of the international community during this election and committed wholescale fraud (not to say no one else was involved, but we are talking about Karzai here, not the system).

His brother is a known head of a drug cartel in the south.

He built an alliance of “warlords” leading up to the election(selection?) including accused(known?) war criminal Dostum.

These simple knowns alone make him look a bit more like an Afghan version of Paul Kagame, ie a shrewd diplomat and actor, willing to act as cynically as necessary to get what he wants while convincing State Dept and others that he is a necessary and rare ally in the region. The way I see it Karzai is part of the problem, and its misleading to color him as “pro-American” or “pro-US.”

Karzai is pro-Karzai. We need to stop orientalizing and start believing that we CAN and ARE conned by our “friends” all the time overseas.

However, I’m willing to be convinced Mr. Karzai is somehow “pro-American” (and I don’t mean “more than the other guys”)

anan September 4, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Brian, do you have evidence for your claims against Dostum and Karzai’s brother. People have been throwing around these claims since 2001; but I am skeptical.

In particular, I kind of like Dostum . . . and am not embarrassed to admit it. I would like to see the claims about him proved. Yes, he has a temper, and goes out of line from time to time. He is a rough, tough dude; and a lot more popular among Afghans than he is among Westerners. The Turks and Uzbeks love him. Dostum has good relations with Uzbekistan , Iran, Russia and India.

Am I wrong to think that Afghans want tough strong people to reassure and protect them? I know Dostum is a little too tough; but he is hard working, effective, efficient, and understands people. Dostum is probably more overtly anti Pakistan than is good from an Afghan national interest perspective; but it endears him to Afghans.

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