Friday, April 8, 2011

Al-Qaeda's Back (We Think)

Reports started circulating in the media during the past few days, like this in-depth account from the Wall Street Journal, that al-Qaeda is making a comeback in Afghanistan. As recently as last fall, US intelligence officials said that the total al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan was as small as a few dozen militants. But now, according to the WSJ, the US-led coalition has evidence of new al-Qaeda training camps springing up in parts of the country formerly thought of as “secure”, evidence, they say, that strong ties remain between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, despite nearly a decade of war against them.

I'm not in any position to dispute the accuracy of these reports, but their timing sure is convenient. The old narrative, that al-Qaeda had largely been defeated in Afghanistan, made the military mission seem like a success, but it also undercut the need for the United States to maintain a large military presence in the country, since the mission was now essentially to defend the thoroughly corrupt and largely reprehensible government of Hamid Karzai against a home-grown insurgency, the Taliban, and picking sides in someone else's civil war is rarely a good idea (see the rapidly deteriorating situation in Libya as an example). With Congress in an absolute mania to slash spending, the $100 billion per annum allotted to Afghanistan seemed like a prime target.

Bring al-Qaeda back into the picture and suddenly everything changes...but should it? There still is a visceral need within America to “get” those who perpetrated 9/11, even though the actual attackers are all already dead, the planners either dead or in custody, and while the figurehead for the attacks, Osama bin Laden is still at-large, there's nothing to make anyone think we'll be catching him anytime soon (assuming he's even still alive). In the decade since, al-Qaeda has become a much more diffuse group, one of world-wide franchises rather than a group headquartered in the badlands of Afghanistan. It's worth noting that the last two attempted al-Qaeda attacks against America originated from Nigeria and Yemen rather than Afghanistan – it might be worth further noting here that the 9/11 attacks themselves were largely planned in Germany, funded by Pakistan and carried out by Saudis, yet we never invaded any of those countries in retaliation.

So should the presence of a few scattered al-Qaeda outposts and an ongoing relationship with the Taliban really change the metric by which we measure our continued enormous investment of lives and treasure in Afghanistan? Or should we just treat al-Qaeda's presence there like we do in the dozen or so other lawless and semi-functioning states across Africa and Asia as a low-level problem to be dealt with on an as-needed basis and not as the justification for spending hundreds of billions more of our dollars and dedicating the lives of 100,000 or more of our fellow citizen-soldiers on a mission whose chance for success is doubtful at best?
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