The president finally leads the war effort

It's been an alarming few weeks for the Afghan war: American servicemembers videotaped disrespecting Afghan corpses, coalition forces assassinated by Afghan National Security Forces, American servicemembers burning Qurans provoking deadly Afghan riots, an American shamefully killing Afghan civilians, and President Karzai demanding Coalition forces be confined to bases. Given all these events, Americans can be forgiven for doubting we are making any progress in the war effort, or that the mission in Afghanistan is worth what we are paying for it in lives, effort, and money.

Which makes it all the more meritorious that President Obama and his national security team have not used these events to rush for the exits.  It is easy to imagine the president reprising his Iraq end game: summoning a stentorian tone and explaining that we can't want this more than Afghans do, that the time has come to give Afghans the opportunity to determine their own future, etc. Thankfully, he did not. Because the mission in Afghanistan really does matter, and difficult as it is, remains worth the effort.

The United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan not simply to retaliate for an attack on our own country, but to ensure the territory of Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist training ground and operating base. Our military operations have forced al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations to focus on their survival, which diminishes their attention to plotting, training for, and conducting attacks. There should be no doubt that the objectives of these groups remain deadly and directed at us.

There should also be no doubt that simply killing bad guys is an inadequate strategy.  Without a positive program for governance in Afghanistan, the territory will remain an attractive locale for terrorists to organize and operate. The nature of this threat is that it migrates to ungoverned spaces, and a quarantine strategy won't be good enough -- the crises of governance and adaptation to global modernity that feed this threat will continue to produce networks of killers.

Moreover, it is difficult to see how coalition forces can continue to pressure terrorists inside Pakistan if we write off Afghanistan. From where would we collect intelligence and base the forces and weapons we use in counter-terrorist strikes? How would we convincingly portray ourselves as different from what we are fighting? This war is ultimately won by delegitimizing our enemies, and that requires persuading the broader society that we can and will protect them, can and will help them improve the governance of their society -- not just forcing compliance. 

Counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult and costly. It requires an extraordinary level of discipline and discriminating intelligence all the way down the line, even of the most junior soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Even when we prove good at it, as we did in Iraq and are in Afghanistan, progress is slow and setbacks are numerous. We make this difficult task much more difficult by too little civilian power (why is the military running the anti-corruption task force?) and imposition of politically-expedient deadlines unconnected to achievement of our objectives. But alternative strategies are also deeply problematic, with costs and vulnerabilities often underestimated.

The corruption and unreliability of President Karzai is another significant impediment to achieving our goals in Afghanistan. But agreeing to his proposal for an end to Coalition military operations would actually hand him the country. It is instructive that other Afghan leaders object strongly to the proposal; they see the progress we are making. What is working in Afghanistan is the patient construction of capable local and regional governance by Coalition forces and Afghans working together. That is a threat to Karzai's power; it is also a threat to the Taliban, which is why they embarked on a campaign of assassinating Afghan officials and seek to sow distrust between the Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces.

Which is why sticking with our strategy for Afghanistan through 2014 is so important. The 2014 elections in Afghanistan have the potential to institutionalize power in a country that has known little constraint, usher forth a new generation of Afghan leaders and coincide with Afghan security forces coming on line in numbers and proficiency to take over the work we are now doing. If we walk away before then -- or settle for just securing polling places rather than affecting the political ecosystem by our involvement -- we should expect Afghanistan to return to worse than how we found it in 2001. Our enemies will be emboldened, our friends will be punished, and our credibility will be deeply suspect.

Part of the reason the American public is inclined to question the war effort is that the president has put so little effort into defending it. But when given the opportunity to walk away from it, President Obama made clear this week that he intends to continue taking the fight to the Taliban, training Afghan National Security Forces so they can do the work Coalition forces are now doing, handing over those operations to Afghans with us in a supporting role to stabilize the transition, and remaining in some numbers in Afghanistan even after 2014. In recommitting himself to the agreed NATO strategy and its timeline, the president is finally leading the war effort.

President Obama deserves our praise and support for keeping a strategic perspective on what needs doing in Afghanistan, even with the buffeting of damaging events in the last couple of weeks.

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Shadow Government

Evaluating the war with al Qaeda

My last post argued that determining al Qaeda's objectives is vital for any evaluation of the group's progress. I suggested that the U.S. government believes that the main goal of al Qaeda is attacking the United States and its allies, but that this is to confuse means with ends. The stated objectives of the group are to liberate all Muslim-majority countries of non-Muslim occupiers and their apostate rulers, impose their version of sharia in these places, create an Islamic state then that they call the "caliphate," and eventually force all human beings to follow their version of Islamic law. By carrying out attacks on the U.S. -- and other means -- al Qaeda believes that it can achieve these greater ends.

The confusion of means with ends has many consequences, but one of the most vital is that it makes it extremely difficult to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda.

If the main objective for al Qaeda were to attack the U.S., then it is obvious that the group has been an abject failure:  It has not carried out a successful homeland attack since 9-11 and has been incapable of a mass attack on our allies since the London bombings of 2005.  The group must be far weaker than anyone thought in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, less capable of projecting power, and therefore less of a threat to the United States than once feared. The death of Osama bin Laden might even mean that the group is finished -- a spent force that can be safely relegated to some second-tier category while the U.S. concentrates on more dangerous enemies (like China).

But if its main objectives are those outlined above, then measuring the successes and failures of al Qaeda is more complex than the number of attacks on the U.S. it has carried out and the casualties of Americans and our friends it has caused. To assess al Qaeda's strengths, we would need to look at where the group claims that it is active worldwide and see how much progress it has made in achieving its goals. Since they will only begin to force all other people to follow their version of shari'a after achieving the first three goals, I won't attempt to assess their progress on this front.

Instead, let's begin by examining al-Qaeda's objective of expelling non-Muslim occupiers and apostate rulers from Muslim lands. Since 9-11, American military forces have withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and soon will leave Afghanistan. Multiple NATO forces have also decided to leave Afghanistan and many countries left Iraq before the defeat of the insurgency. We would say -- and rightly so -- that the reasons for pulling out of these areas have little to do with al Qaeda's actions. The U.S. in fact left Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan because it believes that al Qaeda has been defeated in both countries, and was able to move forces out of Saudi Arabia because Saddam was no longer around to threaten U.S. interests. With our allies the situation is rather different: It was the stubborn refusal of the insurgents (whether members of al-Qaeda or not) to quit fighting that caused many of them to decide to leave first Iraq (see Spain) and then Afghanistan. But, despite the real reasons for the withdrawal of American and allied forces from Muslim lands, Zawahiri and other leaders of al Qaeda have been able to claim credit for pushing them out of these countries, and for achieving one of their most important objectives.

The same holds true for the ouster of "apostate" rulers like Saddam, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Ali Saleh (see Abdullah, "Disobeying Ali Abdullah Saleh Is the Most Important Duty That Was Called For by the Good Predecessors," Sada al-Malahim, Issue 3, May 2008) -- all named by the group as deserving to be pushed from power and/or executed.  The Arab Spring in particular was a force completely outside al-Qaeda's power to begin or control, but this has not stopped its leaders from pointing out that the downfall of these "tyrants" fulfills one of their objectives. From the start of the spring, then, the group could position itself as supporting the uprisings and has sympathizers in Libya and Egypt, and outright members in Yemen, that are in position to take advantage of the social and political foment that has naturally occurred in these countries.

The bottom line is this: regardless of the agency of al Qaeda in these events, the actions by the U.S., its allies, and the people of these Muslim-majority countries have fulfilled two major objectives that al Qaeda has consistently claimed that they are pursuing. And, because of its consistency in calling for the ouster of these rulers, the group is now in an excellent position to build support in all the countries touched by the uprisings.

Al Qaeda has had more direct involvement in achieving its third objective-creating the "caliphate" -- although apparently with less success. The graphic below shows the governance areas for the caliphate that al Qaeda has claimed it is in the process of creating through the jihads of its branches. The exact boundaries of these areas are open to discussion, but the names and general territories are as described by al Qaeda.

In at least five of these areas -- the Sahara, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan, al Qaeda has claimed to have established amirates, their name for the shadow governments that are supposed to expand their authority until it encompasses the entire governance area. I believe that, eventually, al Qaeda wants to make these areas into wilayat or provinces within the larger caliphate.

All these attempts to set up governance have had some success: al Qaeda's branches did not just announce the establishment of a state in each place, but have also been imposing their version of Islamic law by setting up a court system to establish legal penalties and settle cases, along with an institution traditionally called the "hisba" to enforce the law. They have also created a regular army, charged taxes, collected Islamic charity (traditionally the provenance of the state), and much else.  Al Qaeda 's attempts at shadow governance have not been uncontested, however. In almost all these cases, the new amirates are under pressure from central governments and external forces (like the Kenyans in Somalia), and in one case, Iraq, lost nearly everything when the U.S. carried out a successful counter-insurgency in 2007-2008. Yet the new governance structures have proven to be resilient, and even in Iraq are making a comeback that show the depth of their influence. In Yemen, where the central government is weak and there are no strong neighbors to intervene, the situation is particularly dire, and al Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the chaos from the Arab Spring to spread its control across large portions of the country.

Any evaluation of al Qaeda's progress in achieving this objective would have to admit that the group has done far better here than expected, is a real threat in many of these countries, and will require far more effort than the U.S. or its allies is currently willing to exert if the extremists are to be stopped.

In my next post I'll look at how well the U.S. (and other countries) have done in countering al Qaeda, and give my net assessment of where we are at in our war with the group.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images