The Af-Pak Theatre
The debate between advocates of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism has been ongoing since President Obama has assumed office. Many of the former intelligence experts interviewed feel that to succeed in Afghanistan and Pakistan there is the need for a broader counter-insurgency policy. The goal should include removing the timetable, making sure the region is less of a safe haven for terrorism, the Taliban not gaining much control of the Afghan government, and that al-Qaeda will not have bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan to use as launching points.
It appears that this administration does not have a clear understanding of its ultimate objective. Michael Hayden, the former CIA Director, emphasized that with the troop surge the President "embraced a counter insurgency policy and there was no question he rejected the narrow counter terrorism approach, to only defeat and dismember Al Qaeda. To now reject counter insurgency out of hand is the wrong approach but it also shows his inconsistent strategy. With the surge the circumstances on the ground changed," which included the successful weakening of the Taliban in the south.
Many of those interviewed believe that the surge strategy has to be given a chance. For General Richard Myers, former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, the issue is "about resolve. We have lost our resolve in places of the world and our enemies capitalize on that. It will become an ungoverned place where extremists can plan, plot, and train." If the troops come home too early it would threaten what already has been achieved. Congressman Tom Rooney (R-Fla), a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, who was in Afghanistan this past May, was impressed by "the significant progress we've made under the surge. However, the gains we made are fragile. We need to listen to the generals and the commanders on the ground, especially if they're worried that this pace of withdrawal is too fast or too aggressive." In Afghanistan and Pakistan the successes include Al-Qaeda and the Taliban being significantly weakened. Many in the military have stated the Afghan Army is getting progressively better. A former high-ranking CIA official noted that we need to make sure these areas are not safe havens for terrorist groups, and that any withdrawal must be conditional.
The President's insistence on a timetable, according to all those interviewed, is the wrong approach. A former high-ranking CIA official believes that any talk of timetables does not help, since "those on the fence will get off and go to the other side." Both he and Hayden agree that the troops should not stay forever; however, as Hayden noted, "bringing the troops home has nothing to do with what's going on in Afghanistan and everything to do with the American Presidential election." They also fault the Republican candidates since they seem to be indifferent to the consequences.
What are some of the consequences? Congressman Rooney wants to ensure that bringing the troops home quickly will not endanger "those still on the ground and will not reverse the gains we have made." Others interviewed believe that the people in those areas will feel that once again America deserted them and cannot be trusted. A former CIA operative noted that the Navy Seals were able to get Osama Bin Laden because there was a base to work from, and that there is "a current need for a number of forces to make a counter terrorism policy succeed by further weakening the Taliban." Hayden agrees and further notes that the Taliban has no reason to negotiate with the US since the President already announced that we are scaling down the troops and will just wait it out until next year. In addition, he believes that after the success in southern Afghanistan, "we should have been able to turn to the East. We will not do it now, since the Eastern area would have been a much tougher fight: more mountainous and closer to the Haqqani Terrorist network. In essence we are giving the Taliban that base of operation. To lose control over parts of the countryside makes counter terrorism more difficult and more dangerous."
All wanted to stick with the current strategy and not withdraw any troops until the end of the next fighting season. At that point they feel that a troop draw-down is feasible since the NATO coalition will have control over more of the land, and the Taliban will have been significantly weakened. Pakistan also plays into the equation. A former CIA official noted that "you can't think about Afghanistan without thinking about Pakistan. You have to look at them as a package deal." By having a strong troop presence he believes that we "show them we are the big guys on the block, that we will not accept the harboring of terrorists. Aid will be given if America's policy is supported, that our aid comes with a price. With a strong troop presence we have the ability to do different types of operations. If we can gain intelligence, as we did with the Navy Seal Bin Laden raid, we should do it. We can currently be more aggressive and live with the Pakistan reaction with a forceful amount of troops in Afghanistan."
According to a former CIA official, "[t]he dilemma for us is what is in our national interest. The Cold War was like a symphony orchestra where everyone knew their part while today's world is like a mosh pit at a rock concert, wild and crazy." Bottom line is that what is in America's national interest must come above anything else. Too rapid a troop withdrawal increases the risk for Al Qaeda and the Taliban to regain its strength which will once again turn the world upside-down.