Will the U.S. be distracted by Iraq again? Neglecting the current political crisis over the Presidential election in Afghanistan could bring about the violent political fragmentation al Qaeda needs to return to their preferred sanctuary.
A favored tactic by a wounded animal is to play dead. Let the predator get complacent, perhaps get distracted, then strike back.
Whether by design or accident, al Qaeda may be playing the same game in Central and South Asia. Since the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, little has been heard from al Qaeda in the region. Affiliates in the Sahel, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere have grabbed more headlines.
Unless the U.S. and others get serious about the political and diplomatic dimensions of our strategy in the region, we will likely find al Qaeda back in Afghanistan by 2016 – or sooner.
Afghanistan is attractive to al Qaeda for many reasons. I will focus on three.
First, it is considered their mythological homeland. Core members of what came to be the al Qaeda senior leadership supported the mujahideen forces (as did the U.S.) in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. Their own creation myth that they were responsible for defeating a superpower will continue to draw al Qaeda leadership to Afghanistan (and will continue to annoy Afghans). The mythology will be even more attractive if they can lay claim to defeating another superpower.
Second, the terrain of this mountainous, landlocked country in the middle of the Eurasian landmass is ideal safe-haven. There are plenty of places to hide. Unlike other areas where al Qaeda franchises are operating, we cannot simply park an aircraft carrier off the coast and fly drones and planes to target terrorists. As Afghanistan is flanked by Iran and Pakistan, and by Central Asians states that are increasingly loath to upset the Russians, we are not likely to gain basing rights in the neighborhood.
Al Qaeda also knows that intelligence is critical to successful targeting. Strikes are a threat to them if we have a forward-presence to both collect and assess the quality of the information. Without those capabilities, which will no longer be present by 2016, existing information is of diminishing value and new information runs the risk of being distorted by score-settling and self-interest.
Third, Afghanistan is contending with a Taliban-dominated insurgency that has links to al Qaeda. The Taliban and al Qaeda are not natural allies. Senior leader ties are reportedly strained, with the Taliban allegedly telling al Qaeda senior leaders not to return to Afghanistan [more on this in a future post]. However, while their conflict against the Afghan government continues, the Taliban is highly unlikely to cut ties with even an uncomfortable ally.
Conflict and political crisis in Afghanistan keep hope alive for al Qaeda.
Defeating al Qaeda in the region so they cannot return requires far more serious attention to political and diplomatic efforts than we have committed to date. Al Qaeda’s worst nightmare is a successful peace process in which the Taliban turns away from them and toward the Afghan polity and international community. The Bergdahl deal may have increased al Qaeda’s worry of this becoming less unthinkable.
CT strikes against al Qaeda leadership will remain important, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that killing enough people will put an end to the threat. We have thirteen years of evidence against that argument, and our capacity is likely to diminish over time.
The defeat mechanism for al Qaeda will be political and diplomatic. The artful combination of military, political, economic and diplomatic efforts is the best counterterrorism strategy. The most realistic and effective way to prevent al Qaeda’s return to the region is for the local people in Afghanistan’s South and East, to include the Taliban, to keep them out.
Nonetheless, the greatest near-term threat to our goals in Afghanistan is not the Taliban, but a political or fiscal crisis that unravels the government and divides the country into warring factions. The fiscal crisis may be poised for 2016. The political crisis is at hand.