Testimony Rebuffs Common Rhetoric About Al Qaeda in Afghanistan
On Friday President Obama said he was "surprised" to win the Nobel Peace Prize and doesn't "view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments."
Wednesday marked the beginning of Year Nine of the war. In the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Senator John Kerry, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Vietnam vet who knows a thing or two about the costs and consequences of a quagmire, convened a hearing titled "Confronting Al Qaeda: Understanding the Threat in Afghanistan and Beyond."
It was timely, considering the United States went to war with the express purpose of "disrupting, dismantling and defeating the terrorist organization that attacked us on September 11," Kerry said. Timely too because the president now faces increasing pressure to double down on US military presence there, rather than seek alternatives to escalation, including a drawdown of US forces. Two of the witnesses, Robert Grenier and Dr. Marc Sageman--both of whom served in the CIA, as station chief in Pakistan and on the Afghan Task Force, respectively--concurred that escalation would only further spread anti-American sentiment among Afghans and other Muslims, and that nonmilitary initiatives to contain Al Qaeda and foster civic development in Afghanistan would prove far more effective.
Kerry began the Q&A of the three witnesses by soliciting an update on how Al Qaeda is faring in Afghanistan eight years after the invasion. "The president's strategy is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan," he said. "Is it a fair judgment to say that that has happened?... They're not in Afghanistan?"
Sageman and Grenier agreed with that assessment. (The third witness, Peter Bergen, a journalist and senior fellow with the New America Foundation, said the number of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan wasn't as important as "their influence ideologically and tactically." As the lone witness who is a proponent of an increased military presence, it is striking that Bergen had the least amount of on-the-ground experience on the panel.)
Kerry also raised the issue of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven so that it can't "plot at will against the United States." He asked whether there is legitimate concern about "a new union [between Al Qaeda and] the Taliban."
Sageman didn't perceive such a threat.
"A Taliban return to power does not automatically mean an invitation to Al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan," Sageman said. "The relationship between Al Qaeda and...[the] Taliban has always been strained." In the event that the Taliban did extend such an invitation, Sageman noted in written testimony, "there are many ways to prevent the return of Al Qaeda...besides a national counterinsurgency strategy. Vigilance through electronic monitoring, spatial surveillance, a network of informants in contested territory, combined with the nearby stationing of a small force dedicated to physically eradicate any visible Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will prevent the return of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan."
Republican ranking member Richard Lugar then turned to Gen. Stanley McCrystal's call for up to 60,000 additional US troops. "Who would we be surging against [in Afghanistan]?" he asked. "How would this have any effect whatever on the incidences of terrorism in the United States, Western Europe or what have you?"
"Let me answer that with an old Middle Eastern proverb," Sageman replied. "'It's me and my brother against my cousin. But it's me and my cousin against a foreigner.' So if we send 40,000 Americans...that will coalesce every local rivalry; they will put their local rivalry aside to actually shoot the foreigners and then they'll resume their own internecine fight.... Sending troops with weapons just will unify everybody against those troops, unfortunately."
Grenier emphasized that a surge would turn not only Afghans against the United States but also Pakistanis. "A large increase in the US presence in Afghanistan would not be welcomed by the majority of Pakistanis," he said. "It would make the struggle seem all the more starkly as one of the US versus Muslims, as opposed to the US supporting Afghans in their own struggle."
Senator Russ Feingold--who supported the decision to go to war but now calls for a flexible timetable for withdrawal, who recently introduced an amendment requiring the president to provide Congress with information regarding the cost, estimated duration and possible destabilizing impact of any increase in troop levels before authorization--honed in on what it is exactly that we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and how it fits into our larger objectives.
"Do you believe that completely denying Al Qaeda access to Afghanistan is an achievable objective?" Feingold asked. "Is [this] goal...distracting us from a broader goal [of] relentlessly pursuing Al Qaeda and its affiliates globally and ensuring that they can't conduct training and plotting in Afghanistan and elsewhere?"
"Right now, as I said, they are in Pakistan; and even if they return to Afghanistan, I think they will return in the same way they now are in Pakistan--in hiding," Sageman said. "Things have changed; it's not going to be the types of huge training camps that we saw in the 1990s. Right now what we see...are really small rented houses, half a dozen people, who get a few days' training, and they're not as well trained as the previous [guys] in the 1990s. You're talking about a very different threat. So even if they do come back...their threat...is still not going to be what it was."
Feingold pointed out that devoting so many resources to preventing Al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan detracts from the broader fight against present and future safe havens elsewhere.
"All we get is this simplistic notion that if we don't stay in Afghanistan for a very long term, Al Qaeda will be right back," Feingold said. "[But] what happens if they go to Yemen? What happens if they go to Somalia? What happens if they stay in Pakistan? How can it be that an international strategy against a global network can be that heavily concentrated on one place on the assumption that they will reconstitute themselves in a way that is exactly the same and allowed them to conduct the 9/11 attacks? It's far too simplistic."
Feingold said that polls now show the majority of Afghans want all foreign troops to leave within two years, and only 18 percent support an increase in foreign troops. He wanted to know "what impact these public attitudes [are] likely to have on the viability of any plan that involves a massive, open-ended foreign military presence."
"There is a high degree of xenophobia that is endemic among the Afghans," Grenier said, "and they do tend to coalesce against what is perceived as an outsider. The best that we can hope for is not a permanent elimination of safe haven, or the opportunity for safe haven for Al Qaeda, but rather the elimination of uncontested safe haven.... That needs to be a sustainable effort. What we are currently doing, I believe, is not sustainable either by us or by the Afghans."
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen then asked the million-dollar question: "What would a fully resourced, non-military-focused campaign against Al Qaeda look like?"
"We have to start relying on the Afghans themselves and not so much on American troops," Sageman replied. "We have to almost remove ourselves.... You have to gradually shift it to an Afghanized strategy."
"Are you suggesting then that we don't need to continue a campaign in Afghanistan in order to address Al Qaeda?" Shaheen pressed.
"That's correct," Sageman said. "A nonmilitary campaign would be to try to flip some of the locals who are hiding [and] protecting Al Qaeda to betray them, and allow us to either arrest them or eliminate them through other means."
Sageman and Grenier also said there are nonmilitary options to deal with the Taliban.
"I think many of them are young men who could be won over," said Grenier, "and who would just as soon take a paycheck from the local governor and serve in his militia as they would serve with the Taliban. Or if you had more constructive engagements that benefited them, they would pursue those instead."
"We make a mistake labeling everyone that is not for us with the same name," said Sageman. "On the ground what you have is a collection of a lot of young people who resist central government. Those [people] really are not ideologically motivated. I don't think we can cut a deal with Mullah Omar, but we certainly can take most of his followers away from him."
I spoke to Sageman after the hearing to get a better sense of what he envisions as an effective US presence in the region. He spoke of utilizing a small "cadre of folks" that understands Afghanistan and can "cut deals with local power brokers to make the peace." He believes we need "a small military presence" in the region for "focused action" when needed against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He said we need to "Afghanize" economic development and work with NGOs and local entrepreneurs to "do things in their own communities" rather than using "outside contractors, [where] all the money for development ends up in their pocket or in Switzerland."
For those who agree with Sageman and Grenier that any escalation or continuation of the current counterinsurgency strategy is exactly the wrong way to go, there are some Congressional efforts promoting these alternative ideas. Congresswoman Barbara Lee has introduced HR 3699 to prohibit funding for any increase in US troop levels in Afghanistan. Congressman Jim McGovern and ninety-nine co-sponsors have reintroduced HR 2404 requiring Defense Secretary Gates to submit an exit strategy to Congress--something even President Obama said is needed but has failed to deliver. The Feingold amendment never received a vote, and it should be reintroduced so that it can.
There are clear alternatives to staying the course or escalating--ideas that could not only save Obama's presidency but justify the peace prize he seemed to suggest is premature.