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Debunking the Rationale for War in Afghanistan

After the Bush administration went to war based on charges of WMD programs that were later found to have been nonexistent, you would think there would be a strong demand for a thorough examination of the strategic rationale the next time an administration proposes a new war or a major escalation of an existing one.

Yet there has been no public examination of the Obama administration strategic argument that the United States must do whatever is necessary in Afghanistan to ensure that al Qaeda cannot have a safe haven there. The assumption seems to be that that there is no need to inquire about the soundness of that premise, because al Qaeda planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.

But the rationale for U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan that seemed obvious in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks no longer applies today. Osama bin Laden and the central al Qaeda organization left Afghanistan in late 2001 for Pakistan, where they have now established an even more secure base than they had in Afghanistan, thanks to the strong organization of Islamic militants in the Northwest tribal region of Pakistan. So the real al Qaeda safe haven problem is not about Afghanistan but about Pakistan.

Instead of candidly acknowledging that the al Qaeda safe haven problem is located in Pakistan, however, Barack Obama's first major statement on the war in Afghanistan sought to obscure that problem. Obama said, "[W]e have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

That made it sound like al Qaeda still has a base in Afghanistan. The "White Paper" of his Interagency Policy Group, however, contradicts that formulation. It states the U.S. goal as "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan." Obama's suggestion that U.S. forces are somehow fighting to defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan marks the first clear instance of playing fast and loose with the facts in order to increase the very weak public support for the war.

If the real problem is ending an al Qaeda safe haven in Pakistan, then going to war in Afghanistan makes sense only if one assumes that al Qaeda is going to be pushed out Pakistan or in danger of being destroyed there. The real question, therefore, is whether there is any realistic possibility that the Pakistan government can shut down al Qaeda's safe haven.

The honest answer must be that the possibility is vanishingly small -- at least for next generation. A report on Pakistan by a panel of experts headed by John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and published by the Atlantic Council last month provides a detailed analysis that suggests why it is so unlikely. It describes a Pakistani army that is demoralized and lacking a viable strategy for dealing with the burgeoning jihadi movement in the Northwest tribal region which has sheltered al Qaeda. It recalls how Pakistan was on the brink of economic collapse last fall, and was forced by the IMF to accept a crippling austerity plan. And it warns that a military takeover is likely if dramatic steps are not taken in the coming year, and that the military leadership is no better prepared than civilian politicians to cope with the country's problems.


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Pakistan is not even on the U.S. side in its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, as was confirmed by a report in the The New York Times March 25. Despite previous pledges that ISI, the Pakistani military's intelligence agency, had ended its covert assistance to the Taliban, The Times detaiIs ISI 's continuing provision of "money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance" to Taliban commanders fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus conceded in an interviews with PBS that Pakistani assistance to the Taliban is a central problem and that trying to get the Pakistani military to end its support for the Taliban is their highest priority.

But the idea that the Obama administration's "regional strategy" is going to change a Pakistani strategic fixation on India that has persisted ever since the Pakistani military was created is nothing but wishful thinking. No less an enthusiast for war in Afghanistan than neoconservative military analyst Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute testified at a House subcommittee hearing Thursday that the Pakistani Army actually defines itself in terms of the threat from India and opined that It would require "a multi-generational effort" to change that perspective.

As for closing down al Qaeda's sanctuary in Pakistan, a report by Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post from Pakistan last September showed that U.S. intelligence had no human assets in the tribal region, and that Pakistani military was doing nothing to change that. CIA Director Leon Panetta's statement that drone bombing attacks "are probably the most effective weapon we have to try to disrupt al Qaeda right now" is a pretty good indication that there is little chance of the United States rolling up al Qaeda in Pakistan unilaterally.

The war in Afghanistan is being justified, in effect, as a "preventive war," but the contingency it is supposed to prevent -- an al Qaeda base in Afghanistan -- is one that that isn't going to occur, regardless of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In that regard, the rationale for this war is very much like the rationale for the invasion of Iraq, which was that the United States had to prevent the acquisition by Saddam Hussein of a nuclear weapon.

Although the war in Afghanistan cannot solve the al Qaeda problem in Pakistan, it can accelerate the destabilization of Pakistan and strengthening the jihadi movement there. Even air attacks by drone aircraft in Pakistan, which is now settled U.S. policy, create a powerful political backlash in favor of the militants in Pakistan. But once the administration's "regional" approach to changing Pakistani policy stalls, we can expect growing pressure from the military to resume U.S. Special Operations forces cross-border raids against Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan. And that would certainly lead to more serious destabilizing developments, such as increased ideological splits within the Pakistani military. The National Intelligence Council warned the Bush administration about the near certainty of such consequences last August, as I reported for IPS September 9.

The administration's rationale for escalating war in Afghanistan does not stand up to careful examination. Not only is Afghanistan not a war of necessity, as it is being portrayed by the administration; it is a war that is very likely to make the terrible mess in Pakistan substantially worse and increase the likelihood of spreading chaos in that country.

Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist on U.S. national security policy who has been independent since a brief period of university teaching in the 1980s. Dr. Porter is the author of five books, the latest book, “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare,” was published in February 2014. He has written regularly for Inter Press Service on U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran since 2005.

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