President Barack Obama seems to be working under a serious misapprehension. Releasing the White House's annual strategic review to the public on 16 December, he declared that US policy in Afghanistan was "on track" to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Who told him that the United States is fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?
"It was Afghanistan where al-Qaeda plotted the 9/11 attacks that murdered 3,000 innocent people," he said, which is an accurate historical statement.
"It is the tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border from which terrorists have launched more attacks against our homeland and our allies,"Obama continued. Note the leap of logic: suddenly, he's no longer talking about Afghanistan, but about the "Afghan-Pakistan border." In fact, he's really only talking about the Pakistani side of that frontier, which American forces could not control even if they killed every insurgent in Afghanistan.
"And if an even wider insurgency were to engulf Afghanistan, that would give al-Qaeda even more space to plan these attacks," Obama concluded. Maybe, but why would al-Qaeda want more space to plan its attacks?
If it actually wants more space, al-Qaeda could easily increase its presence in Somalia, for example, but western Pakistan is quite big enough to hide in. Pakistan also has big, busy airports where al-Qaeda recruits can slip into and out of the country, and it's far too big for the United States to invade.
So what would be the point of winning a war against the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, even if Obama's apparent belief that they are just the Afghan branch of al-Qaeda were correct?
So long as the United States does not control every square metre (foot) of Pakistan - and it never will - the only way to prevent al-Qaeda attacks will remain good intelligence gathering, not heavily armed US troops clattering around in foreign countries. Indeed, good intelligence work is ALWAYS the best way to stop terrorist attacks.
But what if the Taliban sweep to power in Afghanistan once the Western forces leave? That's not all that likely to happen, because the Taliban are almost exclusively drawn from one ethnic group, the Pashtuns. They account for 40 percent of the population, but they never managed to conquer the heartlands of the other ethnic groups even when they ruled the country in 1996-2001. Why would they succeed now?
The United States and its allies are unwittingly trapped in an Afghan civil war between the Pashtuns and everybody else. That's why 98 percent of NATO casualties happen in Pashtun-majority areas. It's also why the Afghan army that Washington is trying to build up (so that it can leave) is overwhelmingly made up of Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks - anybody but Pashtuns. They don't even speak the same language as the insurgents.
But what if the Taliban do gain control of at least part of Afghanistan after Western troops leave? It wouldn't matter all that much, because having "even more space to plan these attacks" wouldn't make al-Qaeda any more dangerous. "Bases" are a conventional military concept that is virtually irrelevant in terrorist strategies.
In any case, it's unlikely that a victorious Taliban insurgency would really invite al-Qaeda to set up in Afghanistan again. They share many of al-Qaeda's ideas, but their actual situation would be very different - just as it was before 2001.
Al-Qaeda's members were (and still are) revolutionaries trying to win power, mainly in Arab countries. Back then, they were getting nowhere because they lacked popular support. The 9/11 attacks were intended to sucker the United States into invading a Muslim country, in order to inflame Muslim opinion against Washington and the governments it backs in the Arab world. Then, perhaps, some of al-Qaeda's stalled revolutions might actually happen,
No surprise there. That's a standard terrorist strategy, though few people in Washington seem to realise it. But the Taliban were already in power; they didn't need a revolution. Why would they back an al-Qaeda operation that would trigger a US invasion and get them driven from power? It's very unlikely that they even knew about it in advance.
But if the Taliban were not involved in al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on the United States even back then, it's hardly credible that they would support such attacks now. Does President Obama understand that? It doesn't sound like it - but then, Obama could never offer this analysis even if he shared it.
The simplistic mythology about al-Qaeda's motives that was disseminated by the Bush administration - "they are Islamic crazies who attack us because they hate our values" - has taken such deep root in the American population that Obama cannot argue with it in public. He cannot say that what happens in Afghanistan after the Americans leave hardly matters to the United States. But he may understand it in private.
Consider the comment in the strategy review that the US has made enough progress in Afghanistan to start a "responsible reduction" of forces in July 2011. That is nonsense: there has been no serious progress, and the Taliban will know it.
But it may be a coded signal to the Taliban that Obama wants to get out, but cannot do so if the Taliban are looking too successful. So stay low for a while, please, and we'll soon be out of your hair. You know, like the deal that Henry Kissinger made with North Vietnam in 1972.