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Associated Press/Photo by Rafiq Maqbool

Strategic divergence

War on Terror | The war against the Taliban and the war against al-Qaida

Washington's attention is now zeroing in on Afghanistan. There is talk of doubling U.S. forces there, and preparations are being made for another supply line into Afghanistan-this one running through the former Soviet Union-as an alternative or a supplement to the current Pakistani route. To free up more resources for Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq probably will be accelerated. And there is discussion about whether the Karzai government serves the purposes of the war in Afghanistan. In short, U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign promise to focus on Afghanistan seems to be taking shape.

We have discussed many aspects of the Afghan war in the past; it is now time to focus on the central issue. What are the strategic goals of the United States in Afghanistan? What resources will be devoted to this mission? What are the intentions and capabilities of the Taliban and others fighting the United States and its NATO allies? Most important, what is the relationship between the war against the Taliban and the war against al-Qaida? If the United States encounters difficulties in the war against the Taliban, will it still be able to contain not only al-Qaida but other terrorist groups? Does the United States need to succeed against the Taliban to be successful against transnational Islamist terrorists? And assuming that U.S. forces are built up in Afghanistan and that the supply problem through Pakistan is solved, are the defeat of Taliban and the disruption of al-Qaida likely?

Al-Qaida and U.S. goals post-9/11

The overarching goal of the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, has been to prevent further attacks by al-Qaida in the United States. Washington has used two means toward this end. One was defensive, aimed at increasing the difficulty of al-Qaida operatives to penetrate and operate within the United States. The second was to attack and destroy al-Qaida prime, the group around Osama bin Laden that organized and executed 9/11 and other attacks in Europe. It is this group-not other groups that call themselves al-Qaida but only are able to operate in the countries where they were formed-that was the target of the United States, because this was the group that had demonstrated the ability to launch intercontinental strikes.

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Al-Qaida prime had its main headquarters in Afghanistan. It was not an Afghan group, but one drawn from multiple Islamic countries. It was in alliance with an Afghan group, the Taliban. The Taliban had won a civil war in Afghanistan, creating a coalition of support among tribes that had given the group control, direct or indirect, over most of the country. It is important to remember that al-Qaida was separate from the Taliban; the former was a multinational force, while the Taliban were an internal Afghan political power.

The United States has two strategic goals in Afghanistan. The first is to destroy the remnants of al-Qaida prime-the central command of al-Qaida-in Afghanistan. The second is to use Afghanistan as a base for destroying al-Qaida in Pakistan and to prevent the return of al-Qaida to Afghanistan.

To achieve these goals, Washington has sought to make Afghanistan inhospitable to al-Qaida. The United States forced the Taliban from Afghanistan's main cities and into the countryside, and established a new, anti-Taliban government in Kabul under President Hamid Karzai. Washington intended to deny al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan by unseating the Taliban government, creating a new pro-American government and then using Afghanistan as a base against al-Qaida in Pakistan.

The United States succeeded in forcing the Taliban from power in the sense that in giving up the cities, the Taliban lost formal control of the country. To be more precise, early in the U.S. attack in 2001, the Taliban realized that the massed defense of Afghan cities was impossible in the face of American air power. The ability of U.S. B-52s to devastate any concentration of forces meant that the Taliban could not defend the cities, but had to withdraw, disperse and reform its units for combat on more favorable terms.

At this point, we must separate the fates of al-Qaida and the Taliban. During the Taliban retreat, al-Qaida had to retreat as well. Since the United States lacked sufficient force to destroy al-Qaida at Tora Bora, al-Qaida was able to retreat into northwestern Pakistan. There, it enjoys the advantages of terrain, superior tactical intelligence and support networks.

Even so, in nearly eight years of war, U.S. intelligence and special operations forces have maintained pressure on al-Qaida in Pakistan. The United States has imposed attrition on al-Qaida, disrupting its command, control and communications and isolating it. In the process, the United States used one of al-Qaida's operational principles against it. To avoid penetration by hostile intelligence services, al-Qaida has not recruited new cadres for its primary unit. This makes it very difficult to develop intelligence on al-Qaida, but it also makes it impossible for al-Qaida to replace its losses. Thus, in a long war of attrition, every loss imposed on al-Qaida has been irreplaceable, and over time, al-Qaida prime declined dramatically in effectiveness-meaning it has been years since it has carried out an effective operation.


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