Saturday, December 06, 2008

It’s Pakistan, Not Afghanistan, Dummy!

My two all-time favorite journalists are and . Coincidentally, both of them have offered surprising analyses lately about the . And neither of them suggests any answer to the question that their analyses immediately brought to my mind.

I’ll start with Dyer, whom I don’t read very often anymore because no Toronto paper carries his syndicated column. But he gave two lectures here on November 11 and I went to them. Most of his comments seemed directed toward dispelling myths that have been created to justify the current war in Afghanistan — such as the notion that the had invited to their country as a launching pad for his 9/11 attack on the United States. Or the notion that the US and other allied armies carried out a successful war (at least initially) against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In fact, says Dyer, the country was in the midst of a between the Taliban (mainly a group) and various ethnic groups from the northern region. The Taliban administration of the day did welcome bin Laden (who, along with about 40,000 other Arab volunteers, had heroically helped them fight against the Russians in the 1980s) but they almost certainly were not involved in planning his attack on America and probably did not even know about it before it happened.

After 9/11, it was not the US troops who came in and conquered al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Instead, it was about 500 fighters. They arrived with money to pay the Afghan militias, who did all the fighting on the ground. The CIA also instructed the helpful US planes which enemy targets to bomb. That military operation went well, sending bin Laden and his gang fleeing over the border into Pakistan. After the fighting was over, the full panoply of US and allied troops came in to smash al-Qaeda’s empty camps and set up an occupation regime, installing the northern leaders as the new government. In effect, the US was joining an ongoing civil war, taking the side of the northern minorities — Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras — against the Pashtuns. The Taliban are the force fighting for Pashtun power, and they have regained control of most of southern Afghanistan.

Thus, according to Dyer, we are involved in an Afghan civil war, fighting against people who are not terrorists. Yes, al-Qaeda are but they were defeated in Afghanistan and the survivors are now in Pakistan. Even President is, quite reasonably, trying to make a deal with the Taliban. We should support that solution simply by going away and leaving the country to the Afghans.

As Doug Saunders points out, the war that we’re supposedly fighting in Pakistan is quite a different war — one that is actually over. That war was authorized under , to defend against the al-Qaeda attacks against the US and other countries. But can any future terrorist attacks be launched anymore from within Afghanistan? No. Saunders has gone around Afghanistan asking US, Canadian, and British military leaders how many fighters they were seeing inside the country’s borders. They all said, “none.”

Moreover, al-Qaeda could not re-establish itself in Afghanistan because the Taliban do not even sympathize with them. Saunders quotes one Afghan politician as saying,

“Only 20 percent of the insurgents who form the core of the Taliban are fighting the ideological war. The rest are aggrieved tribes who have been mistreated by some government official or drug trafficker or some foreign intelligence operators or by the transnational al-Qaeda terrorists. It also consists of unemployed youth and criminal groups. All these are alliances of convenience. They are fighting for different reasons.”

In the bloody areas where our troops are fighting, their Taliban enemies regard al-Qaeda, not as an ally, but as another foreign invader. Saunders quotes several other journalists who have traveled around interviewing the Taliban fighters; they see no sign of al-Qaeda sympathies.

Canadian soldiers are supposed to fight the Taliban insofar as they are going to let al-Qaeda operate again, and there is only one branch of Taliban that fits that description: one in the far southeast led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. It doesn’t hold much territory or popular support.

So what’s the point of staying there? If anything, the presence of foreign troops in the country is exacerbating the opposition to themselves. Saunders cites an American expert in the area who says that the presence of large numbers of is providing the terrorists with an enemy, making it easier for them to recruit others as terrorists.

Saunders writes. “Al-Qaeda is gone, and not likely to return. To the extent that it is still around, it’s because we’re attracting it. If both those statements are true, then no matter how ugly it looks, the war’s over.”

So Dyer and Saunders agree: We should just go home and leave the Taliban alone. They pose no danger to the rest of the world.

That sounds reasonable to me. Yet it offers no answer to the obvious question: What about bin Laden and al-Qaeda? They are in . Are they capable of organizing another attack against a foreign country? Why not? A different group from Pakistan just attacked Mumbai, so why couldn’t al-Qaeda do even more?

I asked Dyer whether it would be possible for the US to go capture or kill bin Laden, then leave the Taliban alone. He said, “Whether or not you get bin Laden, leave the Taliban alone. Getting Osama doesn’t matter.”

Well, I think it may matter — and so does . If you listen closely to what he says about moving the war from Iraq into Afghanistan, it is not the Taliban that he talks about fighting. It’s al-Qaeda. As a US political leader, I don’t think he can ignore bin Laden. In general, the hunting of terrorists is not a military operation, but a matter for the police and various intelligence-gathering agencies to carry out. When it comes to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, that may not be the case; military action may be required. (At least the Pakistan police seem not to be up to the job.) Obama said last summer that he would kill or capture Osama if, as US president, he finds out where he is. Although this statement provoked a controversy, I rather doubt that Pakistanis in general would react badly against such a raid —despite the supposedly favorable attitude of public opinion toward bin-Laden. But what would it take to capture or kill Osama? I would like an answer.

I take satisfaction from Dyer’s and Saunders’s advice regarding Afghanistan. But it doesn’t tell me how to solve the real problem — al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

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