I went to a Canadian Journalism Foundation event tonight featuring Pamela Wallin talking about the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan report.
Here’s a part of the report that raises questions for me:
By 2001, Afghanistan in large part was ruled by the Taliban, a radical Islamist regime of exceptional violence. Al Qaeda had found shelter in Taliban territory. It was from Afghanistan that Al Qaeda leaders planned and directed the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, against targets in the United States (and inspired later terrorism in Spain, Britain and elsewhere). …
For our part, Panel members are persuaded by four strong reasons for Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan:
First, Canada has sent soldiers, diplomats and aid workers to Afghanistan as part of an international response to the threat to peace and security inherent in Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks. The world had largely abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989; civil war and state failure followed. The haven that the Taliban gave to Al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks showed how disorder and repressive extremism there could create a threat to the security of other countries—including Canada—far distant from Afghanistan’s borders. A primary Canadian objective, while helping Afghans, has been to help ensure that Afghanistan itself does not again revert to the status of sanctuary and head office for global terrorism. Countries as fortunately endowed as Canada—and as interdependent with the rest of the world—owe obligations to the international community. Participating in the international intervention in Afghanistan, at the request of the Afghan government, has been one of those obligations. The consequences of international failure in Afghanistan—for Afghans and for the world—would be disastrous.
My question was while there may be morally valid reasons for helping Afghanistan, there are very real reasons to think it might not be the key to winning the war on terror.
For one thing, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in the summer of 2007 found that al Qaeda has essentially rebuilt its operational capacity to a level not seen since 9/11, according to this AP story on CTV.ca.
This is after more than six years of combat operations in Afghanistan. So if Afghanistan — and keeping al Qaeda and the Taliban out – is so important to the war on terror, how has this happened? To the best of my knowledge, al Qaeda isn’t even that involved in the fight in Afghanistan, although they might be helping the Taliban behind the scenes from their new home in Pakistan.* However, if someone could point me to something that shows Canadian forces have captured or killed al Qaeda figures – or even foreign fighters – in Kandahar province, I’d be most grateful.**
* On Jan. 31, news broke that a senior al Qaeda leader who helped plan suicide bombings in Afghanistan was killed by a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan.
** Maybe al Qaeda feels it doesn’t need to return to Afghanistan, given that it’s found a home away from home in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
The March 11, 2004 Madrid and July 7, 2005 London bombings weren’t carried out by Pashtun farm boys from southern Afghanistan. In London’s case, the bombers were home-growns of Pakistani descent.
On Madrid, I made a mistake at the session by claiming some Pakistani involvement. Most of those involved in the attacks were from North African countries.
Question: If Afghanistan is so crucial to al Qaeda, why isn’t it more directly and heavily involved in the fight? There is an al Qaeda in Iraq (that has overstayed its welcome); why no al Qaeda in Afghanistan?
I wasn’t taking notes (there’s a video report, so I’ll try to grab direct quotes from that*), but Wallin’s response was essentially how we need to deny al Qaeda a base for its training camps and whatnot.
* I found it. My exchange is right near the end Here’s a transcript of what she said in response to me:
Well, actually, I think it is. And I’ll tell you it’s just because there’s no structure in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban and other groups. They morph and they change, and al Qaeda has regrouped and has morphed in different ways.
But because it is such a structureless country, and because it’s so physically hard to protect and secure, it really is an easy base. And it wouldn’t take long. In fact, we were told on a couple of occasions that the Taliban had come very close to taking Kandahar back again at several different points in the last couple years.
It doesn’t have the same kind of governance and physical structures that you’ve got in other places which are indeed headquarters. Look, a lot of money for al Qaeda came from Saudi Arabia. That’s a very sophisticated country on many levels.
But this is physically such open space and so hard to get to that it really does allow them to group and train, particularly to train, folks in a way that would go really unchecked if the Afghans don’t have some ability, militarily speaking, to resist this.
A lot of the stuff we’re doing over there — you know, this clear, hold and develop strategy. We’re doing pretty good at the clearing. We’re not doing very well at the holding, because we’re then busy clearing some other spot and we don’t have enough people to do that, which is again why we need a few more boots on the ground over there.
But you certainly can’t start that development strategy if you can’t even hold, if you’re constantly fighting to keep the Taliban, or which ever variation of it you’re dealing with, physically militarily at bay. So it is an important physical spot because it doesn’t have the same governmental infrastructure as other countries where this kind of activity would be more noticed than it is there.
My response? Al Qaeda doesn’t necessarily need physical training facilities as much as it perhaps did in the 1990s. It has moved massive amounts of training and propaganda material onto the Internet.
The group does operate some makeshift training camps in Pakistan’s tribal areas, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Pakistani troops have been deployed there — which of course raises another question: If a nation like Pakistan with a relatively strong military and intelligence service can’t keep al Qaeda from setting root, then at what point will Afghanistan’s security forces be ready to keep their country al Qaeda-free?
Bin Laden’s main role — according to the excellent Lawrence Wright book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 — can be likened to that of a movie producer. Pitch a concept to him, and if he likes it, he funds it. The 9/11 plan was first suggested to bin Laden in 1996 by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, reportedly at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden didn’t green-light the attack until 1999. But much of the operational planning for 9/11 wasn’t done at Tora Bora or Tarnak Farms or Khost but in Hamburg, Germany.
Wallin’s reponse to my follow-up:
I understand all that. It’s just that Osama bin Laden doesn’t put himself into a plane and fly himself into the World Trade towers. They need to be educating and recruiting all of the time to have troops on the ground, the people who will do that. That means religious education, itmeans the mullahs must have places to attract these people. That’s a lot of what’s going on in the border in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
I don’t disagree with your assessment. It’s just that if you have a highly uneducated, vulnerable, poor population for whom ten bucks is a lot of money. And maybe a life-changing amount of money in terms of who they decide to sign up with. You’ve got to deal with that stuff at some level on the ground.
I agree, if you could figure out some way that you could close down their access to the Internet and all the rest of it, you would have a profound effect. and if you could catch Osama bin Laden, it would have a symbolic effect and all of those things.
But honestly, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are still fighting for hearts and minds. And that is on the ground. And I want those small girls — because girls are volunteering as suicide bombers in all parts of the world these days too. And I want the young boys, because they’re not having much luck getting back at the schools either, those people need to be able to make those decisions. And they need to be educated and they need to have some food in their stomachs so that they are not beholden to the other guys or easily swayed.
It’s not a direct fix. I understand. I know you’re shaking your head and you’re frustrated with it. But you can’t leave an entire population. We know what the Taliban did. We know what those folks are like in that country. And we know that they gave shelter, and that al Qaeda and Taliban — they’re not the same thing but they give each other room. It’s like warlords, when they need to be, your enemy’s enemy’s your friend and all those things. And relationships change and morph all the time.
But you can’t in that particular piece of ground, which is so crucial. And it’s true it doesn’t have oil and it doesn’t have all those things. It’s not an obvious fight like Iraq, if you can even call it that. But it’s a really a very important transit point through some very key areas of the world in the future. You know, the lines between Iran and China and, you know. It’s why we put the map on the cover. Just in case anybody was confused about where it is. It’s a very, very crucial piece of territory. And it could become a transit, you know, there’s three or four reasons why. But it’s a very valuable sort of … delivery mechanism. Place where people could run all sorts of things that would not be good for either the locals or for any of us anywhere.
But it’s only one front. I agree. It’s only one front in the so-called war on terror. There’s no question. It’s not all going to be settled in Afghanistan, but we do have to take on that bit.
Wallin also raised Beslan, Russia. That deadly school seige was largely a Chechen separatist operation, although its now-dead ringleader, Shamil Baseyev, was on the same page as al Qaeda with respects to being an Islamist.
In the cases of London and Madrid, the operations appear to be al Qaeda inspired rather than led by that group (although there is some question of whether al Qaeda’s played a deeper role in the case of London).
Going back to the Taliban for a moment, Wright noted in his book that Taliban leader Mullah Omar thought of the U.S. as a friend of Afghanistan for its help against the Soviets and was in informal contact with Washington.
Omar wasn’t very comfortable with bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against the U.S.
Where Omar got pissed at the U.S. was in the wake of the 1998 cruise missile attack on the al Qaeda camp in Khost. There was civilian collateral damage.
Still, in July 2001, Wright said the Taliban foreign minister warned U.S. and UN diplomats on two separate occasions that the United States was at risk of terrorist attack. He did it partly out of self-interest; Wright said the minister feared the U.S., if successfully attacked, would destroy his country.
Interestingly, the Taliban — as of 2006 — are still not on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations.
At the end of the day, al Qaeda succeeded in its 9/11 attack primarily because of bureaucratic infighting between the CIA and FBI (e.g. the CIA never told the FBI when two of the hijackers arrived on American soil) and because of other forms of incompetence (remember the FBI agent in Phoenix who warned he had Arabs who wanted to learn how to fly airliners but not land them — and was blown off? The fact that five of the 19 hijackers were on terror watch lists and still got on the planes?). Given the billions of dollars being spent yearly by NATO on military operations in Afghanistan, could it be spent more effectively in other ways to protect national security?
Those are some reasons why I wonder if preventing the next 9/11-style attack should really be considered a top reason for justifying continued high-level military involvement in Afghanistan — although as I said earlier, there may be other morally valid reasons for continued involvement there.
If my instincts are wrong, please tell me why.
You might also want to see this Feb. 7 post: Afghanistan by the numbers
Here’s an excerpt from a Jan. 24 BBC story on the battle for South Waziristan:
Waziristan was seen as a key place of refuge for many Taleban fighters, displaced from Afghanistan. There is still regular cross-border exchange of people, skills and weapons.
So control of Waziristan is key to attempts to control Afghanistan.
In the past, the Pakistan government cut deals with these tribal militants. But many now say that just gave the militants time to gain strength.
The current military campaign though is proving very high risk. Pakistan’s army is struggling with low morale. Many are dispirited by the loss of life – and the constant threat of ambush, kidnap and suicide attacks.
Their disillusionment is dangerous for President Musharraf – who needs the army’s support.
A rising number of suicide attacks elsewhere in Pakistan – generally blamed on pro-Taleban militants – is also undermining public confidence in President Musharraf’s handling of the crisis.
A temporary truce is underway in North and South Waziristan, according to this Feb. 7 BBC story, but Pakistan’s army thinks it’s just an attempt by the militants to regroup.
Ultimately, if Pakistan can’t bring the Taliban to heel in its tribal areas, that’s really going to make the Afghanistan fight tough.