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A helicopter in July 2010 evacuating a soldier from the 101st Airborne Division who had stepped on an improvised mine in Kandahar. (AP photo)

Why stay in Afghanistan if the reasons for being there no longer exist?

COMMENTARY | May 16, 2011

The core assumption for having U.S. troops in Afghanistan is that by keeping al Qaeda out, we block a national security threat to America. It's time the press challenged that assumption because it is very, very vulnerable -- and likely flat-out wrong, as John Hanrahan reports in an interview with Paul Pillar, a leading intelligence community expert. This is the first in a new Nieman Watchdog series, 'Reporting the endgame.'

One in a Nieman Watchdog series, ‘Reporting the Endgame'.

By John Hanrahan

The possibility that al Qaeda could reestablish a “safe haven” in Afghanistan if the U.S. military leaves would not pose a serious national security threat to the United States and is not a valid reason for continuing to stay and fight that war, says Georgetown University Professor Paul Pillar.

In an interview with Nieman Watchdog, Pillar, a veteran of 28 years in the national intelligence community including service as deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorist center in the late 1990s, said the “conventional wisdom” that a reestablished, strong al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan would somehow endanger the United States is wrong. Yet, he said, “that conventional wisdom just trundles along” unchallenged in the national political sphere, and is hardly addressed in mainstream press coverage of the war.

Pillar, now director of graduate studies for Georgetown’s security studies program, has long maintained this position on Afghanistan as a safe haven. Typically, the danger of a reestablished al Qaeda safe haven is reported in news and broadcast outlets as a given, one of those immutable truths about which there is no dispute. The prevailing view, as expressed by President Obama in a visit to Kabul in March 2010, as well as being advanced regularly by advocates of a continued large-scale U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, is this:

"We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaeda and its extremist allies. That is our mission. And to accomplish that goal, our objectives here in Afghanistan are also clear: We're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum," Obama said, adding: "If this region slides backwards, if the Taliban retakes this country and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake. The Afghan people will lose their chance at progress and prosperity. And the world will be significantly less secure.”

More recently, in a December 2010 visit to the troops in Afghanistan, Obama said: "We will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who will attack the United States of America again. That will never happen," he said.

Pillar said he answers such concerns by saying, even after the killing of Osama bin Laden, that al Qaeda “already has a safe haven in northwest Pakistan,” so “what would be the advantage to them of crossing the border back into Afghanistan?” Most recently, General David H. Petraeus, commander of the NATO and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, placed the number of al Qaeda fighters actually in Afghanistan at around only 100 -- a figure, Pillar noted, that has been steady for some time now.

Pillar said the emphasis on Afghanistan as a once and future safe haven for al Qaeda that would threaten the United States, is one of those “core assumptions” about our continued huge military presence there that must be challenged. He pointed out that while it is true that a safe haven can be used for the basic training of recruits, the actual planning and carrying out of terrorist operations do not need such a base and require only a small number of recruits who can prepare for attacks from locations in any part of the world. In that regard, he noted that preparations for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States came not in an Afghanistan safe haven, but in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain, and flight schools in Florida.

And even if al Qaeda wanted to reestablish itself in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the Taliban would welcome them and thereby subject themselves to the likelihood of even more relentless attacks from U.S. and NATO forces than those that drove them from power back in 2001.

“If anything approaching a safe haven were being reestablished [in Afghanistan], the Taliban have to know that we would bomb the bejeezus out of them” as the United States and NATO would consider this an especially provocative action, Pillar said.

Pillar made it clear to Nieman Watchdog that he is not saying that terrorist havens don’t matter at all, but that it is a matter of looking at costs and benefits. The question, he said, is this: From a counter-terrorism point of view, would the possibility of a renewed al Qaeda haven in Afghanistan be enough of a threat “to justify continuing to expend blood and treasure, at the cost of many more thousands of American and Afghan lives” and the continued spending of $12 billion a month? In Pillar’s view, the answer is clearly no.

Pillar said the advocates for a continuing war have lost sight of the original stated reasons for invading Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. The original goals were to oust the Taliban from power, to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, and to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, he said. Within several months of the U.S. invasion, the Taliban had been driven from power, al Qaeda leaders and most of its members had fled to tribal border areas of South Waziristan in neighboring Pakistan, so all of the original goals -- other than the capture or killing of bin Laden -- had been achieved early on. Since then, though, Pillar said, “it’s been nine-and-a-half years of mission creep in which we have deviated from our original purpose.”

Departing from those original invasion aims, “we have come to see counterinsurgency as an end in itself” and “a goal in its own right,” with our overall success in Afghanistan tied to military success, he said.

“We have a tendency in this country to say something is an important U.S. national interest and then slide in a very illogical way from that to say we must continue to support whatever it is we’re doing that is pertinent to this interest,” Pillar said last month at a forum on Afghanistan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The question is: Is a particular enterprise or policy or effort or counterinsurgency -- or whatever it is we’re doing -- does that increase or advance our interest more than the cost it entails?...Unfortunately, that is not how Americans often phrase it.” And, he added, “fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is not how we would go about it if we were to zero-base this whole thing.”

One of the problems in the national discourse over Afghanistan is that even some leading politicians appear to not make a distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban. As exhibit number one, Pillar cited legislation recently introduced by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), chairman of the House Armed Service Committee. The legislation would, in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union, “give the president -- any president -- the power to use military force, whenever and however he or she sees fit” and would “essentially declare a worldwide war without end.” Among the targets of the measure are al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The way the press described this legislation, Pillar said, “seems to indicate that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee does not differentiate between groups with international terrorist ambitions and local insurgents whose only interest is in driving out the occupiers of their own country” and not in launching terror attacks in the United States.

As he said in more detail at last month’s forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “A U.S. military victory in Afghanistan [over the Taliban] is not what is going to determine whether or not the American public is safe or not from international terrorism. The Afghanistan Taliban is not an international terrorist group. It is one of the most insular groups around. It is interested in the political and social order of Afghanistan. It is interested in the United States only insofar as we interfere with their ambitions for ordering the politics and society of Afghanistan.”

Right now, Pillar said, Obama has a major opportunity in the wake of bin Laden’s death to begin removing large numbers of U.S. troops and ending the war sooner, rather than later. Besides polls showing both a surge in public support of Obama, and 60 perent support for winding down the war, the bin Laden killing makes Obama “no longer politically vulnerable to charges” from the political right “that he is not tough enough or is soft on terrorism,” Pillar said.

Although Pillar said “the direct effects of bin Laden’s death have been exaggerated,” the public and an increasing number of members of Congress of both parties perceive it as a watershed moment. Pillar told us he hopes that Obama will “use this, will go with this” sentiment to declare a victory of sorts and begin a substantial drawdown of troops, telling the public we have achieved in Afghanistan all of the original goals we set out to achieve.

Additionally, as Pillar stated in a May 5, 2011, article by James Kitfield in the National Journal, he hopes that bin Laden’s death will enable the nation to move “beyond this obsession with the so-called war on terror. For too long, the way Americans think about the challenges we confront around the world and at home has been distorted by the one-dimensional focus on security and terrorism that grew out of the 9/11 attacks.”

Asked if the nation has overreacted to the war on terror, Pillar said it is a complex issue, but “the short answer is yes” and in the process we have “compromised some of our own values” as well as increased the number of our enemies in the Muslim world through our invasions and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Click here for articles Pillar wrote for Nieman Watchdog in 2006 and 2009.

Posted by Jack Lohman
05/16/2011, 02:29 PM

Yea, I think Pakistan knew bin Laden was there. He was their ticket to continued US cash, and they had to protect him.

It is indeed time to come home, but the defense manufacturers that fund the elections wouldn't like that a bit.

Jack Lohman
http://MoneyedPoliticians.net ...

Posted by A Citizen
05/16/2011, 03:52 PM

Yep, the MIC will tell you when it's, "time to come home".

The most expensive military in the world and can't beat a bunch of sandmen in robes. It's so sad it's funny. I'm glad it's someones grand child's money being spent and not mine.

Gentleman and Scholar
Posted by J.David Reno
05/17/2011, 01:03 PM

I'm probably revealing my age when I say that your article reminds me of the Sen. George Aiken's solution to Vietnam.

"Just declare a victory and go home."

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