Tag: Haqqani Network


On September 13, 2011, the Haqqani network perpetrated a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, a coordinated assault involving suicide bombers and rocket fire that killed 25. During congressional testimony the following week, US Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency of facilitating the attacks, saying “The actions by the Pakistani government to support [the Haqqani Network]—actively and passively—represent a growing problem that is undermining U.S. interests.” Although the Pakistani government has denied the US allegations, tensions between the two countries continue to rise, threatening to further destabilize an already fragile alliance.



Mark Mazzetti, Scott Shane & Alissa J. Rubin
NY Times, September 24, 2011

They are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds. They safeguard their mountainous turf by planting deadly roadside bombs and shelling remote American military bases. And they are accused by American officials of being guns for hire: a proxy force used by the Pakistani intelligence service to carry out grisly, high-profile attacks in Kabul and throughout the country. Today, American intelligence and military officials call the crime clan known as the Haqqani network—led by a wizened militant named Jalaluddin Haqqani…—the most deadly insurgent group in Afghanistan.

In the latest of a series of ever bolder strikes, the group staged a daylong assault on the United States Embassy in Kabul, an attack Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged [last Thursday] was aided by Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. According to two American officials, cellphones used by the attackers made calls to suspected ISI operatives before the attack, although top Pakistani officials deny their government played any role.

But even as the Americans pledge revenge against the Haqqanis, and even amid a new debate in the Obama administration about how to blunt the group’s power, there is a growing belief that it could be too late.… Responsible for hundreds of American deaths, the Haqqanis probably will outlast the United States troops in Afghanistan and command large swaths of territory there once the shooting stops. American military officers, who have spent years urging Washington to take action against the Haqqanis, express anger that the Obama administration has still not put the group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations out of concern that such a move would scuttle any chances that the group might make peace with Afghanistan’s government.…

The Haqqanis have expanded their reach and numbers as top American officials have tried repeatedly over the last decade to berate and cajole officials in Pakistan to cut ties to a group it considers essential for its own security, all with little effect.… Now largely run by two of Mr. Haqqani’s sons, who experts say are even more committed Islamists than their father, the network is in a position of strength as the United States tries to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan before pulling its troops from the country.…

With a combination of guns and muscle, the Haqqani network has built a sprawling enterprise on both sides of a border that barely exists. The Haqqanis are Afghan members of the Zadran tribe, but it is in the town of Miram Shah in Pakistan’s tribal areas where they have set up a mini-state with courts, tax offices and radical madrasa schools producing a ready supply of fighters. They secretly run a network of front companies throughout Pakistan selling cars and real estate, and have been tied to at least two factories churning out the ammonium nitrate used to build roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

American intelligence officials believe that a steady flow of money from wealthy people in the gulf states helps sustain the Haqqanis, and that they further line their pockets with extortion and smuggling operations throughout eastern Afghanistan.… They are also in the kidnapping business, with a mix of pecuniary and ideological motives. In May, the group released the latest of a series of videos showing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American infantryman held by the network since June 2009, with a Haqqani official.…

Over the past five years, with relatively few American troops operating in eastern Afghanistan, the Haqqanis have run what is in effect a protection racket for construction firms—meaning that American taxpayers are helping to finance the enemy network.… But the group is not just a two-bit mafia enriching itself with shakedown schemes. It is an organized militia using high-profile terrorist attacks on hotels, embassies and other targets to advance its agenda to become a power broker in a future political settlement. And, sometimes, the agenda of its patrons from Pakistan’s spy service, the ISI.

Last month, Afghanistan’s National Intelligence Directorate released recordings of phone calls intercepted during the June 28 attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. In the exchanges, Haqqani network leaders in Pakistan instruct their operatives in the hotel to shoot the locks off rooms, throw in grenades and make sure no one escapes. Later, as a fire blazes, the recordings capture the voice of Badruddin Haqqani, one of Jalaluddin’s sons.… More than a dozen people were killed in the attack, which American officials say they think was carried out with some ISI help.…

According to a senior American military official, cross-border attacks by the Haqqanis into Afghanistan have increased more than fivefold this year over the same period a year ago, and roadside bomb attacks are up 20 percent compared with last year. For years, American officials have urged Pakistan to move against the Haqqanis’ base of operations in North Waziristan. They typically are rebuffed by military and intelligence officials in Islamabad.…

As a result, the United States has fallen back on a familiar strategy: missiles fired from armed drones operated by the C.I.A. But because the Haqqani network’s leaders are thought to be hiding in populated towns like Miram Shah, where the C.I.A. is hesitant to carry out drone strikes, American officials said that the campaign has had only limited success against the group’s leadership.

A quarter-century ago, the Haqqani fighters were not the targets of C.I.A. missiles. They were the ones shooting C.I.A.-supplied missiles, the shoulder-fired Stingers that would devastate Soviet air power over Afghanistan. Jalaluddin Haqqani was in temporary alliance with the United States against its greater adversary, the Soviet Union, just as his network today is allied with a Pakistan that sees Afghanistan as a critical buffer against its greater adversary, India.…

On Feb. 19, 2009, the day before Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s new senior military commander, was due in Washington for his first meetings with the Obama administration, the American Embassy in Islamabad sent a classified cable to the State Department. American officials believed that General Kayani, Pakistan’s onetime spymaster, had for years overseen Pakistan’s covert support for militant groups like the Haqqani network, and the cable offered blunt advice about the coming talks. “The single biggest message Kayani should hear in Washington is that this support must end,” said the cable, written by Ambassador Anne W. Patterson.

In the 30 months since, few in Washington believe that Pakistan’s support of armed militia groups has diminished.…

The new urgency for a political settlement in Afghanistan has further limited Washington’s options for fighting the Haqqani network. During high-level discussions last year, Obama administration officials debated listing the group as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” which allows for some assets to be frozen and could dissuade donors from supporting the group. While some military commanders pushed for the designation, the administration ultimately decided that such a move might alienate the Haqqanis and drive them away from future negotiations.… But as Washington struggles to broker an endgame for the Afghan war, there is widespread doubt about whether the Haqqanis will negotiate, and whether their patrons in Islamabad will even let them.…

“Is there any formula for Pakistan to agree to stop supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan and instead help broker and be satisfied with a political settlement?” asked Karl W. Eikenberry, who served as both America’s top military commander in Afghanistan and its ambassador to the country. “We don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.


Daniel S. Markey

Foreign Policy, September 23, 2011

On Sept. 22, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified before Congress that the Haqqani network, the group that launched the Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, is a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. Public testimony has been matched by tough talk in private, including in meetings between CIA chief David Petraeus and ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha and between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterpart, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Washington is launching a full-court press to show that it will no longer sit idly by while terrorist groups, abetted by the ISI, kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan. Never before have we seen this sort of high-level, across-the-board pressure from the U.S. government. And never before have U.S. demands on Islamabad to get tough on the Haqqani network been coupled with what—at least implicitly—sound like threats of significantly expanded U.S. unilateral action inside Pakistan.

At surface level, these statements require no explanation at all. If Washington has ample evidence of ISI complicity, then how can it possibly look the other way, much less continue to provide assistance to the Pakistani government and military?

But the reality is that evidence of ISI support for Haqqani operations in Afghanistan is hardly new. Back in July 2008, Washington made similar claimsof Pakistani complicity when the Indian Embassy in Kabul was bombed. Since then, however, U.S. military and civilian aidto Pakistan has increased, in part reflecting American hopes that carrots, rather than sticks, will be more likely to shift Pakistan’s behavior.

In the past, Washington always tempered its criticism of Pakistan for fear that pushing too hard might break the relationship in ways that would cause more harm than good. U.S. officials have always known that the major supply lines for American forces in Afghanistan run through Pakistan’s ports, highways, and airspace.…

What has changed? There are probably two reasons behind Washington’s newly aggressive posture.

First, U.S. military leverage in the region is a diminishing asset. Washington can make threats now that will be less credible in a year or two. NATO force levels in Afghanistan are at their zenith, so if there is ever going to be a time for credible threats to expand the conflict into the Pakistani tribal areas where the Haqqani network is headquartered, it is now.

Second, Washington believes it has relatively little to lose in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan. To be sure, much is still at stake. Supply routes to Afghanistan and bilateral ties with a nuclear-armed state are nothing to sneeze at. But the calculation has to do with relative losses, not absolute ones. As U.S. officials peer into the future, they see little reason to expect that relations with Islamabad are likely to improve. Indeed, there’s precious little evidence to suggest that the trajectory of the U.S.-Pakistan relations will go anywhere but downhill. If there is already a realistic chance that this relationship will rupture and that the benefits of bilateral cooperation will eventually be lost, why not press Pakistan now while Washington still enjoys some positive leverage and before relations hit rock bottom?…

But Pakistan also has cards to play in its escalating bout with the United States.… Pakistan is likely to remind Washington that it controls the ground supply routes into Afghanistan, perhaps by halting or delaying entry or by allowing shipments to be destroyed. Both of these steps have been taken in the past. And it could get far, far worse than that. Pakistan could close its airspace to American overflights, end remaining military and intelligence cooperation, deny visas to U.S. officials, enable militant attacks on U.S. Embassy employees and facilities, and shoot down the U.S. drones that still fly over Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Would Washington be willing and able to respond to each of these steps? Perhaps; but it won’t be easy. The United States could take the costly step of shifting ground supply routes to Afghanistan to run through Russia and Central Asia, along the so-called Northern Distribution Network; negotiate new agreements for airborne shipments and personnel; substitute drones with less-discriminating, higher-flying bombers that can evade Pakistani air defenses; and launch commando raids into Pakistan supported by a surged conventional presence on Afghanistan’s eastern border.

These are ugly options. They could get even uglier. But this is now the reality, with Washington having taken such an aggressive, public stance against its erstwhile ally.… Faced with such terribly high stakes, the question now is which side will blink first, and when.


Barry Rubin
Pajamas Media, September 18, 2011

Is there any sponsor of anti-American terrorism in the Middle East that the Obama Administration hasn’t tried to sponsor?

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter told Radio Pakistan, September 17: “The attack that took place in Kabul a few days ago, that was the work of the Haqqani network.… There is evidence linking the Haqqani Network to the Pakistan government. This is something that must stop.”

Do you realize the significance of those two sentences? It goes something like this:

-The United States gives billions of dollars to the Pakistani government to fight terrorism.

-Instead, the Pakistani government doesn’t do that very much. Remember where Osama bin Ladin was hanging out without Pakistan’s regime doing anything?

-The Pakistani government gives money to al-Qaida and Taliban-linked terrorists—the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network and other terrorists sponsored by Pakistan murder hundreds of people in India. They also attack Americans.

-A week ago, the Haqqani Network attacked the U.S. Embassy with rocket-propelled grenades. It took the Pakistani military 20 hours to get them out of a nearby building.

-Thus, U.S. taxpayers are paying money to the Pakistani government to fight terrorists attacking America that the government then uses to help terrorists attack America.

Might this be a problem? Could this be a central example of the insanity of U.S. policy that also, for example, gives money to the Palestinian Authority which is allied to Hamas, a genocidal, anti-American group, and successfully pressed Israel to reduce sanctions so that the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip can flourish.

And Obama Administration policy was nice to Syria for 2.5 years, until it literally was forced to change that policy, despite the fact that Syria’s regime was giving money to kill Americans in Iraq. It also tried to be nice to Iran but Iranian intransigence and domestic pressure finally made it impose more sanctions.

The Obama Administration has also made the Turkish regime its favorite Middle East ally despite that government’s support for Hamas, Hizballah, and Turkish Islamist groups. It has even to some degree become the patron of the Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brotherhoods which are profoundly anti-American, pro-terrorist groups.

In ordinary times, this sort of thing would be a major scandal. Front-page media stories would daily skewer the Obama Administration for aiding, abetting, and financing major sponsors of terrorism. Academic experts would pour on scorn; members of Congress would demand investigations. Yet in this era nothing happens.

The U.S. ambassador, under instructions from Washington, stamps his foot and says that Pakistani government support for anti-American and murderous terrorism “must stop.” But it won’t stop. And the Obama Administration won’t do anything about it.…





Frederick W. Kagan
The Critical Threats Project Of The American Enterprise Institute, May 2011


Iraqis live in a tough region. Although none of their neighbours have been designing military forces specifically to target them, general tensions in the region and among Iran, Israel, and Western powers have led to the maintenance of regional conventional militaries that pose a significant threat to Iraq with its current armed forces, configured as they are exclusively for internal security missions. Those missions are made much more daunting by Iran’s continued support for—and use of—armed proxy groups to influence Iraqi decision making and pursue Iranian interests. Even the task of keeping sufficient pressure on al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni revanchist groups will strain the Iraqi military if it has little or no external support.…

[Accordingly], the Iraqi Security Forces will not be able to defend Iraq’s sovereignty, independence from Iran, and internal stability without American assistance, including some ground forces in Iraq, for a number of years. The negotiation of a security agreement extending the presence of US forces in Iraq beyond the end of 2011 is thus an urgent national security priority for the United States and Iraq.

Iranposes the most immediate and serious threat to Iraqi security. It has been using a mix of military force—weighted toward unconventional forces, to be sure, but including naval forces, riverine forces, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—inside Iraq since 2003. Iranian-directed military groups such as Kitaib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al Haq, and the Promised Day Brigades have maintained and even expanded their abilities to conduct very significant attacks in Iraq, including rocket and mortar attacks in Baghdad. Attacks at current or even somewhat higher levels do not pose an existential threat to the Iraqi state, but they will become increasingly intolerable as Iraqis continue to try to re-establish normalcy.… Left unchecked, this Iranian proxy warfare could reduce Iraq to a state of effective vassalage.…

Defending against such groups requires both defensive and high-end offensive capabilities, as well as effective police and border police (which Iraq does not have now).… Iraqis will also require the capability to strike quickly against these cells, using radar systems to detect the point of origin of the attacks, quick-response forces, and, ideally, air weapons teams (reconnaissance and attack helicopters, as well as UAVs) to strike back.… Preventing such attacks [also] requires the ability to gather, analyze, and act on intelligence very rapidly and precisely to kill or capture the key leaders, facilitators, and operators that compose these attack cells. Iraqi Special Operations Forces have some of these capabilities, but not all of them. They certainly do not have them in sufficient quantity to manage threats of this type without continued US assistance, and they will not have such independent capabilities by 2012. Nor have they developed necessary command-and-control structures or the cadre of leadership capable of planning and conducting complex counter-terrorism and counter–irregular warfare operations on their own.…

Current American combat capabilities in Iraq are thus an essential component to helping Iraqi Security Forces maintain freedom of movement in their own country and protect themselves from indirect fire attacks. The complete withdrawal of those capabilities would leave Iraq significantly more vulnerable to concerted efforts by Iranian-directed groups to increase their operations to pressure Iraqi leaders to make important decisions that favor Tehran—a technique Iran’s Qods Force commanders controlling these groups have relied on for years.

The conventional Iranian military threat to Iraq is somewhat harder to evaluate. It is less likely to be deployed, to be sure, particularly as long as Iranian leaders feel they can achieve their central interests in Iraq using the means outlined above. But conventional capabilities are never irrelevant to the planning of permanent military forces—or to the thinking of leaders, who have to consider what would happen should a conflict begin to escalate despite their desires to avoid escalation. Just as Iraq cannot truly be sovereign and independent if it cannot defeat foreign-sponsored proxy military groups in its own territory, neither can it be fully autonomous if its leaders know that opponents can escalate any conflict at their discretion to levels that ensure Iraqi defeat.

[For example], a rapid thrust by the Iranian 92nd Armored Division, supported by commandos and possibly airborne units, could cut Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf, including the oil pipelines through which Iraq exports the overwhelming majority of its oil. Even a temporary Iranian raid could do enormous damage to Iraq’s economy (and global oil markets) by destroying those pipelines and other key oil infrastructure in the area. The Iraqi military as currently configured could neither stop such an advance nor force the withdrawal of Iranian forces established on Iraqi territory.…

From the standpoint of regional stability, the likelihood of such a conflict is less important than the regional perception of the possible dangers. The Middle East is unstable enough already. It is desirable to avoid providing any additional reasons for states there to engage in arms races with one another. Fortunately, there is a way to provide Iraq with much better assurance of its survival without having Baghdad build a military large enough to scare its neighbors or waste resources better spent on improving the lives of its people.…

American air power and a relatively small US ground presence in southern Iraq would be enough to prevent any sort of lightning strike by Iran’s 92nd Armored Division to cut Iraq off from the sea. Iranian mechanized forces cannot advance, sustain themselves, or survive in the face of US air power, and they cannot overcome American mechanized forces backed with that air power, even with great numerical superiority. If the United States chose to prevent Iranian military formations from advancing into Iraq, and if it had the requisite air power present in the theater, it could unquestionably do so.…

From the US perspective, the advantages of providing such a guarantee are significant. It would dampen Iraqi enthusiasm for a costly and potentially destabilizing rearmament program. More importantly, it would deter serious Iranian adventurism in Iraq and help Baghdad resist Iranian pressure to conform to Tehran’s policies aimed at excluding the United States and its allies from a region of vital interest to the West. It would also significantly reduce the likelihood of escalation of border conflicts or political (or religious) differences between Tehran and Baghdad.…

The large political and emotional reasons for keeping some US military presence in Iraq are, perhaps, even more important. Refusing to station US forces in Iraq would be in itself a positive statement of American lack of interest in Iraq in the context of America’s relationships with its other critical allies. It would be an explicit rejection of a meaningful security partnership and a declaration to the world that the United States does not regard the defense of Iraq [as a vital strategic interest].…

The United States has one chance to persuade Iraqi leaders to choose an entirely new path for the defense of their country that does not destabilize the region. We should take it. So should the Iraqis. The cost of asking for and signing such an agreement will be high in Baghdad. Tehran has already demonstrated its intent to use force, at least by proxy, to bring all possible pressure to bear on the Iraqi leadership to prevent this outcome. Even without such overt external intervention, there would be opposition to such an agreement within Iraq. And we should be clear as well that Prime Minister Nuri Kemal al Maliki may himself be of two minds about extending the US military presence. He has shown increasing tendencies toward consolidating power in his own hands and re-forming a Kurd-Shia Arab alliance that largely excludes Iraq’s Sunni Arabs from real participation in government. The United States has been and will remain an obstacle to attempts to undermine the current political settlement in Iraq or to erode Iraq’s representative and balanced form of government.

These are all powerful factors that may well deter Maliki from requesting an extension of the American presence, particularly without active US engagement with many political leaders in Iraq and the region to address them. But Maliki and the Iraqi political leadership are now facing a stark choice, and they will signal to Tehran, their own people, and the world what kind of Iraq they really want by making—or failing to make—this decision.

If Maliki allows the United States to leave Iraq, he is effectively declaring his intent to fall in line with Tehran’s wishes, to subordinate Iraq’s foreign policy to the Persians, and, possibly, to consolidate his own power as a sort of modern Persian satrap in Baghdad. If Iraq’s leaders allow themselves to be daunted by fear of Maliki or Iran, they will be betraying their people, who have shed so much blood to establish a safe, independent, multiethnic, multisectarian, unitary Iraqi state with representative institutions of government.…

Much is at stake for the United States in this decision. Even more is at stake for Iraq. This decision will mark a fundamental bifurcation in Iraq’s future. Let us hope that Iraq’s leaders can surmount their fear in this case as they have in so many others. America’s leaders should stand with them rather than behind them as they make this difficult choice.

[Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar in defense and security policy studies and director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI. He is the author of the series of reports Choosing Victory (AEI),
which recommended and monitored the US military surge in Iraq.]


Daniel Pipes
WashingtonTimes, May 12, 2011


After American forces leave Iraq at the end of 2011, Tehran will try to turn its neighbor into a satrapy, i.e., a satellite state, to the great detriment of Western, moderate Arab, and Israeli interests.

Intense Iranian efforts are already underway, with Tehran sponsoring militias in Iraq and sending its own forces into Iraqi border areas. Baghdad responds with weakness, with its chief of staff proposing a regional pact with Iran and top politicians ordering attacks on the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK), an Iranian dissident organization with 3,400 members resident in Camp Ashraf, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. The MeK issue reveals Iraqi subservience to Iran with special clarity. Note some recent developments:

On April 7, the MeK released intelligence exposing Iran’s growing capacity to enrich uranium, a revelation the Iranian foreign minister quickly confirmed.

On April 8, even as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Iraq, the country’s armed forces attacked Ashraf. Fox News and CNN footage shows Iraqis in U.S.-supplied armored personnel carriers, Humvees, and bulldozers running down unarmed residents as sharpshooters shot at them, killing 34 people and injuring 325. The top secret plan-to-attack order of the Iraqi military, “Iraqi Security Forces Operation Order No. 21, Year 2011,” reveals how Baghdad sees the Ashraf residents as “the enemy,” suggesting collusion between Baghdad and Tehran.

This incident took place despite fresh pledges by Baghdad to treat the Iranian dissidents humanely and to protect them. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry rightly described the attack as a “massacre” while former governor Howard Dean called the Iraqi prime minister a “mass murderer.” The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights “condemned” the attack and the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) expressed “deep concern.”

On April 11, the advisor for military affairs to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i (according to a news report) “praised the Iraqi Army for its recent attack on the strongholds of [the MeK] and asked Baghdad to continue attacking the terrorist base until its destruction.”

On April 24, despite United Nations insistence that “Camp Ashraf residents be protected from forcible deportation, expulsion or repatriation,” Baghdad and Tehran signed an extradition agreement which state-controlled Iranian media interprets as a mechanism forcibly to transfer MeK members to Iran, where they anticipate a horrific fate.

Iraqi maltreatment of Iranian dissidents both raises humanitarian concerns and points to the MeK’s larger importance as a mechanism to thwart the U.S. goal of minimizing Tehran’s influence in Iraq.

That said, Washington—which granted “protected persons” status to the Ashraf residents in 2004 in exchange for their surrendering arms—bears partial responsibility for the attacks on Ashraf; in 1997, it threw a sop to Tehran and, contrary to both fact and law, wrongly listed (and continues to list) the MeK as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

Baghdadexploits this terrorist tag. For example, Congressman Brad Sherman (Democrat of California) reports that “in private discussions the Iraqi ambassador’s office has said the blood is not on the hands of the Iraqi government but is at least partially on the hands of the State Department because the MeK is listed as a terrorist group and accordingly, Iraq doesn’t feel that it has to respect the human rights of those in the camp.” The terrorist designation also offers Baghdad a pretext to expel Ashraf’s residents and possibly extradite them to Iran.

The U.S. Government should delist the MeK as a terrorist organization, following the wishes of a large bipartisan majority in Congress, of Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, and of prominent Republicans.… Now is the time urgently to act on Camp Ashraf—a bellwether of growing Iranian influence over Iraq—before Tehran turns Iraq into a satrapy.

(Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow
at the
Hoover Institution of Stanford University.)


Max Boot
Wall StreetJournal, May 9, 2011


Those who claim that we can disengage from Afghanistan now that the “emir” of al Qaeda is dead seem to assume the whole organization will disappear with him.… But it might not. Other terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah have survived the loss of their leaders.

Opponents of the war effort also argue that the Navy SEAL raid should be a model for the kind of counterterrorist approach we should adopt more generally, relying on pinpoint strikes rather than dispatching 100,000 ground troops to carry out a gruelling counterinsurgency campaign.

President Obama has repeatedly provided superficial support for this view by claiming that our “core goal” in Afghanistan is limited to “disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda.” No doubt he put the emphasis on al Qaeda because it is the terrorist group that most Americans worry about the most. But since 2001 it has never had more than a few dozen fighters at a time inside Afghanistan.

Of greater immediate concern are al Qaeda’s allies: the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), which among them deploy thousands of hardened terrorists. These groups, in turn, are part of a larger conglomeration of extremists based in Pakistan including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban), Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

All of these organizations share an eagerness to slaughter civilians and a desire to create a totalitarian regime modeled on Taliban-era Afghanistan. All are rabidly hostile to Westerners, Jews, Hindus, Shiites and anyone else who does not share their hard-core Salafist beliefs.

The major difference among them, at least so far, has been one of geographic focus. The Taliban, the Haqqani network and HiG want to seize power in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban aspires to rule in Islamabad. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are primarily focused on wresting Kashmir away from India, although there have been reports of the former’s network expanding into Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Only al Qaeda has a global focus—so far.

But whatever their tactical differences, these groups have established a mutually supportive relationship with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s founder, Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, said this week that “Osama bin Laden was a great person.” Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, was even more closely aligned with bin Laden. If the Taliban had repudiated al Qaeda after 9/11, they could have avoided a U.S. invasion. But they chose to go down with their Arab friends, and there has been no sign since of any serious fissure between them.

It is immaterial whether or not the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the others are currently targeting the American homeland. We cannot allow them to create a fundamentalist caliphate stretching from Kabul to Kashmir and beyond. Their takeover of Afghanistan—a first step toward this grandiose goal—would galvanize jihadists and could reverse the loss of momentum they have suffered because of the Arab Spring and bin Laden’s death. It would also provide greater impetus to topple the nuclear-armed Pakistan next door.

Islamists have already made dangerous inroads in Pakistan, as seen from the fact that Osama bin Laden was able to live in a military garrison town just 35 miles north of Islamabad. Having bases in Afghanistan is our best bet for projecting power into Pakistan—as the SEALs showed. But there is no way the government of Afghanistan would allow us to keep bases there if we stopped supporting it. If an American exit were imminent, Hamid Karzai and other politicians would rush to cut a deal with the Taliban to save their own necks.

That would mean that we would be reduced to the pre-9/11 status quo when we used ineffectual cruise-missile strikes to try to kill top terrorists. Successful Special Operations require a significant intelligence-gathering apparatus on the ground and close proximity to launch raids with little warning time. Our presence in Afghanistan gives us those advantages, without which we could not have carried off the bin Laden raid.

To prevent the fall of Afghanistan, we must do more than launch a few raids or air strikes. If not, the terrorists will be able to regenerate themselves. That’s what the Taliban, the Haqqanis and others did between 2001 and 2009—the years when we never had more than 30,000 troops on the ground. Only last fall did we finally surge to 100,000 American troops, along with 40,000 allied ones. For the first time, that gave us the capability to “clear, hold and build.” During my recent travels in Kandahar and Helmand, I saw coalition troops securing areas that only a few months before were Taliban strongholds.

But the gains achieved so far are tenuous and reversible. The Taliban are back on the offensive. It is vital to stick to the strategy NATO announced last fall of not putting Afghans in the lead until 2014. Moving too quickly to turn over control to unready forces can be disastrous—as shown by last month’s breakout of more than 400 Taliban fighters from Kandahar’s main prison.

If we give more time to Gen. David Petraeus and his successor, Gen. John Allen, they can strengthen Afghanistan enough—mainly by building up the indigenous security forces—to prevent a Taliban takeover or a ruinous civil war even after U.S. forces finally start drawing down. That, in turn, can help us to stabilize Pakistan: an outcome worth fighting for.

(Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.)