It’s Not Just Al-Qaeda: Stability in the Most Dangerous Region

Neither President Barack Obama nor the Republicans competing to run against him are eager to talk about the war in Afghanistan. The electorate certainly doesn’t want to hear about it. Defense analysts are acting like it ended when Iraq did. Even more amazing is that most analysts and policymakers seem to believe that, one way or another, it doesn’t actually matter very much that it didn’t.

In fact, the war is only now entering its culminating phase, indicated by the willingness of both US and Taliban officials to talk openly about negotiations, something parties to a conflict do only when they see more benefit to stopping a war than continuing it. That means the war’s ultimate outcome is likely to be decided by the decisions, battles, and bargaining of the next year or so. And its outcome will have huge implications for the future of US national security. In turn, that means the collective decision to ignore the war and its consequences is foolish at best, dangerous at worst. While Americans have lost interest in the war, the war may still have an interest in America. Now is the time, more than ten years into the effort, to remind ourselves what is at stake in Afghanistan and why the United States must secure lasting stability in South Asia.

It was, of course, al-Qaeda’s attack on the US homeland that triggered the intervention in Afghanistan, but wars, once started, always involve broader considerations than those present at the firing of the first shot. The war in Afghanistan now affects all of America’s interests across South Asia: Pakistan’s stability and the security of its nuclear weapons, NATO’s credibility, relations with Iran and Russia, transnational drug-trafficking networks, and more. America leaves the job in Afghanistan unfinished at its peril.

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The chorus of voices in the Washington policy establishment calling for withdrawal is growing louder. In response to this pressure, President Obama has pledged to withdraw the surge of thirty thousand US troops by September 2012—faster than US military commanders have recommended—and fully transition leadership for the country’s security to the Afghans in 2013. These decisions mirror the anxieties of the electorate: fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed recently by the Pew Research Center said that the US should remove its troops as soon as possible.

But it is not too late for Obama (who, after all, campaigned in 2008 on the importance of Afghanistan, portraying it as “the good war” in comparison to Iraq) to reformulate US strategy and goals in South Asia and explain to the American people and the world why an ongoing commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan and the region, however unpopular, is nonetheless necessary.


The Afghanistan Study Group, a collection of scholars and former policymakers critical of the current intervention, argued in 2010 that al-Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan and is unlikely to return, even if Afghanistan reverts to chaos or Taliban rule. It argued that three things would have to happen for al-Qaeda to reestablish a safe haven and threaten the United States: “1) the Taliban must seize control of a substantial portion of the country, 2) Al Qaeda must relocate there in strength, and 3) it must build facilities in this new ‘safe haven’ that will allow it to plan and train more effectively than it can today.” Because all three are unlikely to happen, the Study Group argued, al-Qaeda almost certainly will not reestablish a presence in Afghanistan in a way that threatens US security.

In fact, none of those three steps are necessary for al-Qaeda to regain its safe haven and threaten America. The group could return to Afghanistan even if the Taliban do not take back control of the country. It could—and probably would—find safe haven there if Afghanistan relapsed into chaos or civil war. Militant groups, including al-Qaeda offshoots, have gravitated toward other failed states, like Somalia and Yemen, but Afghanistan remains especially tempting, given the network’s familiarity with the terrain and local connections. Nor does al-Qaeda, which was never numerically overwhelming, need to return to Afghanistan “in strength” to be a threat. Terrorist operations, including the attacks of 2001, are typically planned and carried out by very few people. Al-Qaeda’s resilience, therefore, means that stabilizing Afghanistan is, in fact, necessary even for the most basic US war aims. The international community should not withdraw until there is an Afghan government and Afghan security forces with the will and capacity to deny safe haven without international help.

Setting aside the possibility of al-Qaeda’s reemergence, the United States has other important interests in the region as well—notably preventing the Taliban from gaining enough power to destabilize neighboring Pakistan, which, for all its recent defiance, is officially a longstanding American ally. (It signed two mutual defense treaties with the United States in the 1950s, and President Bush designated it a major non-NATO ally in 2004.) State failure in Pakistan brokered by the Taliban could mean regional chaos and a possible loss of control of its nuclear weapons. Preventing such a catastrophe is clearly a vital national interest of the United States and cannot be accomplished with a few drones.

Alarmingly, Pakistan is edging toward civil war. A collection of militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Tehrik-e Nafaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi (TNSM), among others, are fighting an insurgency that has escalated dramatically since 2007 across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and Baluchistan. According to the Brookings Institution’s Pakistan Index, insurgents, militants, and terrorists now regularly launch more than one hundred and fifty attacks per month on Pakistani government, military, and infrastructure targets. In a so far feckless and ineffectual response, Pakistan has deployed nearly one hundred thousand regular army soldiers to its western provinces. At least three thousand soldiers have been killed in combat since 2007, as militants have been able to seize control of whole towns and districts. Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and militants—the distinction between them in these areas is not always clear—have been killed in daily terror and counterterror operations.

The two insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are linked. Defeating the Afghan Taliban would give the United States and Pakistan momentum in the fight against the Pakistani Taliban. A Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, on the other hand, will give new strength to the Pakistani insurgency, which would gain an ally in Kabul, safe haven to train and arm and from which to launch attacks into Pakistan, and a huge morale boost in seeing their compatriots win power in a neighboring country. Pakistan’s collapse or fall to the Taliban is (at present) unlikely, but the implications of that scenario are so dire that they cannot be ignored. Even short of a collapse, increasing chaos and instability in Pakistan could give cover for terrorists to increase the intensity and scope of their operations, perhaps even to achieve the cherished goal of stealing a nuclear weapon.


Although our war there has at times seemed remote, Afghanistan itself occupies crucial geography. Situated between Iran and Pakistan, bordering China, and within reach of Russia and India, it sits on a crossroads of Asia’s great powers. This is why it has, since the nineteenth century, been home to the so-called Great Game—in which the US should continue to be a player.

Two other players, Russia and Iran, are aggressive powers seeking to establish hegemony over their neighbors. Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons, has an elite military organization (the Quds Force) seeking to export its Islamic Revolution, and uses the terror group Hezbollah as a proxy to bully neighboring countries and threaten Israel. Russia under Vladimir Putin is seeking to reestablish its sphere of influence over its near abroad, in pursuit of which it (probably) cyber-attacked Estonia in 2007, invaded Georgia in 2008, and has continued efforts to subvert Ukraine.

Iran owned much of Afghan territory centuries ago, and continues to share a similar language, culture, and religion with much of the country. It maintains extensive ties with the Taliban, Afghan warlords, and opposition politicians who might replace the corrupt but Western-oriented Karzai government. Building a stable government in Kabul will be a small step in the larger campaign to limit Tehran’s influence.

Russia remains heavily involved in the Central Asian republics. It has worked to oust the United States from the air base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. It remains interested in the huge energy reserves in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Russia may be wary of significant involvement in Afghanistan proper, unwilling to repeat the Soviet Union’s epic blunder there. But a US withdrawal from Afghanistan followed by Kabul’s collapse would likely embolden Russia to assert its influence more aggressively elsewhere in Central Asia or Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine.

A US departure from Afghanistan will also continue to resonate for years to come in the strength and purpose of NATO. Every American president since Harry Truman has affirmed the centrality of the Atlantic Alliance to US national security. The war in Afghanistan under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Alliance’s first out-of-area operation in its sixty-year history, was going poorly until the US troop surge. Even with the limited success that followed, allies have complained that the burden in Afghanistan has been distributed unevenly. Some, like the British, Canadians, and Poles, are fighting a shooting war in Kandahar and Helmand, while others, like the Lithuanians and Germans, are doing peacekeeping in Ghor and Kunduz. The poor command and control—split between four regional centers—left decisionmaking slow and poorly coordinated for much of the war. ISAF’s strategy was only clarified in 2008 and 2009, when Generals David McKiernan and Stanley McChrystal finally developed a more coherent campaign plan with counterinsurgency-appropriate rules of engagement.

A bad end in Afghanistan could have dire consequences for the Atlantic Alliance, leaving the organization’s future, and especially its credibility as a deterrent to Russia, in question. It would not be irrational for a Russian observer of the war in Afghanistan to conclude that if NATO cannot make tough decisions, field effective fighting forces, or distribute burdens evenly, it cannot defend Europe. The United States and Europe must prevent that outcome by salvaging a credible result to its operations in Afghanistan—one that both persuades Russia that NATO is still a fighting alliance and preserves the organization as a pillar of US national security.

For some critics, organizing US grand strategy around the possible appearance of Russian tanks across the Fulda Gap is the perfect example of generals continuing to fight the last war. For them, the primary threat to US national security comes from terrorists, insurgency, state failure, ecological disaster, infectious pandemic disease, cyber attacks, transnational crime, piracy, and gangs.

But if that view of the world is right, it is all the more reason to remain engaged in Afghanistan, because it is the epicenter of the new, asymmetric, transnational threats to the US and allied national security. Even those who deny al-Qaeda could regain safe haven in Afghanistan cannot deny how much power, and capacity for damage, the drug lords have acquired there. In some years they have controlled wealth equivalent to fifty percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and produced in excess of ninety percent of the world’s heroin. Today, their products feed Europe’s endemic heroin problem, and the wealth this trade generates has done much to undermine nine years of work building a new and legitimate government in Kabul. In their quest for market share, the drug lords will expand wherever there is demand for their product or potential to grow a secure supply, almost certainly starting in Pakistan, where the trade was centered in the 1980s. Where the drug lords go, state failure, along with its accompanying chaos and asymmetric threats, will follow, as the violence and anarchy currently wracking parts of Mexico suggest. Imagine the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a failed narco-state with the profits funding the revival of al-Qaeda or its many terror offshoots.

South Asia’s narcotics-smuggling cartels are dangerously close to seizing control of an entire state and using it to undermine law, order, and stability across an entire region. The poppy and heroin kingpins are fabulously wealthy and powerful; they oppose US interests, weaken US allies, and are headquartered in Afghanistan. Defeating them is a vital interest of the United States.


The allied mission in Afghanistan also aims to encourage the growth of democracy. Some cringe at the very thought of democratization being a part of US foreign policy, so discredited is the idea, for some, by the Iraq War, by the enduring corruption of the Afghan government, and by neoconservatives’ supposed naïveté and arrogance in assuming that this part of the world would yield so easily to democratic reform. But fostering democracy is still a vital American national security interest. However daunting the experience of trying to grow democracy in hostile soil may be, it is nonetheless true that genuine democratic change brings stability. Democracies tend to ally and trade with each other; they see the world in similar ways, and settle disputes peacefully. Spreading democracy decreases the frequency of war, creates potential allies, widens zones of stability, and as a consequence makes America safer. This is why we dare not give up on democracy promotion in South Asia.

The process of transitioning to democracy is hard, time-consuming, and even risky—it can temporarily increase the chances of instability as the experience in Iraq, among other recent examples, has shown. The difficulties of democratization are particularly well dramatized by events in Afghanistan, which has held four elections in ten years that have not made the country stable or the government honest. Continued inefficiency and corruption has undermined Afghans’ confidence in the government—although not their belief in the idea of democracy—with predictable results on voter turnout.

There is nothing inevitable about democracy’s success, as neoconservatives appeared to believe after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Taliban, or the Baathist regime in Iraq. But there is also nothing inevitable about its failure, as realists have argued in the years since these events. Democracies require longer time lines than an electoral cycle or deployment timetable, and they require security and institutional capacity, not just elections.

Afghanistan will not become a model of democracy within the foreseeable future, thanks to persistent problems of insecurity, corruption, and poverty. But the opportunity for some form of rough democracy in Afghanistan is real. Polling consistently shows that Afghans welcome greater accountability and representation in their government. Their main complaint is not that Kabul is too democratic, but that it is not democratic enough, failing to follow the rules of democratic fair play. That gives the United States the opportunity to continue to encourage genuinely local efforts to build a new democracy through capacity building, technical assistance, and training programs. Given the choice between planting democratic seeds today and accepting a tyranny imposed by a minority, the United States should choose the former every time.

Finally, the United States should remain involved in Afghanistan to prevent the reemergence of a humanitarian catastrophe. If Kabul collapses, civil war will almost certainly erupt and, at bare minimum, the warlords will reestablish their brutal fiefdoms. During Afghanistan’s civil wars, from 1992 to 2001, warlords at the head of sectarian militias regularly committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, and the UN have well documented. The Taliban amassed a long record of massacring civilians and targeting the Hazara for ethnic cleansing, notably at Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, Robatak Pass in 2000, and Yakawlang in 2001. But their crimes were not unique; Ittihad-e-Islami, for example, was accused of ethnic cleansing against the Hazara during a battle in the West Kabul neighborhood of Afshar in 1993. And if the Taliban take power over part or all of Afghanistan, reprisal murders against supporters of the Karzai government, including perhaps whole tribes, are likely to be widespread and swift, especially against women and religious minorities.

The international doctrine “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) has been given a new lease on life through the UN’s surprisingly bold and energetic response to the civil war in Libya last year. It gives the international community the duty to intervene to stop genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, almost all of which are likely after a precipitous US withdrawal. Scholars will debate endlessly whether Libya really met the threshold for intervention, but Afghanistan after the intervention is over will be a much clearer case.


Stabilizing Afghanistan is the only policy option that will secure the full range of our interests in South Asia. There are no practical alternatives. Vice President Joseph Biden and a growing chorus of others believe the United States should give up rebuilding Afghanistan and, instead, engage in an indefinite worldwide assassination campaign against al-Qaeda’s senior leaders. The most obvious problem with such a plan is that the campaign it envisions would do nothing to address Pakistan, the drug trade, NATO, maliciously meddlesome neighbors, or any of our other potential problems across South Asia triggered by a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Biden plan is also morally troubling—it amounts to a declaration that the United States reserves the right to kill anyone it deems to be a terrorist, anywhere in the world, at any time in the indefinite future. That would be a dramatic expansion of unaccountable, unchecked government power.

Approached realistically, stabilization and reconstruction operations are not international charity. They are not a superfluous and dispensable exercise in appeasing Western guilt, an expensive tribute to humanitarianism, or an act of unvarnished selflessness and goodwill. In the context of Afghanistan, they are above all a pragmatic response to the potential catastrophe created by failed states that threaten regional stability and an exercise of hard power to protect vital national interests. They are the civilian side of counterinsurgency, the primary objective of which is to “foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government,” according to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual written by General David Petraeus.

Petraeus told Congress last March, when he was still commander of the ISAF in Afghanistan, “I am concerned that funding for our State Department and USAID partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform. Inadequate resourcing of our civilian partners could, in fact, jeopardize accomplishment of the overall mission.” The message could not have been more stark. The United States will lose the war in Afghanistan unless it makes stabilization and reconstruction the overall focus of the mission.

Petraeus was right to be alarmed about the funding levels for the civilians. They are the ones who are acting as embedded advisers to Afghan ministers; helping set up local dispute-resolution councils in provinces and districts; dispensing funds for Afghans to build roads, schools, and hospitals; training Afghans on electric power plant maintenance; and helping cut deals between rival Afghan politicians in Kabul. These things are, in fact, vital war aims because they help create stability not just in Afghanistan but in the entire region. Underfunding these efforts amounts to trying to kill one’s way out of an insurgency, which never works. Obama should ensure that the pace and timing of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan does not endanger ongoing efforts to secure the peace through effective reconstruction and stabilization.


Advocates of immediate withdrawal, including the Afghanistan Study Group, believe the war in Afghanistan is failing and is thus doing more harm than good for America. Balancing against Russia and Iran might be a worthy goal in their view, but in that regard our military campaign actually makes us weaker, not stronger, by draining our resources and eroding our credibility. Stability in Pakistan is also important, but our military presence in Afghanistan is part of the problem, not the solution, because stationing a huge army in South Asia has provoked the very insurgency the United States is trying to suppress. Democracy is a good thing, but attempting to plant it in a poor, non-Western country is ineffective at best, and utopian and hubristic at worst.

The pessimism of this brand of realism is shortsighted. America’s interests are not always best understood narrowly as our immediate economic and military needs, secured through short-term, transactional bargains with other wary powers. Sometimes interests are better framed as longer-term aspirations, toward which policymakers work diligently even if the path ahead is not always clear. Such was the attitude animating US containment policy during the Cold War, when no rational policymaker could have foreseen or planned the fall of the Soviet Union, but we nonetheless were nearly unanimous year after year in the view that Soviet expansionism threatened the United States and must be opposed.

The path toward stability in South Asia is similarly difficult. What is clear are very real interests that the United States has in the region and the ultimate payoff for persevering in a difficult commitment.

Paul D. Miller served as director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Bush and Obama. He is an assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University and director for the Afghanistan-Pakistan program at the College of International Security Affairs. The views expressed are his own.

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