Are We Losing Afghanistan?
As the U.S. launches a new surge, the Taliban and al Qaeda are sensing victory in the second-longest war in American history. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel on what G-8 leaders—and Obama—must do at their summit this week to shift the momentum.
The jihadists smell victory in the war in South Asia. They know support for the Afghan war is dropping across the NATO alliance—war weariness is acute in Canada and Western Europe. At a conference in Venice last week, European experts talked of rising demands for bringing their troops home and polls showing support for the war dropping. In America, the “good war” has lost its luster and many now argue the mission is impossible in the “graveyard of empires.”
Omar and bin Laden calculate that if they can withstand Obama’s offensive this year, rising casualties will fuel frustration with the second longest war in American history.
When the G-8 leaders meet in Italy this month, they need to keep making clear the case for why the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan matters to their domestic constituencies. They must explain clearly and unequivocally what is at stake—why it matters that we not let the global jihad take over these countries and further expand their sanctuaries.
Last winter, while President Barack Obama’s national-security team was reviewing American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington, the Taliban's senior leadership was conducting its own strategy review in Quetta, Pakistan. The so-called Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, also known as the commander of the faithful, convened for several days in the capital of Baluchistan to prepare for the arrival of thousands of additional American troops in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan. Omar and his commanders anticipated a critical campaign this summer and fall that may determine the outcome of the almost eight-year-old war.
Al Qaeda’s senior commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, told Al Jazeera last month that the Taliban and al Qaeda have closely coordinated their strategy for fighting Obama’s offensive since then, including discussions with Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Yazid confidently predicted a jihadist victory in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. After that, armed with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, he said, the jihad would take on America around the world from its base in South Asia.
To underscore their intentions, a Taliban suicide bomber this month struck at a bus belonging to the Khan Research Labs in Rawalpindi, the military capital of Pakistan, and killed six people. KRL is the brainchild of A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb and the world’s most notorious proliferator of nuclear technology. As one Pakistani security official noted, “The attack was alarming because it targeted our prime nuclear facility.”
Omar and bin Laden calculate that if they can withstand Obama’s offensive this year, rising casualties will fuel frustration with the second-longest war in American history and produce more calls to downsize the mission and get our troops home. The Taliban and al Qaeda leadership know the battlefields in Helmand and Kandahar provinces are important but ultimately less important than the struggle inside the Crusaders’ own countries to sustain the war. Just as the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan when the leadership in Moscow lost faith in their war in the 1980s, so the jihadists calculate they only need to outlast America and NATO to win this war.
Washington needs to be clear with Pakistan that the Quetta Shura needs to be shut down permanently. For far too long, Pakistan has tolerated the Afghan Taliban leadership’s presence in Quetta and other parts of Pakistan. Now that Pakistan is finally taking action against its own Pakistani Taliban, it needs to take on Mullah Omar and his Shura council as well. This is not the time for half-measures.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. He chaired President Obama’s strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last winter and is author of The Search for al Qaeda.