Al-Qaeda has staged a remarkable comeback in Iraq in the last year. Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones has called it “al-Qaeda’s renaissance.” This year, most if not all American forces and those of our allies in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will finally come home from Afghanistan. Will al-Qaeda have another renaissance in South Asia?
There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq before 9/11—the terror organization moved into Iraq only when Osama bin Laden saw George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were getting ready to invade Iraq in 2003. He set a trap. By 2006 Al-Qaeda in Iraq had plunged the country into civil war, pitting Shia against Sunni. Only the brave efforts of American Marines and GIs prevented the complete collapse of the state. Now al-Qaeda has come back in Iraq, raising its black flag over territory once fought over so hard by Americans.
Can the same tragedy be repeated in Afghanistan and Pakistan? The longest war in American history will largely end for Americans this year. It will not end for Afghans or Pakistanis. Pakistan will continue to be the principal supporter and patron of the Afghan Taliban, the enemy that we have been fighting for so long. Pakistan provides the Taliban with safe haven and sanctuary to train and recruit its fighters and protects its leaders, including Mullah Omar. The Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, helps train and fund the Taliban.
Al-Qaeda may well recover in months, not years, after we depart Afghanistan if the pressure on its base in Pakistan dwindles.
For the last few years America has also fought a second war from Afghanistan, the counter-terrorist war inside Pakistan. Al-Qaeda found a new base in Pakistan after we toppled Mullah Omar’s Afghan emirate in 2001. The highlight of this second covert war was the SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. More frequent have been drone missions to disrupt al-Qaeda operations in Pakistan: By one count, 340 lethal missions since President Obama took office, and more than two dozen just last year.
Once American forces are gone from Afghanistan the drone war will be more difficult to prosecute. If we reach an agreement with President Karzai on signing the bilateral security agreement already negotiated, a residual U.S. counter-terrorism capability can remain in Afghanistan. If there is no bilateral security agreement, it will be much harder if not impossible to conduct counter-terror missions inside Pakistan. Kabul simply won’t allow it.
Raids like the one on Abbottabad, for example, will be much more difficult to conduct without bases in Afghanistan. Instead of a short flight from a base in Afghanistan, they will need to be flown from carrier battle groups hundreds of miles away in the Arabian Sea. In all likelihood, the Abbottabad raid would have failed had it been flown from the Arabian Sea just like the Iranian hostage rescue mission failed in 1980. Too far to fly.
Once American pressure on al-Qaeda in Pakistan subsides, we should expect its regeneration will be fast given the huge jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan and the ISI’s incompetence and/or collusion with the jihadists. Al-Qaeda’s Pakistani allies like Lashkar e Tayyiba, the Pakistan Taliban and others will gladly help al-Qaeda recover, especially when the danger of a drone strike is much reduced.
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is likely to be even less vigorous in fighting al-Qaeda than his predecessor Asif Zardari. Zardari did see al-Qaeda as a threat; he knows it helped to kill his wife, Benazir Bhutto. During Sharif’s previous two terms in office in the 1990s, the jihadist Frankenstein in Pakistan blossomed. Despite repeated requests from President Bill Clinton between 1997 and 1999, Sharif took no action to apprehend bin Laden, attack his infrastructure in Pakistan and Afghanistan or to pressure the Taliban and Mullah Omar to control him or extradite him to Saudi Arabia. During Sharif’s election campaign in 2013, his party’s rallies and candidates were never attacked by the Taliban or other jihadists while those of the other parties were under constant fire and attack.
So al-Qaeda may well recover in months, not years, after we depart Afghanistan if the pressure on its base in Pakistan dwindles. But that is not an argument to stay in Afghanistan with thousands of troops. Obama has done what can be done to help the Afghans defend themselves against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. After seven years of shameful neglect by his predecessor, Afghanistan has gotten from Obama the support and time needed to build up its own security forces to fight the Taliban without NATO boots on the ground. If the Afghan army cannot handle the Taliban now with important but limited American help, it never will be able to do so.
It is an argument for working with Kabul to keep a robust U.S. counter-terrorist capability in Afghanistan after 2014 to deal with threats both on Afghan territory and from safe havens like Abbottabad across the border for the foreseeable future. Over the longer term America will need a more realistic and tough policy toward Pakistan. We should continue to engage the government and the army seriously but with much reduced expectations. We should help those Pakistanis who are ready to fight extremism but not expect miracles. As former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Hussain Haqqani has written, it is time to put aside our “magnificent delusions” about Pakistani-American partnership for good. We will need to protect our own interests there with or without their help. Only that will prevent another al-Qaeda renaissance in the most dangerous country in the world, Pakistan.