Are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan making U.S. enemies weaker?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "America at War" by Peter Katel, July 23, 2010

From the very beginning of the post-Sept. 11 wartime period, U.S. officials were warning that the conflicts wouldn't end with the equivalent of the definitive enemy surrenders that halted World War II.

Instead, the key sign would be the elimination of terrorist sanctuaries, where Al Qaeda and like-minded organizations can plan, train and coordinate. Today, the key sanctuary is the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. That zone is the “locus of the heartland of Al Qaeda,” Defense Undersecretary for Policy Flournoy told the House Armed Services Committee in May. [Footnote 30]

And Al Qaeda in some ways is more dangerous today, said Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, a government agency established in 2004 that reports to the president. He said the organization showed its capabilities in the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant to the United States, who pleaded guilty in February to terrorism charges centered on a plan to explode a bomb in the New York subway system.[Footnote 31] “There has been a diversification of the threat and a move towards simpler, smaller efforts to attack the United States,” Leiter said, “which don't have quite the same level of threat in terms of the damage it might cause, but in the multiplicity of the threats I think it is more challenging today.”[Footnote 32]

But with half its leaders killed, “Al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker today than it has been since 2001,” Leiter told a conference at the Aspen Institute think tank in Colorado. “Now, weaker doesn't mean harmless … It is still a meaningful and dangerous force.”[Footnote 33]

Opponents of the Afghan war say conditions in the jihadist heartland show the failure of the effort to destroy Al Qaeda in war, as opposed to more precisely targeted law-enforcement and military operations. “We ourselves, for domestic political reasons, make things worse and not better by turning these mass murderers into warriors,” says Andrews of Win Without War. “Framing this as a war and elevating them to warriors fighting for a cause, we strengthen them. We need to revisit whether this approach makes sense — the facts show very clearly that it doesn't.”

A smarter, more effective response to the Sept. 11 attacks would have been to “use tools that actually work — surgical operations where you go after these guys,” Andrews says. “That does not mean invading and having a massive military footprint in a country.”

But a senior U.S. security official with long experience both in Iraq and Afghanistan argues that the long military campaign has weakened the United States' enemies. “The risk of a 9/11-type event has clearly gone down,” the official says, speaking on condition he not be named. “They've not been able to pull off something like that. The pressure we've put on their networks, and the leadership targeting, is important.” To be sure, he acknowledges, much of that pressure and targeting is taking place in Pakistan, where U.S. troops are not waging war.

Nevertheless, he says, “What takes Afghanistan from an important national interest to a vital national interest is that, if we did not surge in Afghanistan, you would see the Pakistanis cutting a lot more deals” with jihadists. “The resources we are investing in Afghanistan have helped us make the case to them that we are doing our part.”

But other experts argue that the war — along with drone strikes on Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan — is hurting more than it's helping. “The presence and operations of the U.S. in the theater … because they are misperceived in terms of their nature and purpose, has continued to be a stimulus to radicalism including radicalism that takes the form of terrorism,” Paul Pillar, a former career CIA specialist in the region, said in June at a Washington conference held by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).[Footnote 34]

The U.S. military deployment has also prompted non-radicals to join the fight against the Americans and their allies, said Pillar, now the graduate studies director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies in Washington “This has been reflected … in the continued taking up of arms by many Afghans who have no sympathy whatsoever for the extreme political and social views of the Taliban but see themselves as waging an anti-occupation struggle.”[Footnote 35]
The Issues:
* Can the United States meet the troop drawdown start date in Afghanistan?
* Should immediate negotiations with the Taliban be the top U.S. priority?
* Are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan making U.S. enemies weaker?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "America at War" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF


[30] ”House Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on Developments in Afghanistan,” CQ Congressional Transcripts, May 5, 2010.

[31] A.G. Sulzberger and William K. Rashbaum, “Guilty Plea Made in Plot to Bomb New York Subway,” The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2010.

[32] “Terror Threat From Abroad,” Aspen Institute, C-SPAN, June 30, 2010 (Web video).

[33] Ibid.

[34] “Beyond Afghanistan: America's Enduring Interests in Central and South Asia,” Center for a New American Security, June 10, 2010, transcript.

[35] Ibid.