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Scaling back in Afghanistan would jeopardise security of the US

By Lisa Curtis - posted Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A faulty Afghan election and decreasing American public support for the war in Afghanistan are leading President Obama to question his Administration's strategy for defeating the terrorist threat centred in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

American domestic politics and a complicated regional picture are apparently colouring President Obama's thinking on US strategy toward these two countries, potentially prompting him to scale back US goals in the region. That would be a mistake. While there is a need to carefully review and refine tactics and strategies, President Obama must shun the temptation to believe that the US can somehow defeat al-Qaida without preventing Afghanistan from being engulfed by the Taliban-led insurgency.

In his comprehensive assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, which was leaked to the US media earlier this week, US Commander General Stanley McChrystal lays out a strategy for moving forwards that would require the deployment of fresh US troops. This is not surprising. On several occasions, President Obama himself has pronounced that the war in Afghanistan has not received the appropriate resources - such as US leadership, troop levels, and financial commitments - necessary to achieve US objectives.


General McChrystal argues for increasing the focus on protecting the Afghan population from Taliban advances, a recommendation based in part on the recent American experience in Iraq, where General Petraeus's "people-centric" approach to counterinsurgency paid dividends and ultimately discredited al-Qaida and its harsh tactics. General McChrystal also makes the case that new US troop deployments must come quickly or the US risks facing a situation in which it will be impossible to defeat the Taliban insurgency.

Separating Taliban leadership from al-Qaida: an unrealistic goal

In a March 27 speech, President Obama was clear on the link between the Taliban and al-Qaida and the threat posed by al-Qaida to the governing regimes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He rightly said, "And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban - or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged - that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."

But his remarks on Afghanistan at last week's United Nations General Assembly reveal that he may be second-guessing US strategy in the region. While he repeated his commitment to not allowing al-Qaida to find sanctuary in Afghanistan or "any other nation" (i.e., Pakistan), he failed to mention the Taliban insurgency that is threatening to destabilise Afghanistan and the necessity of preventing such an outcome.

His apparent backtracking on Afghanistan can also be found in statements he made on this past Sunday's morning talk shows in which he openly questioned whether fighting the Taliban insurgency is necessary to stopping al-Qaida.

According to media reports, President Obama is considering implementing a plan supported by Vice President Joe Biden to scale back the American military presence in Afghanistan and focus on targeting al-Qaida cells primarily in western Pakistan. This strategy would be insufficient to curb the terrorist threat emanating from the region. Ceding territory to the Taliban in Afghanistan would embolden international terrorists in the region, including in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Over the last year US predator strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan have been effective at disrupting the al-Qaida leadership, and President Obama deserves credit for aggressively employing this tactic. However, the predator strikes in Pakistan must be accompanied by sustained US and NATO military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan.


The Taliban and al-Qaida have a symbiotic relationship, and they support each other's harsh Islamist, anti-West goals. It would be folly to think a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would be anything but a deadly international terrorist safe haven.

Success in Afghanistan requires that those Taliban who support international terrorists are not in a position to threaten the stability of the government. This will ultimately require a strong, well-equipped, and well-trained Afghan national army and police force. But this will take time.

In the meantime, the US must prevent the Taliban from regaining influence in Afghanistan, which requires increasing US troop levels. Success in Afghanistan does not require the complete elimination of anyone who has ever associated with the Taliban. But it does require that the Taliban leaders still allied with al-Qaida and supportive of its destructive global agenda do not have the ability to reassert power in Afghanistan.

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First published by The Heritage Foundation on September 24, 2009.

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About the Author

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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All articles by Lisa Curtis

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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