In March, President Obama appointed a new general to develop a strategy to win in Afghanistan.
The commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, recently sent his recommendation to the president. Among other things, the plan would require the deployment of perhaps as many as 40,000 additional troops. The new strategy stresses counterinsurgency — taking and holding areas currently controlled by the Taliban, and gradually turning them over to the Afghan forces, similar to what was done in Iraq with Iraqi forces.
The decision to commit more troops is a difficult one and not to be taken lightly; but, as General McChrystal has said, time is not on our side. The longer the president waits to make a decision, the more risk we run that the new troops will arrive too late.
General McChrystal has recommended waging a counterinsurgency strategy against two insurgent groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani network. It differs from a more narrow counterterrorist strategy against al Qaeda alone.
General McChrystal ran our Special Forces operations in Iraq and is probably the person best equipped to judge what is most likely to work in Afghanistan. The key to his approach is an appreciation that it is impossible to contain al Qaeda if the Taliban is allowed to take over Afghanistan.
As military experts Frederick and Kimberly Kagan write in a recent edition of the Weekly Standard, “Defeating al Qaeda requires more than disrupting its leadership cells so that they cannot plan and conduct attacks in the United States. It also requires preventing al Qaeda from obtaining the capabilities it seeks to wage real war beyond terrorist strikes.”
To prevent al Qaeda from obtaining such capabilities, it is important to understand how the organization operates. It works in “close coordination with allies,” like the Taliban and the Haqqani network. According to the Kagans, these allies provide al Qaeda leaders “with shelter and food, with warning of impending attacks, with the means to move rapidly,” as well as “communications services [that] help al Qaeda’s leaders avoid creating electronic footprints that our forces use to track and target them.”
This alliance between al Qaeda and insurgent groups would make a pure counterterrorist strategy difficult. When al Qaeda terrorists can operate in a friendly population, it is harder to gather intelligence, which is critical for carrying out a strategy predicated on identifying and killing terrorist leaders. If the U.S. is going to defeat al Qaeda, we must also go after its allies.
“We should fight [the Taliban and the Haqqani network] because in practice they are integrally connected with al Qaeda,” the Kagans write. “Allowing the Taliban and the Haqqani network to expand their areas of control and influence would offer new opportunities to al Qaeda that its leaders appear determined to seize. It would relieve the pressure on al Qaeda, giving its operatives more scope to protect themselves while working to project power and influence around the world.”
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama stressed the necessity of finishing the job in Afghanistan and defeating al Qaeda. Now, he is commander-and-chief, and he can put his words into action.
I hope that he listens to General McChrystal, who has provided a clear path forward for achieving success against al Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan.
Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees. Visit his website at www.kyl.senate.gov or his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/senjonkyl.