He couldn’t name a single one.
In this tense campaign season, al-Qaeda is very much in the front of the Obama administration’s mind. In fact, administration officials can’t remind you often enough that Barack rubbed out Osama — which you may see as a no-brainer, but which, to hear them tell it, was actually the greatest single act of executive courage in half a millennium. Yet, when ABC’s Jake Tapper recently asked White House press secretary Jay Carney, “When’s the last time U.S. troops in Afghanistan killed anybody associated with al-Qaeda?” Obama’s mouthpiece went mum.
This was not a concession that the Afghan mission is pointless. It was a powerful indication that the Afghan mission has already been accomplished.
The Carney-Tapper exchange was worth bearing in mind while perusing the fanciful op-ed published in the Washington Post this week by Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham. The senators insist that we must stay the course in Afghanistan.
In advertising, the disclaimer always warns that “past performance does not guarantee future results.” From the senators’ perspective, let’s hope that’s true. Their last memorable joint op-ed, about how we could not allow Moammar Qaddafi “to consolidate his grip” on Libya, came hot on the heels of their joint support for U.S. aid that helped Qaddafi consolidate his grip on Libya. On that past performance, we’d expect to find the senators regaling us a year from now with another op-ed about how we suddenly need to “drop a bomb” on today’s favorite flavor, Hamid Karzai.
In Afghanistan, there are presently about 99,000 U.S. troops, the lion’s share of a 130,000-strong NATO contingent. Senators McCain, Lieberman, and Graham worry, for good reason, that American tolerance for that state of affairs has been exhausted by a series of atrocities that demonstrates Afghan contempt for the West. The senators gingerly describe these incidents as “examples of the few Afghan soldiers who despicably turned their weapons on Americans.”
Sorry, gentlemen: Quite apart from the murderous riots over accidental Koran burnings, American and coalition forces are the targets of an unrelenting assassination campaign by Afghan security forces. Michael Yon puts the number at 200 coalition members killed in nearly 50 documented incidents. That, moreover, does not count Mohammed Merah, the self-proclaimed al-Qaeda jihadist who killed seven people in Toulouse this week — after being sent back to France by U.S. forces who captured him in Afghanistan, where he’d naturally gone to hone his craft.
This is to be expected. Afghan “security” forces are rife with jihadists. Not just Taliban sympathizers, either: This is a fundamentalist-Islamic country, and its military and police would teem with Islamists even if there were no Taliban.
And about those security forces: The senators claim that “hundreds of thousands of Afghans fight every day as our faithful allies in a common battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” The inference is that you need to put the deadly sabotage against our troops in perspective, but it is the senators who have lost theirs.
There are only about 170,000 soldiers in the whole Afghan army — not “hundreds of thousands.” Even if you inflate their numbers by throwing in about 130,000 Afghan police, the picture the senators paint of hordes of “Afghan patriots” is hyperbole — especially when their performance is factored in. The security forces are said to be somewhat better than they once were, but drug use, absenteeism, and corruption are notoriously rampant — as is infiltration by Taliban and Haqqani forces, as well as a disturbing propensity to sell their weapons to the highest bidder when not pointing them at American soldiers. To mention the Afghans in the same sentence as our troops is absurd.
It is also part and parcel of a preposterous narrative. To listen to the senators is to think everything was just as placid as could be in and around the Hindu Kush until the Taliban came along, put out the welcome mat for al-Qaeda, and sent Afghanistan spiraling into civil war.
To the contrary, al-Qaeda was born in Afghanistan, during the pre-Taliban jihad against the Soviets. The nascent terrorist organization was nourished by powerful warlords like Gilbuddin Hekmatyar, who later became Afghan prime minister. Though a virulently anti-American Islamist, Hekmatyar got a sizable chunk of the $3 billion lavished on the mujahideen by the CIA (through our cut-out, the treacherous Pakistani intelligence service). Simultaneously, the Saudis matched that largesse, dollar-for-dollar, bankrolling up-and-comers like Osama bin Laden, who were summoning Muslims the world over to join the jihad.
When the humiliated Russians pulled out in 1989, so did the covert American operatives. What followed was years of anarchic, internecine barbarism — the default Afghan condition. The Taliban did not cause this infighting; they arose from it, in 1994. They are Islamic fundamentalists who prevailed because then, as now, they had very strong support, particularly among the dominant Pashtuns. They were also acclaimed by such widely respected figures as the Karzai family. “They were my buddies,” war correspondent Steve Coll recounts Hamid Karzai saying of the Taliban’s leaders. “They were good people.”
This is what Afghanistan is. We probably could not change that if we stuck around for a thankless century. That is not going to happen. According to Carney, President Obama thinks the “original objective” of our mission “should not have been to build a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan” — and since Obama is not exactly a fan of Jeffersonian democracy in America, I’m willing to take him at his word on that one. The mission in 2001 was to defeat al-Qaeda after we were attacked.
We did that. Carney was unable to say when we last killed an al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan — a problem he would not have with, say, Yemen, where without a single American soldier on the ground we’ve killed dozens in just the last few weeks. Furthermore, Obama’s spokesman did not dispute the assessment from two years ago by then–CIA director (and now defense secretary) Leon Panetta, that in all of Afghanistan, there are fewer than a hundred al-Qaeda operatives.
The senatorial trio talks about “our common [with the Afghans] battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” The administration, however, tells us al-Qaeda is gone and, “critically,” that “the Taliban is not per se our enemy,” to quote Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks (later reaffirmed by Carney on Obama’s behalf). No one is trying to vanquish the Taliban — our government’s modest goal is now a negotiated settlement in which the Taliban are reconciled with their erstwhile “buddy,” Karzai.
Even if the Taliban were our enemy, the strength of its militant forces is pegged at 20,000. The Taliban punches above its weight because it is sponsored by elements of the Pakistani government, and because a sizable percentage of Afghans either like the Taliban or are cowed by it. The latter problem is a function of the contempt bred in the population by increasing familiarity with Karzai. But it has also been exacerbated by the continuing presence of U.S. troops. Non-Muslim occupying forces are anathema under sharia — the Islamic law that the Taliban exemplifies and that rules Afghanistan, no small thanks to the new constitution the State Department helped write.
I’m confident that even the State Department, clueless as it can be, did not want a sharia constitution for Afghanistan. They abided one, just as they did in Iraq, because Islam — a word the senators do not mention in their thousand-word op-ed — is the central fact of Afghan life. The people would have accepted nothing less.
Is it any wonder that Islamists are vastly more popular than we are in Afghanistan? That is not going to change — which is why the Afghan army’s 9:1 numerical advantage over Taliban forces, even compounded by 130,000 coalition troops and another 130,000 Afghan national police, is unable to win the day, despite the prohibitively costly decade our troops have spent struggling to train them.
Before or after American forces leave, the Taliban — whether by negotiated settlement or brute force — may take over the country. Or, more likely, the Afghan civil war, which neither we nor the Taliban started, will simply continue. The Taliban and Haqqani will go on vying with Karzai’s regime, Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, and the rest of Afghanistan’s motley assortment of warlords and tribal rivals.
We do not need the Taliban to lose. We need those factions that capture territory to be deeply discouraged from inviting al-Qaeda to return, set up shop, and launch attacks against the United States. The senators are wrong to insist that this requires a continuing, weighty presence of American forces in a hostile place. We currently face this same challenge in several Islamic countries absent occupation by thousands of ground troops.
Can it really be that the United States — which with no ground forces helped defeat the Soviet empire in Afghanistan, and which with only 5,200 troops routed al-Qaeda there a decade ago — needs to have tens of thousands of forces in-country in order to intimidate a non-enemy into stiffing an enemy that has disappeared?
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.