Change in Priorities, Change in Course?
The New York Times recently reported that President Obama was presented with an alternative strategy for Afghanistan which would require considerably fewer troops than General McChrystal is currently requesting. Rather than treating both as an integrated problem, some senior administration officials are proposing that U.S. troops ease prosecution of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to focus on Qaeda elements in Pakistan. The premise of this strategy assumes that the Taliban would not provide safe havens to al Qaeda should they return to power in Afghanistan and that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would pose no direct threat to the United States. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have opposed this line of thinking, warning that any territory controlled by the Taliban will potentially become a staging ground for al Qaeda.
Ironically, Gates and Clinton are revitalizing an argument that Tony Blair made in 2005. Blair cautioned against placing any faith in the discord between terrorist organizations and rogue states because their mutual enmity towards the United States was more powerful. The fact that senior officials are seriously considering this option signifies that the United States has realized it must lower its expectations if it ever expects to see success. If the Taliban truly is an insurgent organization more interested in territorial control than the ideological aims of al Qaeda, what will prevent the Taliban from resorting to Qaeda elements to help them expel American forces? The United States has already seen radical nationalist elements in Iraq fuse with Qaeda insurgents to conduct operations against allied forces despite their conflicting aims.
The probable result of this strategy will be allowing the Taliban to control at least part of the country. In order to prevent cooperation between Qaeda elements and Taliban forces, the United States will be forced to cooperate on some level with the Taliban, therefore legitimizing their regime, even if only in a de facto sense. This would render the invasion of Afghanistan superfluous. If we are now willing to permit the Taliban to rule certain areas of Afghanistan so that we can better prosecute al Qaeda, we could have achieved this with a few missile strikes and strong-arm diplomacy in 2001. We decided then that any enemy that was willing to facilitate a strike against the United States and harbor those responsible needed to be eliminated. To reverse course now would place the entire allied presence in an untenable situation, something that the United States can ill-afford to do.