Many opponents of the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq have always argued that this conflict is an irrelevant and even counterproductive sideshow to the real "war on terrorism" in Afghanistan. In fact, Barack Obama led the parade to initiate a troop surge in Afghanistan after having opposed it in Iraq. The more hawkish John McCain, not to be outdone by a weak-kneed Democrat, proposed that even more troops be sent to Afghanistan. In American politics after 9/11, it seems that candidates have to support some sort of war or they will be perceived as being too wimpy to get elected.
Only a small minority of foreign policy gadflies has doubted whether any war on terrorism is needed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Now a new report by RAND, the government’s own captive think tank, supports this small band of renegades. The study, "How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al-Qaeda," written by terrorism experts Seth Jones and Martin Libicki, followed more than 600 terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, over the long-term. The report concluded that the administration’s war on terrorism has not significantly degraded al-Qaeda and that the group has morphed into a more formidable enemy. In fact, al-Qaeda has perpetrated more attacks after September 11, 2001 than before it.
RAND deduced that the best way to kill a terrorist group is to capture or kill its leaders. This task is best carried out, according to the study, by law enforcement, intelligence, and, if needed, troops from the local country. Instead of giving terrorists the exalted status of warriors, they should be deemed criminals. In other words, the authors conclude that in most past cases in which terrorist groups have been defeated by getting their leaders, local law enforcement did the job. They say that when troops are needed, local troops have a better understanding of the culture and terrain and thus have more legitimacy than do U.S. forces. In fact, the study says that the presence of U.S. forces on Muslim soil can create more terrorists to fight; thus the authors argue that the U.S. military should confine itself to training the locals.
It is nice when government-paid researchers can provide empirical data to confirm what should have been obvious to any informed citizen years ago! After a major terrorist crime, such as the one on 9/11, the objective should be to get the perpetrators. The U.S. government should not militarily invade countries and try to change their form of government, economic system or money-making activities (for example, growing opium). This applies to both Afghanistan and Iraq.
It might be nice to have free market economies and democratic governments in these remote places, but it is a diversion from the main show: getting the terrorist leaders. The niggling fact is that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their merry band of followers are not likely to be in Afghanistan or Iraq, but in Pakistan.
So the United States must convince the local government in Pakistan to apprehend them. Right now, some in the Pakistani intelligence service, with close ties to Islamist militants in the Taliban, probably know where they are hiding. But as long as these outlaws are on the loose, the government of Pakistan pockets billions per year in U.S. military and economic aid. So the Pakistanis have no incentive to get the al-Qaeda leaders.
The United States should give up the losing nation-building distraction in Afghanistan (as well as in Iraq) and offer to withdraw NATO forces from that country, thus letting the resurgent Pashtun allies of Pakistani intelligence services–the Taliban–take over the eastern and southern parts of the Afghan landscape. Pakistan has long wanted influence in neighboring Afghanistan and wholeheartedly supported the Taliban rulers of that country before 9/11. In return, for increased influence in Afghanistan through its Taliban proxy, Pakistan would have to find the al-Qaeda leadership and turn it over to the United States. (If a stick is needed, the U.S. could threaten to cut off the billions in military and economic aid Pakistan receives if the Pakistanis do not produce the al-Qaeda chieftains.)
Although the Taliban were harsh rulers of Afghanistan, the U.S. has few other options to motivate the Pakistani government to fork over the al-Qaeda kingpins, which still threaten the U.S. homeland. As harsh as they are, the Taliban don’t so threaten the United States. The counterproductive war on terrorism must end and we must motivate the local Pakistani government to catch the criminals that are harbored in its midst.