Fighting IslamistsAfghanis and Pakistanis both dislike the term “AfPak.” But the fact is the two nations now constitute a single front — the most “kinetic” front — in the global war being waged by militant Islamists.
By: Clifford May, The Dickinson Press
Afghanis and Pakistanis both dislike the term “AfPak.” But the fact is the two nations now constitute a single front — the most “kinetic” front — in the global war being waged by militant Islamists.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama emphasized his opposition to the conflict in Iraq but was adamant about the need to prevail in Afghanistan. And this month, American Marines launched Operation Khanjar (Thrust of the Sword), Obama’s own “surge“ of troops into Helmand Province where, over the past two years, the Taliban has been regrouping and regaining power. The White House has pushed the Pakistani government to challenge the Islamist insurgents on its territory as well.
The goal is straightforward: To “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” both the Taliban and al-Qaida in their southern Asian strongholds. But the means to those ends are deceptively complicated, as was made clear at a recent “experts workshop” on the “AfPak Theater” organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the policy institute I head.
The Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s and promptly gave safe haven to al-Qaida. From its headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar, al-Qaida plotted — and then celebrated — the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001.
In response, the United States toppled the regime. But the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and al-Qaida’s leader, the Saudi multimillionaire, Osama bin Laden, escaped across the border into northwestern Pakistan, an area so wild Pakistanis sometimes describe it as “Jungle-stan.”
Over the years since, the United States and its NATO allies have attempted to bring security and stability to Afghanistan with limited success. During this same period, both al-Qaida and the Taliban have expanded their operational bases in Pakistan. In 2008, the Taliban moved into the Swat valley, just a short march north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
President Obama is no advocate of “nation building.” But he appears to recognize that unless we leave behind in Afghanistan a government that can provide for its self-defense and maintain the support of the population, new Taliban fighters will emerge — and they will slaughter those who cast their lot with us.
And even if Afghanistan were to be transformed into Costa Rica, it would count for little should militant Islamists take over nuclear-armed Pakistan. An al-Qaida statement, issued last month, read: “God willing, the nuclear weapons (in Pakistan) will not fall into the hands of the Americans, and the Mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans.”
The emir of the Taliban in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, believed to be responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has ambitions that go beyond Pakistan’s borders. “We want to eradicate Britain and America, and to shatter the arrogance and tyranny of the infidels,” he has said. “We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York and London.” Just bluster? That was the view of many analysts in the 1990s when Osama bin Laden was making similar threats.
The U.S. military can do only so much to support Pakistan’s moderates. But the CIA’s use of Predator drones apparently has been effective, with at least eight major al-Qaida leaders recently eliminated.
Bin Laden was not wrong when he said people prefer a strong horse to a weak horse. Al-Qaida in Iraq was defeated only after Iraqis became convinced that America’s military was “the strongest tribe,” and would not abandon them.
If the AfPak Theater reinforces this perception of the United States., it will be a victory. If not, it will be a defeat. By the same token, America’s efforts in the global war will be advanced if, on this front as in Iraq, militant Islamism is shown to be a dead end — in both the figurative and the literal senses. Only then will Afghanistan and Pakistan have a chance to evolve into the independent and successful nation states so many of their citizens would like them to be.
— May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a
policy institute focusing on terrorism.