The South Asia Channel

How Realistic is Walt’s Realism?

By Peter Bergen

Stephen M. Walt, fellow Foreign Policy blogger and professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and the co-author of the influential 2007 book The Israel Lobby has turned his sights on the Obama administration's strategic justification for the ramped-up American efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In a recent post for Foreign Policy Walt takes to task President Obama's assertion at an appearance before the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Monday that, "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."

As Walt points out, "This is a significant statement. In effect, the president was acknowledging that the only strategic rationale for an increased commitment in Afghanistan is the fear that if the Taliban isn't defeated in Afghanistan, they will eventually allow al Qaeda to re-establish itself there, which would then enable it to mount increasingly threatening attacks on the United States." 

Professor Walt has six objections to Obama's strategic rationale for the Afghan war effort that you can read in more detail, which I will summarize.

First, we should not lump all jihadists in South Asia together; only some want to attack American targets.

Second, that if, in the unlikely event, the Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan it's not clear that they would continue to give al Qaeda a safe haven there.

Third, anyway Afghanistan is hardly an ideal place from which to launch attacks against the United States.

Fourth, that if the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan the U.S. would still be able to take out any jihadist training camps based there.

Fifth, an expanding American presence in Afghanistan will only feed recruitment to groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Finally, Walt suggests that "one might also take comfort from the Soviet experience. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the mujahidin didn't "follow them home." Were the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban to regain power (or end up sharing power, which is more likely), going after the United States won't even be on their ‘to do' list."

All of these objections to Obama's "Af-Pak" strategy are seriously flawed.

First, while it's true that there are many jihadist groups in South Asia with differing goals; increasingly these groups have defined themselves by their anti-Western agendas. The Taliban were a quite provincial group before 9/11 but since then they have adopted al Qaeda's world view and tactics and see themselves as part of a supposedly global jihadist movement. The late and unlamented leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, for instance, dispatched suicide bombers to Barcelona in January 2008, according to Spanish prosecutors.

And nearly a year later the Kashmiri militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba launched attacks in Mumbai, specifically targeting Westerners and a Jewish-American religious center there. Taliban suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted U.S. soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan and American diplomats and commercial interests in Pakistan.

Second, if the Taliban did come back to power in Afghanistan, of course they would give safe haven to al Qaeda. Despite all the pressures military and otherwise exerted on them over the past decade, giving safe haven to al Qaeda has been at the heart of the Taliban project; first in the five years before 9/11 when they ran Afghanistan, and since then in the areas of Pakistan's tribal regions that they now control.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar was prepared to lose everything on the point of principle that he would not give up Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. And he did lose everything: after 9/11, the Taliban were swiftly removed from power by U.S. forces. This does not suggest a Kissingerian talent for realpolitik. Professor Walt may be a foreign policy realist, but that doesn't make Mullah Omar one also.

Third, the idea that Afghanistan is not an ideal place from which to launch anti-American attacks is simply absurd. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the first attack by Islamist terrorists against the United States, was led by Ramzi Yousef who trained in the Sadda training camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed more than 200 were coordinated and carried out by men who had trained in Afghanistan, as was the attack on the USS Cole two years later.

And while, as Walt points out, elements of the 9/11 plot were coordinated in Hamburg -- where three of the pilots had lived in the run-up to the attacks -- the idea of attacking iconic targets in Washington and New York was first hatched in Afghanistan in 1996; the coordination of the attacks took place in Afghanistan over the next several years; the pilots were given their specific orders about target selection and their duties by the leaders of al Qaeda when they travelled to Afghanistan in 1999, and all 15 of the ‘muscle' hijackers passed through al Qaeda's Afghan training camps.

And after the fall of the Taliban when al Qaeda was forced out of Afghanistan into the neighboring tribal regions of Pakistan -- where they were then given shelter by the Pakistani Taliban -- al Qaeda coordinated from there the largest terrorist attack in British history -- the four suicide bombings on London's transportation system on July 7, 2005 that killed 52 commuters.

Fourth: yes, if the Taliban did take over Afghanistan the United States would still be able to attack jihadist training camps there, but is Professor Walt suggesting that somehow a Taliban takeover really helps American interests simply because the U.S. could then rely on drone attacks and other measures to take out jihadist training camps there?

Fifth, Walt invokes a version of the hoary ‘antibody' argument that the more American troops there are in Afghanistan the more they will be treated like a foreign bacillus and so help the Taliban to recruit and the like. Since 2005 BBC/ABC News have conducted yearly polls around the country that test this proposition and have found it wanting.

Four years after the fall of the Taliban, eight out of ten Afghans expressed in the BBC/ABC poll a favorable opinion of the United States, and the same number supported foreign soldiers in their country. Today 63 % of Afghans continue to approve of the international forces in their country. And around half have a favorable view the U.S.; in the Muslim world only the Lebanese have a more rosy view of America.

Walt saves one of his flimsiest arguments for last arguing that because the mujahideen did not attack Russia after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 that once the Taliban are in power that attacking America won't be on their "to do list." But as we have seen, when the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan their al Qaeda allies launched a multitude of attacks on American targets.

And, similarly, after 9/11 when the Taliban was hosting al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas the group planned the 2006 ‘planes' operation; a scheme to bring down seven American and Canadian airliners with liquid explosives after they had departed from Heathrow. Luckily the plot was discovered but if it had gone through the attacks would have killed as many as 1,500 civilians.

The implication of Walt's objection to the ramped-up Obama strategy in Afghanistan is that the U.S. should either do less in Afghanistan, or even just get out altogether. But America has already gone down this road. Twice. In 1989 the U.S. closed its embassy in Kabul and then effectively zeroed out aid to one of the poorest countries in the world; meanwhile Afghanistan was racked by a civil war, which spawned the Taliban who then gave safe haven to al Qaeda.

Then in the winter of 2001 the Bush administration overthrew the Taliban, and because of its aversion to nation-building rebuilt the country on the cheap and quickly got distracted by the war in Iraq. Into the resulting vacuum stepped a resurgent Taliban. This time the movement of religious warriors was much more closely aligned with al Qaeda.

So the U.S. has already tried the Do Nothing approach and the Do It Light approach in Afghanistan, the results of which are well known. The Obama administration is now attempting a Do It Seriously approach, which has a real chance of success.

For an expanded version of some of these arguments here is a piece I did for the Washington Monthly last month.

Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

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