Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bin Laden, Afghanistan, and the new war on terror

US Dept. of Defense Central Command Responsibility Map

Prior to the bin Laden raid, Pakistani-U.S. relations were strained after an escalation in U.S. air strikes on Taliban strongholds along the Pakistani-Afghan border, in which Pakistani civilian casualties were not uncommon. In April, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashqaf Kayani ordered the U.S. to stop the use of drones and expel troops from the country. The U.S. was caught in a quagmire: On the one hand, the war Afghanistan could not be won without monitoring the Pakistani-Afghan border--as evidenced by the site of bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan is a sovereign country, whose goodwill and cooperation was essential to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan proper.

According to the UK Daily Mail, the bin Laden raid was directly preceded by a string of visits of US officials and senior generals to Pakistan to discuss growing tensions. One week prior to the raid, U.S. General David Petraeus and his Pakistani counterpart met in a heavily guarded airbase in Pakistan. After the meeting, the US embassy lauded the generals' relationship. Some say Petraeus informed Kayani of the raid, explaining why despite the anger and emberassment of Pakistani politicians, no military response against the U.S. has surfaced.

What did the U.S. and Pakistan have to gain from a bin Laden kill (or, for the skeptics out there--a bin Laden kill story)? On Thursday, Pakistan's army decided to reduce US troops in the country to the essential minimum. On Friday, the Pentagon offered that it was up to Pakistan whether US troops would remain there or not.

With the backdrop of growing unrest in the Arab world, the U.S. military is now strained on three fronts, none of which appear to lead to victory: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. The war in Afghanistan was launched to capture bin Laden and destory al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Bin Laden's gone, and much of al-Qaeda's infrastructure in Afghanistan has been long gone. In fact, many say the effect of the Afghan war has been none other than to relocate Al-Qaeda to Yemen.

The U.S. needs to free up its military resources -- personnel, technology and funds -- to deal with the Arab front. Libya may not be in the current interest of the American public, but it will become increasingly that the Arab street cannot solve its problems on its own, and that unchecked unrest will open the gates of Yemen's Al Qaeda camps to surrounding countries--and no American wants another 9/11. Yesterday in Syria, 36 protesters were killed. Today, tanks entered one Syrian town and cut off phone and electricity as punishment to demonstrators. According to Hilal Khasha, professor of political Science at American University in Beirut, “A collapse of the Syrian regime is a doomsday scenario for the entire Middle East.’’ Civil war in Syria could spread to Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and worse--and the U.S. knows it needs to influence the outcome.

After Libya, Obama and his aides learned the hard way how reluctant the American public and Congress are to start a third front. Future interventions could only be successful if one of the lingering fronts bore some fruit -- and what better fruit than Enemy of the State par excellence? The problem is, the war in Afghanistan may be an insurmountable challenge for U.S. ground troops, but it cannot be so easily abandoned. Days after the bin Laden raid, the Taliban carried out a coordinated attack involving six suicide bombers who took over an Afghani governor's office. Not quite the environment for the U.S. to slip out the back door.

However, that may be just what the U.S. has to do. Afghanistan and Pakistan will need to be monitored, but the question is whether U.S. troops are the ones to do the job. In an ideal U.S. world, Pakistan will cooperate with U.S. officials in counter-terrorism efforts, and NATO will clean up the post-bin Laden damage Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the U.S. can claim a victory in the war on terror, instill in the minds of Americans that wars are successful and necessary, and move on to far greater threats.

The U.S. needs to find the right balance between respecting Arab sovereignty and not alienating the moderate Arab public on the one hand, and soliciting Arab support in the war on terror on the other. The backroom conversations leading up to the bin Laden raid represent what may have been the first success of this new strategy. Let's hope that the U.S. finds the levelheaded generals and politicians westward to empower regimes who share an interest in squelching Iran and al-Qaeda. The moderate Arab world may not be Israel's best friend, but right now, they are their worst enemy's enemy.

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