Intelligence professionals get it. But the general public does not. The image is out there of terrorists in djellabas negotiating fences in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. This was in the good old days, before 9/11. Such, the pensée unique goes, is what would happen if the Taliban took over in Afghanistan again and brought al-Qaeda back.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen was quoted in the New York Times on December 2 as saying, "There is no direct impact on stopping terrorists around the world because we are or are not in Afghanistan." Rolf knows whereof he speaks: a graduate of West Point, a former CIA Chief in Moscow and lately chief of intelligence at the Department of Energy, he is now the reigning guru on nuclear terrorism. The article goes on to state that, "Mr. Mowatt-Larssen, now at Harvard, argued [...] that a safe haven can be moved to many different states, and the bigger threat exists in cells, including in Europe and the United States." In other words, al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorists don't need Afghanistan to carry out terrorist operations. These can be mounted from anywhere or anyplace, from Yemen to Somalia, to Hamburg or to ... Detroit.
In carefully chosen but tortuous formulations, President Obama, almost subliminally, got across the notion that the Taliban are different from al-Qaeda, in his speech at West Point:
I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda...We must keep up the pressure on al Qaeda...Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and to its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.
In other words, al-Qaeda are the real bad guys, whereas there may be some good guys among the Taliban. Then, one may ask, since al-Qaeda's terrorists, numbering in the hundreds, are now in a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas, why are we sending thousands more combat troops into ... Afghanistan!
In his speech at West Point, President Obama recognized the protean nature of the al Qaeda threat: "Where al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold - whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere - they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships."
Yet the President, in ordering 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, in addition to the 21,000 he sent last spring, aligned himself not only with his pre-campaign rhetoric about a "necessary war," but also with the sway that the military has established within American society. At least he did allow himself an out, which is quite unaligned with military doctrine: "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."
It was, indeed, a tortuous exercise for a tortured President.
Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. It was from this Division that the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan were run. He is currently an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.