The failed bombing of a Detroit-bound airplane by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has raised a ton of questions - from what holes there are in airline security, to how he wasn't picked up before on suspicion of terrorist activity. But, to me and the forces in or heading to Afghanistan, one of the most pressing questions is why we're sending nearly every Marine and Soldier we have to Afghanistan, when Abdulmutallab and a Somali man arrested for plotting a similar attack last month apparently had no real connection to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Indeed, as now has been widely reported, Abdulmutallab received materials and training in Yemen, a largely lawless, poor country just south of Saudi Arabia. The Somali man, picked up in Mogadishu, seems to have been wearing a similar device as Abdulmutallab, suggesting he received his materials and training from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well.
Yes, the United States has done some right things to address the threat from this region - sending over $40 million in aid to Yemen last year to fight the squalid conditions in which many Yemenis live, and contributes to an atmosphere that breeds terror, and nearly $70 million in counter-terror funds, to help the government directly combat al-Qaeda. Those funds are expected to increase this year, as well they should.
Clearly, however, money is not enough. It's not enough to fight al-Qaeda in Yemen, or anywhere else throughout Africa, or any region in the future where al-Qaeda takes foot. The United States and its allies have the right to work in conjunction with governments to strike al-Qaeda camps and leaders, or do it ourselves if the in-country government is unable to.
That leads me back to Afghanistan/Pakistan. Yes, the region is still a major center of al-Qaeda activity, and yes, our military must be involved in the region to strike at the terror network. But, given the ability of al-Qaeda to spread and pop up in areas around the globe where we are not present, it simply doesn't make sense anymore to engage in a long-term counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which focuses on beating back insurgents rather than al Qaeda, and securing the country at large. That strategy relies on nearly every troop we have, and could have many of them stuck there far past President Obama's 2011 deadline, given Richard Engel's recent report on NBC that Afghan security forces are nowhere near ready, and may never be.
Now, yes, if it works, a counter-insurgency strategy could largely quiet al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, the same as a narrower counter-terror strategy would, but at what cost? What about the other branches of al-Qaeda around the world? It's clear they'll simply pick up the slack, in terms of striking the U.S. Without enough forces to stay flexible ourselves, and without indigenous governments capable of crushing al-Qaeda in their nation, we're simply letting al-Qaeda breed elsewhere, largely unfettered.
So, as President Obama examines the holes in security, he would be wise to also reexamine his decision to commit almost every troop we have to Afghanistan. Sun Tsu said to know thy enemy and thyself. We know al-Qaeda isn't going to stay put to fight where we want to fight. We know that we simply don't have the numbers to secure all of Afghanistan as part of a long-term counter-insurgency and fight al-Qaeda elsewhere. Combined, those facts suggest the far wiser course for the U.S. is to not rely on a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan for the long-term, but free up troops to take part in counter-terror operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, or wherever al-Qaeda may try to set up base next.
Crossposted at VetVoice.com
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