11/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Keep Al Qaeda in Our Crosshairs

Today's 8th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should refocus our sites to the unfinished business against Al Qaeda. As victims' names are read one by one and the sad, rain soaked faces of families who lost loved ones peer into Ground Zero, this most essential of national purposes warrants revisiting. Eight years after blasting apart the Taliban government in Kabul we are perilously distant from breaking the back of Al Qaeda and breaking the necks of its leaders.

Admittedly, Al Qaeda is no longer what it used to be before 9/11. And even if we captured Bin Laden, et al tomorrow, self-directed terrorists around the world have bought into his ideology and need no command ordering them to commit terrorism against us.

There is no reason to think that Al Qaeda cannot reconstitute itself if accorded the opportunity to do so.

Which brings me to U.S. goals in Afghanistan, of which there are essentially two:

  1. Denying Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan if the U.S. withdraws.
  2. Preventing Afghanistan from collapsing into the hands of the Taliban which would likely destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Anyone professionally knowledgeable about the Afghan situation knows we are not fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- their leadership is not there but likely across the border in Pakistan or in Yemen, Somalia or wherever terrorists safely find refuge.

But the two goals are inexorably linked -- really two sides of the same coin.

In reality, our strategy in Afghanistan is focused on achieving Goal #2 as a precondition to achieving Goal#1 -- a task more difficult to sell to war-weary Americans, and far more challenging and costly to achieve because of what President Obama inherited from his predecessor.

Some critics of the Afghan campaign use Al Qaeda's absence in Afghanistan as an all-too-convenient rationale to urge a withdrawal from Afghanistan and acknowledge its historical destiny -- a nation forever ruled by warlords trafficking in opium.

Oh how so tantalizing for armchair generals to assert the two goals can be de-linked.

But the reality of the situation in South Asia provides us no easy way out. There are simply no shortcuts around the necessity of preventing Afghanistan from falling into Taliban hands if we are to prevent Al Qaeda from destabilizing Pakistan.

Thank you (again) President Bush for putting us in this terrible situation.

Recall that President Obama inherited a deteriorating mess in Afghanistan that from the Bush administration's perspective was, for over 5 years, little more than a side show while it focused on Iraq.

Conveniently subcontracting the future of Afghanistan to a weak and corrupt leader in the form of Hamid Karzai, and withdrawing the necessary military and intelligence assets and diverting them to Iraq, rather than maintainining the pressure on the Taliban is the pitiful legacy of the Bush administration's Afghan policy, which is why the worst vestiges of the extremist Taliban who are now resurgent.

There is a rising chorus of critics who have developed a collective case of amnesia about what happened in Afghanistan under Bush between 2003 and 2008. They have gone wobbly and want us to wage a war against Al Qaeda in South Asia by remote control.

From the right bunker, armchair General George Will has peered through his reading glasses and concluded that Al Qaeda and its Taliban sympathizers can be better fought from the confines of the military equivalent of a Sony Play Station lobbing Tomahawk and drone missiles willy-nilly into the FATA regions of Pakistan and bordering Afghanistan.

From the left bunker, futon Field Commander and Nation publisher Katrina Vanden Heuvel insists the U.S. should vacate and let Afghanis deal with Afghanistan. Better to focus on Pakistan where Al Qaeda really resides.

Let me play the devil's advocate and give Obama's critics their due. Both ideological flanks are raising important concerns.

After all, the U.S. could find itself bogged down in Afghanistan for another five years, yet suffer a terror attack hatched and launched from, say Yemen, Somalia or Iraq by self-directed terrorists. Moreover, why should Americans support a regime led by Hamid Karzai, who by every reasonable account outdid Ayatollah Khamenei in rigging an election? These are valid points.

So what to do?

A few days ago, the White House released "The United States Government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan." The Report constitutes a sanitized version of a classified document that essentially reflects General Stanley McChrystal's recommendation that the U.S. substantially increase its troop levels above 68,000 while the Afghan army and police reach sustainable levels to prevent further erosion in the security situation throughout the country.

President Obama has a very tough decision to make whether or not to accept the troop level increase recommendation from his field commanders under mounting pressure from some prominent Congressional Democrats to reject it.

Increasing troop levels alone will not guarantee any outcome without a substantial injection of civilian resources to help establish the infrastructure of security necessary to generate anti-Taliban support. Working with a corrupt Karzai has taken on a very malodorous quality and perhaps a UN-sponsored recount may award the election to Abdullah Abdullah. But the stakes are too high to forfeit the chance to stabilize Afghanistan because of Karzai's antics, so an American troop increase appears vital in the absence of NATO taking more of a role.

President Obama would do well to devote more diplomatic effort to bring NATO's membership along into a more convincing burden-sharing role -- something many of NATO's members have so far resisted. He will also need to find better ways to choke off the Taliban's capacity to wage war against NATO troops by convincing Pakistan to play a more assertive role interdicting their arms smuggling across the border from Pakistan. Most importantly, he is going to have to more effectively convince a skeptical American public that terrorism cannot be fought by remote controlled drones alone, and that Al Qaeda's future potential, not merely its past atrocities, must remain in our cross hairs.