I shifted restlessly in my chair in anticipation of the unveiling of President Obama's Afghanistan strategy on December 2nd at West Point. I was uncertain of what I wanted to hear. Like so many of my colleagues in intelligence, I am weary of war, but sense that it isn't yet time to leave this troubled region.
As the President's words spilled out in front of me, I found my thoughts drifting back eight years to September 11, 2001, the fateful day that had brought us all to this moment. In a flash, I knew what troubled me: it felt like the summer of 2001.
It was July 2001. I was on CIA Director Tenet's staff. There was little doubt within the agency's leadership we were in for a long hot summer of terrorist threats. We were watching intelligence reporting inexorably gathering into a storm. The Director's al Qaeda briefings were more intense and gloomy with each passing day. There was little doubt in anyone's mind that an attack was coming. The question was where? When? Who?
As everyone now knows, there were missed opportunities that summer. The Air Force had just succeeded in arming the Predator drone with a hellfire missile. It was now possible to not only film Osama bin Ladin from the skies, walking about in his sanctuary in Afghanistan; it was possible to kill him. There was a sober discussion of the pros and cons of taking such executive action. Everyone quietly understood that if the US could disrupt the al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, it might still be possible to neutralize impending attacks on the US.
But no one had any inkling that the al Qaeda operational cell that ultimately carried out the 9/11 attacks had long since left Afghanistan. Indeed, cell leader Muhammad Atta had not used Afghanistan and Pakistan as his planning base; he had operated out of Hamburg, Germany. He and his lieutenants had been in the US meticulously casing and preparing for the attack for months.
It is still hard for me to accept the truth that nothing the agency would have done in Afghanistan in those fateful days before 9/11 would have disrupted a plot that was reaching fruition on the other side of the world.
My thoughts turned to the present. Who is the next Muhammad Atta? Where is he?
How do we find him?
In the course of implementing the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, the US must not get distracted from focusing efforts on the pursuit of truly vital national security interests. As the President stressed, those interests are centered on combating terrorism, not on fighting an insurgency. A key objective in this regard is eliminating the strategic safe haven for terrorist groups to recruit, train, plan and operate out of the South Asian region. Stabilizing the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, lowering extremism, and reducing levels of anti-Western popular sentiments, are crucial factors in achieving this goal.
A troop surge in Afghanistan and strategic partnership with Pakistan may be important, but they are not enough.
It would be a pyrrhic victory to deny terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan and Pakistan, only to discover that al Qaeda and associates have moved operational capability and built terrorist cells in new sanctuaries in order to launch strikes across the globe.
Redoubling the effort in the Afpak theater will only indirectly deny terrorists the kind of safe havens they need to plan another 9/11 scale attack. Such a plan has a very tiny footprint that can be launched from almost anywhere in the world. It will always be an immense challenge to find and neutralize a creative, patient, meticulously planned plot consisting of nineteen hijackers and a half a million dollars of untraceable funds. Even before the US was provoked into taking al Qaeda seriously, the group's leaders understood the advantages of planning such an attack from outside their home base, and at a time when they operated freely in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Bearing this in mind, the US and its allies have two broad missions that must work in tandem in order to succeed. The first is to ensure that al Qaeda is unable to reconstitute itself as a terrorist group with a global reach. The terrorist organization that existed before 9/11 has been decimated. Most of the leadership has been captured or killed. Recruiting, training, logistics, planning, all have been severely diminished. The world must never again allow al Qaeda and its associates to become the threat they posed before 9/11.
The second mission is to redouble international cooperation to root out terrorist cells wherever they may reside. This global front in combating terrorism will take on added import as the Afpak strategy unfolds; increasing the pressure on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan will increase the flow of jihadists from that region to more hospitable locations in East Africa, Yemen, Somalia, East Asia, Europe, Russia, and even the United States. The bottom line is that in order for the US to succeed, terrorists must not be allowed to find sanctuary anywhere in the world.
In the months before 9/11, when US intelligence was frantically scouring Afghanistan for indicators of an impending attack, planning had long since moved to Hamburg, Kuala Lumpur, and to the streets of New York and Washington DC. A 30,000-troop surge to Afghanistan is a start, but a complete victory in this war is only possible if there is a deep and sustained commitment to a comprehensive global effort to eradicate the specter of terrorism for good.