At the House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan this week, I listened to the New America Foundation’s Steve Coll and AEI’s Fred Kagan say that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would almost certainly lead to the return of al Qeada central to that country. It’s the main argument made by those who advocate a larger U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan.
Former Afghanistan CIA case officer and counterterrorism adviser Marc Sageman, who has done some very impressive research on Al Qaeda and jihadi terror networks, recently made a reasoned counter-argument that if the Taliban were to regain power in Afghanistan, it is far from certain it would allow al Qaeda free reign there.
Personally, I lean towards the more troops/counterinsurgency strategy side of the Afghanistan policy debate. But Sageman, whose books on jihadi networks I highly recommend, makes some compelling points on the success of the U.S. counterterrorism approach since 9-11, the weakened state of al Qaeda and why we should stick to a counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His prepared remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can be found here.
As for al Qaeda, Sageman contends that the group has been on the decline ever since losing its sanctuary in Afghanistan in 2001. While able to operate in South Asia and Iraq, al Qaeda has had trouble attacking the West. Over the past five years, nearly 80 percent of all terrorist attacks in the West have been carried out by “autonomous homegrown groups” with no direction or control from al Qaeda.
Far from being the “epicenter of terrorism,” Sageman argues that the Afghan-Pakistani border region is “more like the finishing school of global neo-jihadi terrorism, where a few amateur wannabes are transformed into dangerous terrorists.” The recent pattern of terrorist attacks is that of “lone wolves” linked via the internet to al Qaeda affiliated groups.
Sageman says the U.S. counterterrorism strategy, a combination of good intelligence, police work, vigilance and targeted strikes, is on the brink of “completely eliminating al Qaeda.” It is unable to recruit or train new operatives because the al Qaeda leadership must remain in hiding to survive. “The result is a dramatic degradation of the caliber of terrorist wannabes, resulting in the decrease in success of terrorist operations in the West despite the increased number of attempts.” The counterterrorism strategy is working: “There has been no global neo-jihadi terrorist casualty in the United States in the past eight years and none in the West in general in the past four years.”
“The dichotomy of the present policy options between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is a false one. The choice is not between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, but between counter-terrorism and counter-terrorism plus counter-insurgency. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, all Western powers will continue to protect their homelands with a vigorous counter-terrorism campaign against al Qaeda, its allies and its homegrown progeny. The policy option really boils down to, what is the added value of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan to a necessary and continuing counter-terrorism strategy worldwide?”
The proposed counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is at present irrelevant to the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, which is located in Pakistan. None of the plots in the West has any connection to any Afghan insurgent group, labeled under the umbrella name “Afghan Taliban,” be it a part of Mullah Omar‟s Quetta Shura Taliban, Jalaluddin Haqqani‟s Haqqani Network, or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar‟s Hezb-e Islami. There has not been any Afghan in al Qaeda in the past twenty years because of mutual resentment between al Qaeda foreigners and Afghan locals.”
On the possibility that the Taliban would allow al Qaeda to reconstitute in Afghanistan, Sageman says that is by no means certain. To begin with, the Taliban are not on the verge of winning. The Taliban is deeply divided by leadership frictions and divergent goals. Even if the Taliban were to gain power in Afghanistan, there is no reason for al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan as it’s safer where it is now, in Pakistan.
What if a triumphant Taliban were to invite al Qaeda back? Times have changed, Sageman argues. “The presence of large sanctuaries in Afghanistan was predicated on Western not so benign neglect of the al Qaeda funded camps there. This era is gone because Western powers will no longer tolerate them.”
Instead of pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, Sageman recommends the counterterrorism approach: “Vigilance through electronic monitoring, spatial surveillance, networks of informants in contested territory, combined with the nearby stationing of a small force dedicated to physically eradicate any visible al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will prevent the return of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”