The U.S. is building a secret airbase somewhere in the Middle East from which the CIA can launch drone attacks against terrorist elements in Yemen, the AP reports, a hedge against the danger that today's friendly government could crumble and force America to continue its fight from outside. The AP story even includes this eyebrow-raising detail: "The Associated Press has withheld the exact location at the request of U.S. officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because portions of the military and CIA missions in Yemen are classified."
There are many good candidates for such an installation: You could expand the existing American presence in Djibouti, or in Qatar -- or the Saudis might even host such a base; they have a strong interest in keeping Yemen stable. But just as important as where this base goes is what it represents: Evidence that the danger of Yemen-based terrorism is apparently a long-term proposition. That, in turn, raises major questions about the continued American troop presence in Afghanistan.
If the purpose of the war in Afghanistan was to deny al Qaeda a safe haven from which to attack the United States, doesn't this Yemen situation prove that has succeeded -- and failed? At the cost of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars, the U.S. and its allies have killed many bad guys across Afghanistan, and pushed more into Pakistan. (Where the CIA also flies secret drone attacks to kill them.) Another secret CIA drone campaign elsewhere in the world shows that Afghanistan and Pakistan, whatever their lingering problems, apparently are no longer the most fashionable neighborhood for terrorists. But the problem didn't go away -- it just moved someplace else.
So why, then, is the United States apparently locked into keeping huge numbers of troops in Afghanistan out to 2014 and beyond? Washington has shed its Bush-era ambitions about turning Afghanistan into Switzerland; today the mission is explicitly about security and survival. So long as the CIA can keep its operations in Pakistan going at a low boil -- admittedly an iffy proposition these days -- does it make sense for ground troops to continue their patrols across Afghanistan when Yemen is apparently the new locus of villainy?
The Pentagon and the White House would both say yes. The consistant message from DoD officials is that Afghanistan is like a shattered vase reassembled with glue, and the glue's still wet: It's hanging together, but if even a feather lands on top of it, the thing could crack or break once more into a million pieces. Secretary Gates has said the U.S. and its allies must make no "rush to the exits," because there's no telling what that sudden vacuum would do to all the gains in Afghan security. You could argue, though, that there's no way to avoid such a vacuum, and the U.S. might as well start saving money now with a big troop pullout, as opposed to drawing things out and only getting the same result.
Which brings up the other thing the new secret airbase drives home: The "war on terror," as it used to be called, evidently has no end in sight.