The heart of the Afghan debate
As most of you know, Washington is engulfed in a prolonged debate about the way ahead in Afghanistan. It occurs to me that very few have properly articulated to you, dear reader, what is at the heart of the debate. Let me take a stab at it. It gets down to this: What is the current relationship between al Qaida and the Taliban? The answer to that questions leads to the following question: Is an Afghanistan under Taliban control really a threat to the security of the United States?
We know of course that the Taliban and al Qaida worked hand-in-hand in the run up to 9/11. But the relationship isn't really so clear now. Back then, the Taliban turned to al Qaida for financial support, for example. Today the Taliban generates, by some estimates, as much as $400 million in annual revenue. Indeed, some believe the Taliban is now subsidizing al Qaida. So if Afghanistan fell to Taliban rule again, we know now they need al Qaida a lot less than they did eight years ago to survive.
And according to Ret. Marine Gen. Jim Jones, the National Security Advisor, al Qaida is not as dependent on Afghanistan as it once was. Before 9/11, al Qaida had large-scale training camps in Afghanistan; but Jones said in an interview Sunday with CNN”s John King , that no more than 100 al Qaida operatives work out of Afghanistan now . The rest have moved to Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Europe and yes, even the United States. That is, al Qaida needs Afghanistan as a sanctuary less today than it did eight years ago.
Jones also tackled the uncertainty of the relationship between the two groups. He said that the Taliban does not pose a threat to anyone outside of Afghanistan. And he said al Qaida cannot launch any kind of major attack on the United States from Afghanistan. In other words, neither group pose an immediate that, at least within the Afghan border.
King asked Jones: “Does the return of the Taliban in your view, sir, equal the return of a sanctuary for al Qaida?”
Jones had a two - word answer: “It could.”
Well, until that is clear, what the U.S. goals are in Afghanistan remain muddled.
Without the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban might return to power. Should the United States care? That depends on whether a Taliban victory would mean a welcome for al Qaida. And if the administration determines that the Taliban won’t welcome al Qaida back, it begs the ultimate question: Why is the United States in Afghanistan?