Bruce Hoffman

Why We Fight

President Obama’s address to the nation last night was alone noteworthy for his clear explication to the American people of why our troops are fighting in Afghanistan. “[N]o challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al Qaeda” he declared.

Americans across the political spectrum supported the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11. Now, as we approach our 10th year of combat in Afghanistan, there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there. But we must never lose sight of what’s at stake. As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense. In fact, over the last 19 months, nearly a dozen al-Qaeda leaders—and hundreds of al Qaeda’s extremist allies—have been killed or captured around the world.

There can in fact be no other—nor more compelling—explanation or justification for our continuing, and increasingly melancholy, military commitment in Afghanistan.

Yet, as the Washington Post’s Cameron W. Barr points out in a small article unfortunately buried on the bottom of page 8 of today’s paper, by providing this much needed clarification of the purpose and mission of U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan, the President was curiously “off message” given recent statements from his top intelligence and national security advisers.

Only a few weeks ago, for instance, these officials were claiming that al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was negligible—to the point of being inconsequential; that the threat from al-Qaeda Central—the movement’s remaining senior leadership nucleus based across the border in Pakistan—was now non-existent; and, that the mightily diminished terrorist threat such as it still exists, emanates from al-Qaeda’s upstart local affiliates in Yemen—and perhaps Somalia as well.

One senior intelligence official told the Post last month, "We see al-Qaeda as having suffered major losses, unable to replenish ranks and recover at a pace that would keep them on offense.” Last June, CIA Director Leon Panetta put the number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan to a mere, unimportant 50 and 100 terrorists "at most." National security adviser James L. Jones went even further, arguing that al-Qaeda had neither bases in Afghanistan nor the “ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies."

As I wrote in the Washington Post last January, this is nothing new. For years, al-Qaeda has maintained a low-key operation in Afghanistan and elsewhere: pursuing a deliberate overall strategy that eschews bases and other fixed installations that can be easily sighted and obliterated by unmanned aerial drones.

This is exactly what I was told when I toured the Afghan-Pakistan border region as a guest of the 82nd Airborne in March 2008. Note that this visit was at least four months before the drone campaign was ramped up under President Bush in July 2008 and ten months before its further intensification once President Obama took office in January 2009.

In “Cell Phones in the Hindu Kush,” the article I wrote with Seth G. Jones, that was published in the National Interest, we quoted a U.S. Army officer in Paktika province who told us that “Al-Qaeda has been effective as a force multiplier by improving the capacity of insurgent groups.” He explained that this included

helping indigenous insurgents make more-sophisticated improvised explosive devices, instructing them in fund-raising techniques to create an income stream from the international jihadi philanthropic community, and conducting more-effective information operations using the Internet and a range of media outlets.

In this critical respect, al-Qaeda learned its lesson well from Iraq. There, foreign fighters belonging to its Iraqi affiliate attempted to impose their will on an increasingly resistant and subsequently hostile local population. This external influence and blunt, heavy-handedness alienated the precisely the people whose help and support—and especially sanctuary—they needed.

Accordingly, al-Qaeda changed its approach. It adopted a strategy whereby it deliberately now works behind the scenes: “plussing-up” the capabilities of indigenous terrorist groups both in terms of kinetic as well as essential non-kinetic operations—including information operations, propaganda, and psychological warfare.

Al-Qaeda could not have survived the past nine years if it were not first and foremost a learning organization: highly adaptive and resilient, capable of identifying new opportunities and both marshaling and re-directing its resources to ensure its survival.

Hence, al-Qaeda has learned from its mistakes in Iraq and now consciously avoids putting an “Arab face” or an “Arab stamp” on its local operations. Much as American troops are embedded with their host-nation counterparts for training and leadership purposes; al-Qaeda now does the same with its indigenous allies.

In practical terms, what this means—I explained last January in the Post—is that once

al-Qaeda has located or helped create a region of lawlessness, it guides allies and related terrorist groups in that area, boosting their local, regional and­—as the Northwest Airlines plot demonstrated—international attack capabilities. Although the exact number of al-Qaeda personnel in each of these areas varies, and in some cases may include no more than a few hard-core terrorists, they perform a critical force-multiplying function. Their help to indigenous terrorist groups includes support for attacks—by providing weapons, training and intelligence—and, equally critical, assistance in disseminating propaganda, such as by building Web sites and launching online magazines modeled on al-Qaeda's.

The President, by focusing last night on the continuing threat that al-Qaeda poses both in Afghanistan and elsewhere, provided a clear explanation of why we fight in Afghanistan.

Indeed, after the disquieting events of the past twelve months, he could have done nothing less. We have seen three separate, extremely serious plots directed against the U.S.—either in the skies above our nation or on our city streets.

They involved respectively al-Qaeda Central—the disrupted plan to stage simultaneous suicide attacks on the New York City subway last September; its Yemeni affiliate—the foiled in-flight bombing of a passenger aircraft bound for Detroit last Christmas Day; and, perhaps its closest Pakistani ally—the attempted bombing of Times Square in May.

The President in his address to the nation provided a realistic and important assessment of the ongoing challenge we face from al-Qaeda and its associates. It was a timely message that needs repeating as we approach the ninth anniversary of the September 11th 2001 attacks.