Paul Pillar

Spinning the al-Qaeda Threat in Afghanistan

Describing a problem in a way calculated to sustain public support for a costly, ongoing effort to deal with it always contains an element of self-contradiction. The problem needs to be couched as serious to justify the costs of the program to deal with it, but continuing to describe the program as serious after the program has gone on for awhile raises the question of whether anything is being accomplished. Even the most skillful spinning does not overcome this dilemma entirely, although the ideal spin depicts the problem as serious initially and then improving as time goes by and effort is expended.

The spinning in Washington of the communist threat in Vietnam in the 1960s illustrated these considerations. The more that the costs of the Vietnam War mounted and public support for it dropped, the greater was the emphasis by the Johnson administration on depicting communist forces in a way that would suggest progress was being made. By 1967 this public relations imperative had become so strong that it led to blatantly politicized manipulation of estimates of enemy troop strength.

A problem with rationalizing the current war in Afghanistan has been that ever since the early months of the U.S. intervention, which succeeded in rousting al-Qaeda from its previous residence there, the al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan has been trivially small—fewer than 100 individuals, according to repeatedly voiced official estimates. And yet al-Qaeda and the memory of 9/11 constitute the chief rationale for the war. So the war effort is spun as being necessary to prevent a return of al-Qaeda to the kind of arrangement it once had in Afghanistan.

That makes disturbing a recent report in the Wall Street Journal that despite the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan being at its maximum, al-Qaeda has been returning to portions of northeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. When the U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, was asked about this, he commented that those fewer-than-100 al-Qaeda members have been in Afghanistan all along; in other words, they may be moving around inside the country but are not returning to it. That bit of spin responds to any accusation that the al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan has been getting worse on the U.S. watch, but it doesn't preclude the question of why it does not seem to be getting any better.

A closer look at what has been going on in that part of northeastern Afghanistan could provide material for opposing perspectives on the war. The reported re-establishment of an al-Qaeda presence has been in locations where coalition forces had earlier conducted extensive operations but from which they had more recently withdrawn. That could be the basis for an argument that the continued presence of coalition forces is necessary. But it also raises the question of whether coalition operations are having any lasting beneficial effect.

Another argument mentioned in the Journal article that puts a favorable spin on what al-Qaeda has been doing in the northeast is that it is better to have al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan rather than on the Pakistani side of the border because it is in Afghanistan that U.S. forces have the freedom to strike them. This sounds a lot like some spin heard during earlier phases of the Iraq War, about how it is better to fight the terrorists over there so we do not have to fight them back here.

My head is spinning.

We would be less dizzy if we realize that physical safe havens are not the critical factor in determining terrorist threats to Americans, as indicated by the details of the 9/11 operation, in which Afghanistan as a haven mattered little in being able to pull off the attack. We might also reflect on the implications of a poll last year showing the 91% of Afghan men in the war-prone provinces of Helmand and Kandahar had never even heard of the 9/11 attack. That helps to explain why a military effort whose justification is rooted in that event is not understood or accepted in Afghanistan any more than it is. It also demonstrates how far the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is, geographically and logically, from the U.S. concerns that are spun into a rationale for it.