THE UNITED States is "at war against al-Qaeda." So said President Obama in the wake of the attempted Christmas bombing of Northwest Flight 253, and so we are, and so we are likely to be-for many years to come. Afghanistan is one of the critical battlefields in this war; while winning in Afghanistan would not by itself defeat al-Qaeda, losing in Afghanistan would materially strengthen it and prolong the fight, potentially at the cost of many more American lives. This fact may be unpalatable, but it is also inescapable.
THIS WAS not a war we planned to fight. Many ignored the early warning signs of a violent threat that would soon pull us deep into conflict. Hardly a non-terrorism-expert eye even blinked when Osama bin Laden announced in the World Islamic Front statement "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders" in 1998:
We-with Allah's help-call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.
Yet, the war had arguably been going on for years. It started with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. It continued with an attack on the USS Cole docked off Yemen in 2000. And it became unmistakable on September 11, 2001. America's subsequent counterattack on al-Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan pushed al-Qaeda's leadership across the Durand Line into Pakistan, where it remains today. We have diminished its ranks through drone strikes and an increasingly aggressive Pakistani counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign.
Now, al-Qaeda has only a minimal presence in Afghanistan, perhaps one hundred or so fighters, which leads many to question why the United States needs to pour more money and more troops into this war effort. Indeed, it is the Taliban-which rose to power in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and provided the shelter from which bin Laden's group planned and executed the September 11 attack-that is now America's main adversary on the ground in Afghanistan. But were the Taliban to regain control of the country, al-Qaeda would simply have more room in which to entrench itself.
Unfortunately, being at war with a nonstate actor like al-Qaeda gives war fighting a whole new complexity for a great power like the United States. Al-Qaeda holds no permanent territory. Its soldiers do not wear uniforms or obey (or even acknowledge) the laws of war. And it specializes in attacking innocent civilians in spectacular displays that attempt to change our behavior through shock-and-awe tactics. It has found innovative means by which to extend its influence, enfranchising associated militant movements across the greater Middle East, and using the Internet to radicalize potential followers and attract recruits-even within America's borders.
Thus, despite substantial progress, the war is not over. One of the lessons of the past eight years is that al-Qaeda will take advantage of safe havens wherever they arise; were the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would once again have an entire country potentially at its disposal from which to train, plan and operate. And this would only give our enemy greater capability to threaten the United States.
EXPELLED FROM Afghanistan within months of 9/11, the Taliban has been gaining strength every year since 2002. The Obama administration has decided that it will nearly triple the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; already, in 2009, it invested more in lives and treasure there than it spent in Iraq. Costly as these decisions are-and will be, throughout the rest of Obama's term and likely beyond it-the president effectively had no choice. Much of southern and eastern Afghanistan is now ruled by a shadow Taliban government, in some places even with established courts, a sign of near-total control. Withdrawing from Afghanistan would lead to the rapid demise of the Karzai government, at least in the areas already being wrested from its grasp. The Afghan army and police, developed at enormous expense over the past five years, would crumble without U.S. support.
This is not to mention the regional consequences of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the costs of which would be severe. The dominant regional narrative-that the United States will abandon its friends without compunction-would be reinforced. NATO, having made a more extensive commitment to Afghanistan than to any post-Cold War conflict, would be severely weakened. Pakistan would be forced to recalculate its recent decisions to fight against the Taliban inside its own borders because the balance of power in the region would shift in favor of the Taliban upon our departure. Al-Qaeda would likely again decide that Afghanistan presents a more favorable home under those circumstances than do the tribal regions of Pakistan, which are subject to at least some degree of state control. America would again have to invade and occupy Afghanistan to drive out the terrorists.
COUNTERINSURGENCY IN Afghanistan is the least bad of the options available. And it is a necessity. That does not mean that the United States has to practice large-scale COIN in every failed or failing state where al-Qaeda finds a toehold. Afghanistan is an extreme case-a true failed state that needed its governance and security institutions rebuilt from the ground up, whose neighbor possesses both nuclear weapons and an insurgency of its own, and that is some six hundred miles from the nearest coastline accessible by the U.S. Navy. In other places where al-Qaeda is taking root, less intensive counterinsurgency with a lighter footprint is a viable option. Yemen is a good example of a country where strikes against terrorists, training and equipping host-nation security forces with small numbers of U.S. Special Forces, and economic and governance aid have a good chance of reducing al-Qaeda's presence. But Afghanistan and Pakistan are the core of the problem, the home base of al-Qaeda, with which we are at war. Ceding the battlefield closest to the enemy's capital is no way to win.
We waited until 2009 to give the Afghan conflict the resources success will require. Over the next five years, it should be possible to build an Afghan government that can outperform the Taliban and an Afghan army that can outfight it, especially with the support of a Pakistani government that continues its own efforts on its side of the Durand Line.
The cost of success will be high-higher than it would have been had we not prematurely turned our attention from the war of necessity in Afghanistan to the war of choice in Iraq in 2003. It will put additional strain on our all-volunteer army that was not designed to fight two protracted wars, and, of course, on a military that was hoping for something of a break in the wake of the "surge" of forces into Iraq.
We need a bigger army, and in a period of double-digit unemployment, building up our armed forces is the right choice. An increase of one hundred thousand troops in the army would provide sufficient strength to bring the force back to a more sustainable rotation schedule; the cost would be substantial, but could be paid for by a national-security tax on gasoline. American flags on petrol pumps, thanking the American people for their quarter-a-gallon contribution to the war against al-Qaeda, are a much more patriotic indication of support for the troops than lapel pins-and would also encourage conservation of a natural resource that will grow increasingly scarce in years to come.
THE UNITED States is at war with al-Qaeda, and with those who support al-Qaeda. Success will take a toll on us and our Afghan partners. However, the cost of failure in Afghanistan would be even higher.
Before we decide to abandon the nascent democracy in Kabul, turning our back on our more than forty ISAF allies working to stabilize the region, we should give the new commander in Afghanistan a reasonable opportunity to put time-tested counterinsurgency techniques to work.
St. Augustine taught us that the only purpose of war is to build a better peace. After fighting a war to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, we failed to build a better peace there, and we have paid a heavy price for our neglect. We have yet to create an Afghan state that can stand on its own, does not harbor terror and will not destabilize the region. America must not make the mistake of abandoning Afghanistan again-the stakes are far too high.
John Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security and a veteran of operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.