Pillar Responds

March 1, 2010 Topics: CounterinsurgencyMilitary StrategySecurity Regions: Afghanistan Tags: Insurgency

Pillar Responds

by Author(s): Paul R. Pillar

SO MUCH seems to flow, naturally and effortlessly, from pinning the label "war" on an endeavor. The term evokes images of a single and clearly identifiable enemy and of military force as the main instrument for defeating that enemy. John Nagl beats the "this is war" drum loudly and embellishes it with references to the "home base" of al-Qaeda and the need to fight close to the "enemy's capital."

This is argument by labeling. It pretends that by affixing a word, certain realities follow. They do not. South Asia is not the "home base" of al-Qaeda, which consists largely of Arab interlopers. No terrorist group has a "capital." Nor is there a single enemy. Al-Qaeda-the group led by Osama bin Laden and holed up in South Asia-has not been organizing most of the terrorism in recent years, even if some of the organizers have chosen to fly the al-Qaeda flag. Nagl sometimes seems to want to go beyond that one enemy, as in referring to the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. That was perpetrated not by al-Qaeda but instead by other Islamists whose only safe haven was New Jersey.

Nagl assumes rather than establishes that if the Taliban prevails in Afghanistan, then al-Qaeda will rebuild a presence there, and that such a presence would make the group a greater threat. He says nothing to support the first contention; and on the second, only that Afghanistan is a big country and al-Qaeda would have "more room," without explaining exactly what it would do in that space that it cannot and does not already do in other ways and in other places.


THIS ALSO ignores how circumstances have drastically changed since al-Qaeda's earlier time in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, there was sufficient intelligence and offshore firepower but insufficient political will to damage that presence heavily. When President Clinton ordered cruise-missile strikes against an al-Qaeda camp in 1998, he was accused-even though two U.S. embassies had been attacked-of trying to divert attention from a White House sex scandal. 9/11 has changed all that. If al-Qaeda began to rebuild what it had before, it would be bombs away-and the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban know it.

My sparring partner asserts that backing away from the commitment in Afghanistan would damage U.S. credibility-a logic eerily reminiscent of the chief rationale for the war in which I served as an army officer: the one in Vietnam. The idea was as unexamined and invalid then as it is now. Governments (or terrorist groups) simply do not calculate other governments' credibility that way.1 Nagl's reference in this regard to how Pakistan would revisit "its recent decisions to fight against the Taliban" is odd given that the most recent decision-announced during a visit by the U.S. secretary of defense, no less-is that the Pakistani army would not launch any new offensives for as much as a year.


NAGL IS to be commended for acknowledging that the cost of the war will be "high," and his reference to five years for building a viable Afghan government and army is more realistic than the Obama administration's timetable. The next appropriate step would be to acknowledge that the high cost in lives, limbs and money would do little or nothing to protect Americans from terrorism.


1 Daryl G. Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).