September 10, 2010

Of Qurans and imams - the fallacy of our Afghan policy

Violent protests in Afghanistan, as well as in other Muslim countries across the world, erupted against a threatened burning of copies of the Qur'an by a radical church in Florida. The fact that a 50-person church in a southern American state can generate large-scale protests halfway around the world is an interesting testament to the power of the internet and global communications. It also serves to spotlight our failed policies in Afghanistan.

We have had military forces in Afghanistan for almost nine years, waging a half-hearted war now focused on a group that did not attack us nor poses a real threat to the United States. In late 2001, the Taliban were the government of Afghanistan and did provide a safe haven for the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States - all true. American forces, with support of the Northern Alliance, made short work of the Taliban and of the al-Qa'idah fighters - including Usamah bin Ladin - that did not escape to Pakistan.

It was then that we veered off course into an area that we know we are not good at - nation building. To make matters worse, we chose to nation build in a country with which we have almost nothing in common. Rather than continuing the fight to eliminate al-Qa'idah regardless of where they were, we chose to refocus our resources on creating a new Afghan government and essentially create a new Afghan society.

Nation building, at least in the American context, in Afghanistan will not work. The thought that we are going to change the tribally based and warlord-dominated Afghan society and its inherent and imbued Islamist nature is ludicrous. No matter what we do, Afghanistan is never going to be a Jeffersonian democracy. It may not even be a democracy - and in the final analysis, who cares?

I have for years asked - what is the American national interest in Afghanistan? Is it to rid the country of its Taliban government? Done. Is it to hunt down and kill the al-Qa'idah fighters in the country? Done. Is it to install a democratic replacement for whatever government the Afghans develop? If it is, I disagree that this is an American national interest. Is it to mount a difficult counterinsurgency to defeat one side of a civil war? Again, I hope not. What possible American interest does this serve?

I'll address what will be the standard retort to my questions - "we do not want Afghanistan to again become a haven for terrorists, specifically al-Qa'idah. If the Taliban are victorious in their insurgency, they may allow al-Qa'idah to return."

There is no indication that I can find - and I read the English and Arabic language press regularly - that al-Qa'idah has any interest in returning to Afghanistan. That's in the past - the future is the fertile "jihad-grounds" of Yemen and Somalia. Al-Qa'idah has been virtually annihilated on its chosen battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They still have some presence in Pakistan, but Afghanistan?

What if I am wrong - it happens - and they in fact do attempt to re-establish Afghanistan as their operational base? Simple. We destroy them again as we did in 2001 - with special operations forces and overwhelming airpower. That is one thing that the Taliban and al-Qa'idah understand - the devastating effect of American air-delivered precision guided munitions against which there is virtually no defense. We need to make it very clear to whatever government emerges in Kabul - Karzai, the Taliban, whoever - that these are American "red lines." If al-Qa'idah returns, so do American aircraft, missiles and bombs - lots of them.

This policy also addresses the recent outbreaks of violent demonstrations against an American minister in Florida. I am not condoning the burning of the Islamic holy book by any means, but if the Afghan people cannot separate the private citizens exercising their rights from the governmental policies of a nation that has given them the freedom to demonstrate, it's time to leave them to their own devices.

When the president of Afghanistan (arguably one of the most corrupt officials on the planet) makes statements like, "We have heard that in the US, a pastor has decided to insult Korans. Now although we have heard that they are not doing this, we tell them they should not even think of it..." - we should think about why we are keeping him in power. Pesky thing, that First Amendment. Perhaps Karzai should stick to robbing his own country blind and let us worry about our freedoms.

I am going to make a stretch and bring in the current controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" and the arrogant imam Faysal 'Abd al-Rauf. When I was an NBC News analyst, I met and spoke with the imam in the MSNBC studios. He is a smooth talker and knows exactly what he is saying - his statements are thinly-veiled threats to our troops, and right now the majority of our troops are in Afghanistan.

I agree that the presence of American troops in a Muslim country while a minister in Florida is threatening to burn the Qur'an, or Americans not wanting a mosque built near what they consider to be the scene of a jihadist obscenity, is problematic. It is exactly that fact that causes me to call for the reassessment of our policy in Afghanistan.

We have to realistically define exactly what our mission is in Afghanistan, formulate a strategy to accomplish that mission, commit the appropriate resources, and ruthlessly and exclusively execute the strategy.

That strategy should not be nation building - it should be hunting down and destroying al-Qa'idah wherever they have gone.