In October 2001, America invaded Afghanistan in a justified and appropriate military reaction to the September 11th attacks. This was Phase 1 of the war in Afghanistan - the campaign against the perpetrators of the attack, al-Qa’ida.
The terrorist group was based there, and prior to the start of hostilities, the U.S. Government offered the Government of Afghanistan, then headed by the Taliban, every opportunity to hand over Osama Bin Ladin to U.S. authorities, and to thus avoid a military confrontation.
The Taliban, motivated both by their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and thus affinity for Bin Ladin, as well as by the Pashtun tribal code of pashtunwali - which makes a cultural imperative of sheltering a guest - refused to deliver Bin Ladin, and thus necessitated U.S. action.
Subsequent the ouster of most of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida from Afghanistan in the months following the October 2001 invasion, America entered a second phase of the war: a counter-insurgency.
Nearly eleven years later, America remains in Afghanistan and the situation there remains, at best, unstable and tenuous, and at worst, volatile and completely unpredictable.
While U.S. and NATO forces keep the Taliban at bay, a stubborn and brutal insurgency rages on, and cultural and religious cleavages between the people of Afghanistan and the foreign troops stationed there continue to wreak havoc on efforts to stabilize the country.
It is now time for America to move into Phase 3 of this war: a lean and focused counterterrorism effort, aimed at the remnants of al-Qa’ida hiding in Pakistan, and absent any further efforts at nation building in Afghanistan.
The Taliban did not launch or participate in any way in the 2001 attacks on America; nor does the Taliban profess to want to lead a global jihad; nor does the Taliban want to export its fundamentalist system to countries outside its own.
The Taliban is an Afghan indigenous movement, which existed before 9/11, and which will exist after the last Americans leave that country. The Taliban Shura, or leadership council, was driven from Afghanistan in the weeks after the 2001 invasion, and now resides in Pakistan. From its base in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the Taliban continues its efforts to drive what it sees as foreign invaders from its soil.
Al-Qa’ida is an international terrorist organization, the central leadership of which was based in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. That leadership, and the majority of the Afghanistan-based -- but Arab -- membership, was driven from the country following the 2001 invasion, and the group has been decimated in the decade since.
Countless operational leaders and planners have been killed or captured by a relentless U.S. counterterrorism effort, not to mention scores of rank and file fighters and lower-level members. The campaign’s high point was the killing of al-Qa’ida leader Osama Bin Ladin in May 2011, but the worldwide effort rages on, and will continue to do so until al-Qa’ida is a distant memory.
The point is this: America’s vital strategic interests are no longer served by occupying, fighting an insurgency, and nation building in Afghanistan. We are well on our way to achieving victory over al-Qa’ida, and should continue relentlessly to pursue that end, by transitioning to a third phase in the conflict.
America should leave behind the appropriate mix of intelligence and special operations forces in Afghanistan to finish off al-Qa’ida in South Asia. The United States can then continue to battle the group throughout the rest of the world, as well, until it is defeated in its totality.
America should immediately move to negotiate with the Taliban, alongside the Government of Afghanistan, to cease hostilities and move the two parties toward a lasting resolution of the conflict, so that we can re-deploy the majority of U.S. combat forces out of the country.
The United States will then be cut loose from the metaphorical anvil dragging it relentlessly down, and will be free to strategically shift fire, as necessary, to other fronts in the war against al-Qa’ida.
This is in no way a call for capitulation or a raising of the white flag of surrender. The United States did not invade Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban. America entered Afghanistan to destroy al-Qa’ida, and we are well on our way to achieving that goal. Just because the Taliban got in the way, and continuously wages an insurgency against U.S. and NATO Forces, does not make it a strategic imperative that America annihilate the group, as tempting as that might be on a gut level.
The United States need simply dictate, in any settlement agreement, that should al-Qa’ida reassert itself in Afghanistan, America reserves the right to re-enter the country in force, to combat the group to protect U.S. interests.
It is time to bring the majority of U.S. combat troops home from Afghanistan, and to turn back to the campaign to destroy al-Qa’ida with a leaner, more focused counterterrorism force, until the mission is complete. It is time to commence Phase 3 of this campaign.