In search of a 'decent interval?'

2009-12-07 00:00

IT can’t have taken three months to write the speech that President Barack Obama gave at West Point last week, but clearly much thought went into his decision to send 30 000 more American troops to Afghanistan. Some aspects of his strategy even suggest that he understands how little is really at stake there for the United States.

This is despite the fact that his speech is full of assertions that Al-Qaeda needs Afghanistan as a base. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of terrorist operations, but it permeates American thinking on the subject. Even if Obama knows better himself, he cannot hope to disabuse his fellow Americans of that delusion in the time that is available.

Instead, he goes along with it, even saying that Afghanistan and Pakistan are “the epicentre of the violent extremism [that is] practised by Al-Qaeda … Since 9/11, Al-Qaeda’s safe havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali”. This is utter nonsense, but even if he knows that it is nonsense he cannot say so publicly.

Al-Qaeda doesn’t run training camps any more; it leaves that to the various local groups that spring up and try to follow its example both in the Muslim world and in the West. The template for Islamist terrorism is now available everywhere, so Al-Qaeda no longer needs a specific territorial base. For the purpose of planning actual terrorist attacks, it never did.

Terrorist operations don’t require bases. They need a couple of hotel rooms or a safe house somewhere. The operational planning for the 9/11 attacks was done in Germany and the U.S. The London attacks were planned in Yorkshire, the Amman attack was probably planned in Syria and the Bali attacks were planned in Jakarta.

Even if Obama does not believe the Washington orthodoxy, which insists that who controls Afghanistan is a question of great importance to United States security, his short-term strategy must respect that orthodoxy. Hence the surge. But the speed with which that surge is to be followed by a U.S. withdrawal suggests that he may really know better.

July 2011 is not a long time away: all the Taliban leaders have to do is wait 18 months and then collect their winnings. If they are intelligent and

pragmatic men — which they are — they may even let the foreign forces make some apparent progress in the meantime, so that the security situation looks promising when the time comes to start pulling the U.S. troops out.

In fact, the Taliban might not even try to collect its winnings right away after the foreigners leave. There’s no point in risking a backlash in the U.S. that

might bring the American troops back.

This is actually how the Vietnam war ended. The United States went through a major exercise in Vietnamisation in the early seventies, and the last American combat troops left South Vietnam in 1973. At that point, the security situation in the south seemed fairly good — and the North Vietnamese politely waited until 1975 to collect their winnings.

In doing so they granted Henry Kissinger, who was the national security adviser to president Richard Nixon, the decent interval that he had requested. A decent interval, that is, between the departure of the American troops and the victory of the forces that they had been fighting, so that it did not look too much like American defeat.

In practical political terms, this is also the best outcome that Obama can now hope for in Afghanistan.

If this is Obama’s real strategy, then he can take consolation in the fact that nothing bad happened to American interests after the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Nothing bad is likely to happen to American interests in the event of a Taliban victory, either. Nor is a Taliban victory even a foregone conclusion after an American withdrawal, since it would still have to overcome all the other ethnic forces in the country.

The biggest risk that Obama runs with this strategy is that it gives Al-Qaeda a motive to launch new attacks against the U.S. The Taliban want the American troops out of Afghani- stan, but Al-Qaeda wants them to be stuck there indefinitely, taking casualties and killing Muslims. It’s unlikely that Al-Qaeda can just order a terrorist attack in the U.S,, but if it looks as though the American troops are really going home, then it may well try.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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