It is often said, by those who oppose the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, that we have nothing to fear from a Taliban takeover—this time the Taliban will be smart enough to sever all links with al-Qaeda and to prevent their country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. The evidence suggests otherwise. This morning the Wall Street Journal reports that al-Qaeda had managed to establish a base in a remote region of Afghanistan—the Korengal Valley—which had been evacuated by U.S. troops. Reporters Matthew Rosenberg and Julian Barnes interviewed “several Taliban commanders” who
say the al Qaeda facilities in northeastern Afghanistan are tightly tied to the Afghan Taliban leadership. “In these bases, fighters from around the world get training. We are training suicide bombers, [improvised explosive device] experts and guerrilla fighters,” said an insurgent commander in Nuristan who goes by the nom de guerre Agha Saib and who was reached by telephone.
So is the heavy expenditure of American blood and treasure in Afghanistan useless if al-Qaeda is able to establish bases under our noses?
Not at all. The al-Qaeda encampment which was identified last year was bombed in September. The Journal again: “Among the dozens of Arabs killed that day, the U.S.-led coalition said, were two senior al-Qaeda members, one Saudi and the other Kuwaiti. Another casualty of the bombing, according to Saudi media and jihadi websites, was one of Saudi Arabia’s most wanted militants.”
Such successful strikes are possible because U.S. forces are operating in large numbers in Afghanistan. They are able to generate actionable intelligence and act on it quickly—something that could not have occurred prior to the fall of 2001. Back in those days, you may recall, strikes on al-Qaeda camps were mounted using Tomahawk missiles from Navy warships in the Arabian sea. The long delay needed to arm and fire those missiles–whose flight time was at least half an hour—gave the militants time to scatter. Now, by contrast, U.S. forces can swoop down on terrorists with little notice.
Indeed, the Journal article notes that even after leaving the Korengal and some remote areas, U.S. troops, especially from the elite Joint Special Operations Command, have been able to keep militants off balance. It quotes U.S. officials as saying that the number of al-Qaeda and associated militants still in Afghanistan
remain small enough to manage and that camps are, at worst, few and far between and largely temporary. And almost all U.S. and Afghan officials caution that al Qaeda isn’t yet secure enough in northeastern Afghanistan to use the area as a staging ground for attacks overseas. . . . The officials said many of al Qaeda’s fighters are fearful of establishing too big or permanent a presence in Afghanistan because of the threat posed by U.S. and allied forces.
Remove “the threat posed by U.S. and allied forces” operating from secure bases in Afghanistan and you will surely see a resurgence of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Which is why, for all its costs, the current counterinsurgency campaign remains vital to safeguarding our national interests.