News that the CIA had foiled yet another attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb U.S. airliners using some sort of new “underwear bomb” further confirms the big shift that has occurred in terrorist circles during the past decade: al-Qaeda “central,” based in Pakistan, has gotten less and less important even as its fellow travelers and affiliates have gotten more sophisticated and dangerous.
AQAP is at the forefront of these off-shoots in trying to attack the American homeland, but it is hardly alone–the Pakistan Taliban, a group sympathetic to al-Qaeda but not formally allied with it, was also discovered trying to attack Times Square with a car bomb. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq piled up carnage on a level undreamt of by other terrorist groups–so much killing that even Osama bin Laden thought it was counterproductive because most of the victims were fellow Muslims. AQI now appears to be expanding its sphere of operations into Syria.
Should we be concerned that the new agreement reached by the U.S. and Afghanistan over the conduct of “night raids” will hamper the ability of U.S. Special Operations Forces to target America’s enemies? Not on the basis of what has been released about the accord.
Pentagon spokesmen argue that the limitations–having Afghans in the lead in both operations and the interrogation of detainees–do no more than codify existing practices. Moreover, there are wide loopholes in all cases: Afghans can always request extra U.S. aid and even raids that were not initially authorized by Afghan authorities can still be authorized after the fact.
Having concluded a deal with Hamid Karzai that will involve transferring more than 3,000 detainees to Afghan custody, American negotiators are now trying to clinch a deal that would allow the continuation of “night raids”—the melodramatic label given to most Special Operations missions which occur at night when fewer civilians are likely to be in harm’s way and the targets are less likely to be on their guard and at more of a disadvantage because of America’s night-vision systems. The Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. side is offering to allow Afghan judges to approve any future operations; I don’t know if this is true but it would make sense because similar authority was given to Iraqi judges.
The broader point is that it’s very difficult to get the Afghan government to approve what American leaders regard as their most effective terrorist-fighting tool—the ability of Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs, Rangers, and Delta Force to swoop down on “high-value targets” at night. And if it’s difficult today, when the U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan buttressing the authority of its government, imagine how difficult it will be after 2014 or even sooner when the U.S. presence will decline dramatically.