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May 4, 2013

How safe has the Afghan war left us?

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — It’s hard to see any way we could have avoided Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. We couldn’t, after all, just leave al-Qaida ensconced in the country’s hinterlands while Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar sheltered its leaders.

But in the back of our minds, we all probably had the same nagging worry: that regardless of how Afghanistan went, the war could never make the U.S. completely secure from terrorism. That seed of doubt came to fruition last month when two ethnic Chechen brothers from Russia bombed the Boston Marathon — in an attack the Afghanistan campaign could have done nothing to prevent.

That isn’t to say the war was a mistake. But the question nags: what is the best strategy for fighting a terrorist network the CIA has found in dozens of countries around the world? And can it really be a winnable “war on terror” if it targets only al-Qaida and its affiliates?

The difficulty we face stems from a strategic situation resembling that faced by British troops during the American Revolution, or by American troops during the Vietnam War: one side needs to actually win the war, while the other side can win simply by surviving for long enough.

This strategic imbalance affords the Taliban and al-Qaida a range of options for thwarting the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. After NATO’s August 2004 offensive left the Taliban on the brink of collapse, their focus has turned to raiding the two U.S. supply lines leading from Pakistan’s coast through the mountains into Afghanistan.

Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, whose largely insightful 2004 book Imperial Hubris contains a few dubious proposals, foresaw the tactical quandary posed by this border, which arbitrarily straddles a chain of mountains between the countries. Scheuer’s overly zealous suggestion was to saturate the Durand Line with land mines and booby traps — objections from Afghanistan and Pakistan be damned.

These attacks exploit the U.S. strategy’s main weakness: that any cross-border coordination must rely on Pakistan’s army handling the eastern side. President Barack Obama, controversially, has chosen instead to place his trust in drone aircraft.

In terms of killing the enemy, Obama’s drone strikes have yielded more (and higher-ranking) scalps than Pakistan’s forces ever could. But whether that’s worth the virulent backlash these hits have provoked remains to be seen.

This anger over U.S. drones has spread to Pakistan’s army officer corps, whose numerous defections to al-Qaida were documented by Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad in his must-read 2011 book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban.* As the leftover anti-Soviet mujahideen of the 1980s fade away, this infusion of new blood has come at the perfect time for al-Qaida.

Among the defectors were Maj. (ret.) Haroon Ashiq and his brother, Capt. Khurram Ashiq, both Pakistani special forces commanders. Shahzad credited Haroon with retraining and rearming Islamic fighters along the frontier. He reportedly used his contacts to procure for them AK-47 silencers, night-vision goggles and even a guerrilla-made mortar small enough to fit in a luggage bag.

Khurram was killed in 2007 by Canadian forces in Afghanistan. Haroon was later acquitted on charges of plotting the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai — after witnesses reportedly withdrew their testimony fearing reprisal.

One week before those attacks, Major Ashiq tracked down retired Maj. Gen. Ameer Faisal Alavi, then working for a telecommunications company in Islamabad. Ashiq, with two accomplices, killed Alavi with his army revolver. The killing of Alavi, who in 2004 had led Pakistan’s first anti-Taliban operation along the frontier, by an ex-comrade sent a clear message about the consequences of working with NATO.

Worse yet is the resistance from Pakistani clerics such as Abdul Aziz Ghazi, who said in 2004 that cooperating with NATO is un-Islamic, and that no cleric should perform funeral services for Pakistani soldiers killed in such operations.

This backlash may have been provoked under pressure from al-Qaida. Or maybe it’s from the perceived violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by U.S. drones. But another factor involves a line about attributed to the prophet Muhammad about the “end of time” battles starting in the ancient kingdom of Khurasan, located in present-day Afghanistan.

“If you see the black banners coming from Khurasan, go to them immediately, even if you have to crawl over ice, because indeed amongst them is the Caliph, our redeemer.”

So said the prophet, according to tradition. You may have noticed the black flags adopted by al-Qaida, and it’s no coincidence that Islamist militants from around the world have flocked to the region.

There’s no doubt these militants remain a threat to U.S. security. The question is whether the strategies we’ve used to this point, in the longest-running conflict in U.S. history, are enough to win the war.

*Shahzad, 40, was found tortured to death in 2011 in Pakistan, reportedly by government operatives. He left behind a wife and three children.

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at