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May 4, 2013

How safe has the Afghan war left us?

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.

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