In a brief four minutes during a June 2017 PBS interview, retired Gen. David Petraeus, unconsciously revealed just how convoluted the thinking behind U.S. strategy in Afghanistan truly is.
Petraeus said, “We need to recognize that we went there for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there. That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort.”
Yet, according to Petraeus, that useful platform for the regional counterterrorism has been ineffective against “transnational extremists” on Afghanistan’s doorstep, unable to “pressure the leaders of the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and even some of the other insurgent groups, because they’re out of our reach. They’re in sanctuaries inside Pakistan.”
Petraeus describes the war in Afghanistan as a “generational struggle” requiring a “sustainable sustained commitment.” He said the 3,000 to 5,000 troops added by the Trump Administration was “very sustainable,” but admitted “we are not going to permanently win this.” Petraeus compared it to the commitment the U.S. made in Western Europe after World War Two and to South Korea, “we have been in Korea for 65-plus years because there is an important national interest for that. We were in Europe for a very long period of time, still there.”
Unlike Western Europe and South Korea, however, Afghanistan is land-locked, and surrounded by countries hostile to the U.S. mission. Even when he commanded 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, Petraeus conceded that the Taliban could only be “turned back,” not defeated.
Modestly raising troop levels or changing tactics on the ground, like relaxing “the remaining restrictions on the use of our airpower” will not improve the unfavorable strategic conditions. Due to the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, the U.S. will never gain the military initiative and, because its interests diverge from those of the U.S., Pakistan will maintain a chokehold on the supply of our troops.
In other words, Pakistan, not the U.S., determines what is “sustainable.”
Although Petraeus recognizes that terrorism is transnational, he recommends a strategy delimited by geography.
The 9/11 attack was concocted outside of Afghanistan, the perpetrators were Arab and the planners were Pakistani.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), son of a Deobandi cleric and often referred to as the “architect” of the 9/11 attacks is Pakistani and was born in Balochistan.
Ramzi Yousef is KSM’s nephew and one of the main perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434, and a co-conspirator in the Bojinka plot, which included assassinating Pope John Paul II while he visited the Philippines, and planting bombs inside 12 United and Delta Air Lines flights out of Bangkok. He allegedly worked together with KSM on the Bojinka plot. Although he was born in Kuwait, Ramzi Yousef is Pakistani. His father was from Balochistan and his mother is KSM’s sister.
Adel Anonn, aka Adel Bani, who had an Iraqi passport and believed to be Ramzi Yousef’s twin brother, was arrested in the Philippines in 1995 as part of a suspected terrorist cell.
Abdul Qadir Mehmood, Ramzi Yousef’s older brother, is wanted in connection with a 2015 terror attack that killed 45 people traveling on a bus from the Safoora Chowk area of Karachi, Pakistan. Best known as a provider of financial and materiel support for terrorist attacks, Abdul Qadir has reportedly switched allegiance from al Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS) and is hiding in Wadh, Balochistan presumably under the protection of IS leader, Shafiq Mengal, a former Pakistani intelligence asset.
Ammar Al-Baluchi, cousin of Ramzi Yousef and maternal nephew of KSM, is a Pakistani citizen in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Charges against him include facilitating the 9/11 attackers, acting as a courier for Bin Laden and plotting to crash a plane packed with explosives into the US consulate in Karachi. His former wife, Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani militant, was convicted of shooting at US soldiers and is incarcerated in the U.S.
The point being, that transnational terrorism, like fog, moves, and that the future of Afghanistan will be determined more by events outside its borders. In Pakistan’s southwest province of Balochistan, for example, there is brewing a toxic mixture of Chinese hegemony, Pakistani and Iranian regional ambitions, a growing Taliban infrastructure and increasing numbers of transnational Islamic terrorists as well as a potentially new, Syria-like, Sunni-Shia battleground, all of which will eventually undermine current U.S. plans.
U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is not only illogical, it is being overtaken by events.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.