Tag: al Qaida

Why the United States Might Never Leave Afghanistan

In autumn 2001, America’s initial purpose in Afghanistan—which made perfect sense—was to destroy or incapacitate al Qaeda and punish the Taliban government that hosted it. This was accomplished 11 years ago. Today, the purpose of the U.S. mission is ill-defined, but clearly involves nation building. What the coalition desperately needs is an achievable, realistic endgame, not an indefinite timeline that commits thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan until or beyond 2024.

A common argument is that America and its allies must create an effective Afghan state that can rule the country and prevent the return of the Taliban and, by extension, al Qaeda. Aside from the fact that al Qaeda can exist anywhere, from Hamburg to Los Angeles, it’s not at all clear that the coalition can either eradicate the Taliban or come close to creating an effective Afghan state.

As a Department of Defense Report declared earlier this year, “The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined with a significant regenerative capacity, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of [improvised explosive devices] and conduct isolated high-profile attacks that disproportionately field a sense of insecurity.”

Arguments that the coalition must eradicate the Taliban lose sight of what the term “insurgency” actually means. Guerillas typically fight when the opportunity is ripe. They can melt easily into a population, making it difficult for conventional troops to distinguish friend from foe. Combined with the Afghan insurgency’s ability to retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan, coalition gains can be quickly undone by such systemic factors that make insurgents resilient. Additionally, reporters Dexter Filkins and Kelly Vlahos provide excellent analyses that draw out the ethnic divisions and political factionalism posed by Afghan warlords, many of whom are regrouping and could potentially touch off a civil war in the years ahead.

As for the common contention that America must stay until Afghans can police and govern themselves, the current state of Afghan institutions ensure that it would take a decade or more before coalition forces could withdraw, with little promise of success.

detailed report released last year by the Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. government contracted for dozens of clinics, barracks, hospitals, and other facilities that exceed Afghan funding capabilities. For instance, the $82 million Afghan Defense University will cost $40 million a year to operate, which is well beyond the Afghan government’s financial capacity to sustain, according to DoD officials. Long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the Afghan National Security Forces could continue through 2025. Similar findings were uncovered by auditors at the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The expectation is that the United States will maintain a presence of some 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, while the World Bank estimates that Afghanistan will need $3.9 billion a year through 2024 for economic development. Ironically, when foreign policy planners in Washington make clear that they never intend to abandon Afghanistan, it’s their ambition to create a centralized state that will perpetuate that country’s dependency on foreigners.

Osama’s Feckless Plot against Obama

In three recent colums for the Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals bits of two letters found in Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him. One is a 48 page letter from bin Laden to Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda operative since killed in a drone strike. In the letter, bin Laden dispenses advice and dreams up potential terrorist acts, including a suggestion that al Qaeda teams shoot down planes carrying President Obama or General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Ignatius is doing some excellent reporting here, providing insight in bin Laden’s last days. But he inflates bin Laden’s stature, calling him a “terrorist CEO” and his feckless hope to kill Obama a “plot” that we should find “chilling.”

As I wrote in a letter published in Wednesday’s Post, Ignatius’s article reveals something closer to a fantasy than a “plot.” Ignatius notes that al Qaeda probably lacks the weapons to down standard military aircraft, let alone Air Force One. Additionally, it’s not clear that Kashmiri had the men to pull off the plan. We should not assume that he took these suggestions seriously rather than simply listening to bin Laden with strained patience, as with a cranky uncle. Perhaps the most absurd element of the letter is bin Laden’s political analysis. He argues that elevating Joe Biden to the presidency would somehow lead the U.S. into crisis rather than creating a massive rally-around-the-flag-effect.

This is a happy reminder of al Qaeda’s incompetence, not a chilling one. As John Mueller recently noted, the materials revealed about al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death are more evidence that the cunning, disciplined al Qaeda of popular imagination is a myth. Al Qaeda consists of disjointed groups of guys dodging drones and desperately trying to live up to their inflated reputation to terrorize. There is no true central command. That is clearly true today, and was likely the case even the al Qaeda’s 1990s heyday. That disorganization helps explain why most terrorism, even al Qaeda terrorism, is homegrown—mostly organized by small groups of people in the country where it occurs with little help from abroad. That gets you awful tragedies, as we saw this week in France, but hardly the apocalyptic nightmares we’ve been told to expect.

On April 13, Cato is holding a morning conference to explore homegrown terrorism, with one panel focusing on the United States and one on other western states. The panelists (including Mueller, Risa Brooks, Brian Jenkins, Glenn Carle, Michael Kenney and Mitchell Silber) will discuss, among other things, how al Qaeda’s lack of hierarchy affects its capacity to kill and terrorize. You can sign up here.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Awlaki and Due Process

The administration argues that suspected al Qaida terrorists – even U.S. citizens – can be targeted for assassination because they either (a) pose an imminent threat or (b) are part of an enemy army; and (c) other governments are unwilling or unable to act. Although the Fifth Amendment ensures that persons not be denied due process, it’s unclear what process is “due” – especially when the person is a citizen. For example, a U.S. citizen who threatens hostages with imminent loss of life can be killed by law enforcement authorities. Similarly, an American who serves in a foreign army against which the United States is at war is plainly a legitimate target.

Moreover, under the Nationality Act, a citizen can lose his citizenship if he intends to do so (although intent can be inferred by actions) and he either (a) declares allegiance to a foreign state, (b) serves in a post requiring such a declaration, (c) serves in armed forces in combat with the United States, or (d) serves as an officer or NCO in the armed forces of a foreign state.

Still, the killing of Awlaki is a close legal call. On balance, it’s probably unlawful. The imminent-threat contention isn’t credible. To my knowledge, no one has identified a threat that is imminent (meaning: about to happen). The part-of-an-enemy-army claim and the loss-of-citizenship argument raise several questions: First, is the Nationality Act itself constitutional? The Constitution establishes criteria for citizenship. Stripping someone of citizenship effectively changes those criteria, and Congress may not have that power. Second, even if the Nationality Act is constitutional, does al Qaida qualify as a foreign state for purposes of the Act? Are al Qaida agents equivalent to soldiers engaged in combat with the United States? Third, even if the Nationality Act might apply in Awlaki’s case, how do we know that he triggered the provisions of the Act? Can the administration simply assert that he met one of the tests for loss of citizenship, or must there be some threshold process to make that determination?

Finally, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force sanctioned force against those involved in the 9/11 tragedy. Awlaki, although not directly involved, probably qualified as part of an “associated force”; but actions that might self-evidently be lawful if Awlaki were actively fighting on a battlefield are less so when he’s allegedly plotting attacks from Yemen.

All told, when U.S. citizens are targeted, I’d be more comfortable with somewhat more process – not a trial before an Article III court, of course, but perhaps the equivalent of an assassination warrant that required a non-executive-branch body with relevant expertise to certify sufficient cause. Anything less risks disrespect for the Constitution, which could have regrettable implications in other areas. The separation of powers doctrine, if it means anything, stands for the proposition that citizens cannot be killed on command of the executive branch alone, without regard to the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Naturally, exceptions are justified for truly imminent threats. If I were convinced that involvement of another branch might result in Awlaki-types escaping punishment, I’d be more willing to invoke “emergency” powers – similar to hot pursuit – but not in this case.