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Jul. 24 2009 - 5:56 am | 17 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

Al Qaeda, Obama And Victory In Afghanistan

President Obama and Vice President Biden give a press conference with Afghanistan's President Karzai and Pakistan's President Zardari at the White House  in May 2009 (Lawrence Jackson/White House)

President Obama and Vice President Biden give a press conference with Afghanistan's President Karzai and Pakistan's President Zardari at the White House in May 2009 (Lawrence Jackson/White House)

Yesterday, President Obama told ABC News that he was uncomfortable using the word “victory” in relation to Afghanistan.

The two questions that have bothered me most since coming to Afghanistan have been “What is victory” and “What are we (the US, Europe, etc.) doing here?” I even wrote a feature for New York’s Village Voice about the trouble I had finding anyone who could answer these questions.

That Obama realizes the complexity of the situation on the ground here is refreshing. But his statement still leaves us with a big, black hole as to the end game in Afghanistan. Obama told ABC that, “We’re not dealing with nation states at this point. We’re concerned with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Al Qaeda’s allies. So when you have a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like Al Qaeda, our goal is to make sure they can’t attack the United States.”

Sounds great.

But how can you judge that? When can you draw the line and say, “Yup, Al Qaeda and all of their non-state actor pals are licked. Time to pack it in.” In many ways it is already impossible for AQ to plan large-scale attacks from here. Those terrorist training camps that dotted the Afghan landscape in the 90’s are long gone. Any group of AQ planners that meet in groups of more than three are likely to get a hellfire missile where the sun don’t shine.

Does this mean that the soldiers can all come home now?

My point is that any benchmark you set for success in Afghanistan (if success is defined as eliminating groups like AQ) is going to be imprecise in definition and very difficult, if not impossible, to measure for. The obvious exception to this is fighting. If success is defined as “a reduction in the number of insurgents shooting at or blowing up coalition soldiers,” that would be easy to measure (though I think difficult to achieve.) But would it really be success? If the goal is to eliminate terror groups and they’re not shooting at us here, but rather have relocated to Pakistan, what have we won?

I applaud the president’s attempt to be realistic with the American public about the mission here. But I’m still waiting for him to tell us just how this thing is going to end.

Of course, I have my own theory.


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  1. collapse expand

    Here is a question, are the coalition troops actually fighting “Al-Qaeda”? How many of the irregular forces that are firing rifles at NATO troops are in fact members of Al-Qaeda, i.e. Arab speaking foreign fighters? How many are Pashtun speaking foreign fighters from Pakistan or Iran recruited by the Taliban? How many are local Pashtun speaking tribesmen who have an entirely different agenda from Binladin, perhaps more tied to poppies, opium, and the local feudal lords? Are these the only groups and are their internal differences within them? How much do these different groups work together and to what extent are they hostile to each other? Is there in fact not a bright line separating friend and foe but perhaps a continuum with a large number of groups with varying degrees of hostility and amicability the NATO forces and Western goals.

    Perhaps there are many different victories, rather than just one.

  2. collapse expand

    I think your spot on with your “theory” P.J.
    David’s comment sums it up very well. So many more questions than answers.
    Maybe…there is no answer?

  3. collapse expand

    Thanks Holly! I quite like that little theory myself.

    David, you are absolutely right. I only mentioned AQ b/c Obama did. I’ve written plenty here about the Haqqani network and other criminal/terrorist gangs that keep the coalition busy. My Afghan friends have a catchall phrase for these groups: “Mafia.” Works for me.

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    About Me

    I’m a writer and reporter living in Kabul, Afghanistan. For the past four years I’ve been an investigative reporter at various Village Voice Media weeklies, and before that I worked on documentary films in New York City.

    I am currently a journalism mentor and news editor for The Killid Group, a not-for-profit radio and print organization based in Kabul, with five radio stations and many bureaus throughout Afghanistan.

    My writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, Village Voice, Modern Drunkard and other fine publications.

    Originally from Philadelphia, I’ve also worked in south Florida and Nashville, Tennessee.

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Kabul, Afghanistan