Afghanistan needs timetable for withdrawal, says US expert
America is not paying much attention to it, and neither are the other Nato countries involved in Afghanistan. But the underlying assumption for the war, says CIA veteran Paul Pillar, is no longer valid.
Paul Pillar knows what he is talking about. He worked for the CIA for almost 30 years and he was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia during the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).
Pillar says he always had doubts about the case for the Iraq war - the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction. But he says he caved in to the pressure the Bush administration was putting on the intelligence community, and agreed to what he now admits was an exaggerated threat assessment. "It is still on my mind," he says with a pained expression in his office at Georgetown University, where he now teaches security studies.
He has kept a close watch on the operation in Afghanistan. And he worries that at a time when president Obama is under pressure from the military to send extra troops to Afghanistan there is little or no attention for the one question that matters: why are we still even in Afghanistan?
"The US and other Western governments say we are in Afghanistan in order to deny terror groups like Al Qaeda a safe haven from which to plan new attacks. But that is no longer a valid assumption. Terrorists don't need a sanctuary to plan attacks from. We are investing enormously in an operation that is based on a flawed assumption. The reality is that the terror threat to the West would not significantly increase if we were to leave Afghanistan.
"Terror groups will use a safe haven if it is there. I'm not saying it doesn't make any difference. But is not critical to them. Other things matter more to terrorists: popular support, skills, money, logistics... There is nothing they can do in Afghanistan they couldn't do some place else. Planning, coordinating and preparing terror attacks can be done from anywhere, I have learnt over the years."
"Look at the record of 9/11. Al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan did not play a big role in that operation. The real work – the planning by Khalid Sheik Mohammed – was done away from the camps. The preparations were made in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the US. And don't forget: if a group really needs a safe haven it doesn't have to depend on Afghanistan. We already know they are able to operate in Pakistan, and there is Somalia and Yemen too."
9/11 was the rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan. Was that wrong too?
"I thought the invasion was an appropriate response to 9/11. It was mainly political: the American people would not have settled for anything less. The Taliban lost control of at least 80 percent of the country, and Al Qaeda was routed. So something was accomplished. But that has nothing to do with the question of what the US and its allies should do now."
Are there other justifications for the war in Afghanistan?
"You mean that events in Afghanistan influence what happens in Pakistan? That's what we call 'mission creep': you expand your mission as it lasts longer. But Nato wouldn't be in Afghanistan if it wasn't for 9/11. So if the stability of Pakistan was the reason for the war we would never have gone there.
"I also think the importance of Afghanistan for Pakistan has been exaggerated. It doesn't amount to much really. We keep hearing scary scenarios about what could happen in Pakistan - mad mullahs getting their hands on nuclear weapons. It is highly unlikely. So I don't think we can keep justifying our mission in Afghanistan any longer by pointing to the situation in Pakistan."
Your advice is that Nato should withdraw?
"If general McChrystal [the US commander in Afghanistan, Ed.] gets his way – I understand he wants 45,000 extra troops – then the US will reach the level of the Russians at the peak of their deployment in the eighties: more than 100,000. You don't want to go there. I'm not in favour of a precipitate withdrawal. I would envision something parallel to what is going on in in Iraq, where we're pulling out all the troops by the end of 2011. A timetable for withdrawal."
So the president, who has called this 'a necessary war', was wrong?
"The president has gotten himself in a box. That is against the backdrop of the whole way Afghanistan played a role in the campaign. He didn't want to look like a wimp on national security. And now he's stuck with it. He called Afghanistan a necessary war as recently as March. It is hard to back away from a statement like that just a few months later.
"He is very vulnerable politically speaking. If he doesn't grant the request McChrystal is making, and there is a terror attack with some kind of Afghan connection to it, his political opponents are going to be jumping all over him, 'You didn't do what our militairy commander said we needed to do, and now look, Americans are dying at the hands of terrorists you refused to fight.' He knows that. So if he doesn't send the extra troops, and I expect he won't, he will go all out with unmanned airplane strikes on terrorist targets - even if that doesn't make sense from a strategic point of view."
You are pessimistic then?
Suppose you get a call from a Dutch politician who wants to know if the Netherlands should stay in Afghanistan beyond 2010?
"My strategic concerns apply to our allies like they do to the US. The Dutch government has to make its own decision. Obviously relations with Washington will play a role."
You would advise the Dutch government not to continue its military operations in Afghanistan?
"I'm an American. It is not in my interest as an American if the US has to make all the sacrifices in Afghanistan. In that sense it is in my interest that the Dutch troops stay."
But you're also saying the Netherlands need to realise the whole operation is based on a threat that doesn't amount to much?
"That is correct. Because that aspect – that the threat of more terrorist attacks wouldn't increase significantly if we allow the terrorists to have a sanctuary – applies to the Netherlands just the same."