October 3, 2009

Unintentional Intentions

Part of Vice President Joe Biden’s rationale for moving the battlefield from Afghanistan to Pakistan is that another troop deployment is unsustainable at home or abroad, obvious and hard to argue with. But the bulk of his strategy rests on the assumption that drones strikes have weakened al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which could be a fatal mistake.

“Our movement has gained more strength after the martyrdom of Baitullah Mehsud,” said Qari Hussain Mehsud, one of his lieutenants and chief bomb-maker of the TTP. “We are united.”

Pakistani and American officials have used the lull in Pakistan's tribal areas to proclaim defeat of the TTP. Information Minister Rehman Malik was recently forced to deny reports that the Pakistani army is protecting Taliban chief Mullah Omar in Quetta. He used Baitullah as an example of how vigorous Pakistan is hunting terrorists, claiming, “We have broken the back of the Taliban.”

Biden may be heartened by these words. In fact Malik and himself could get along well considering the similarities in their strategies. Malik sounded hesitant on an operation in Waziristan, as if, understandably, Pakistan wants to exhaust every last option before invading the final frontier. But Malik’s testimony also strikes a blow against Biden. After gloating of the TTP’s defeat, Malik warned al-Qaeda is still very much alive, who he called the TTP’s “main handler.”

And America is partly to blame.

The death of Baitullah Mehsud, judging by how the aftermath played out, can hardly be called a success; an AKI report detailed conclusive evidence that America drove the TTP and al-Qaeda closer together with a pair of missiles. Baitullah had allied himself with al-Qaeda but his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, is considered, “the new generation of the Taliban which completely reared under Al-Qaeda’s influence and has never communicated with the Pakistani establishment.”

With a recent barrage of bombings, the TTP announced it was merely respecting a lull with the Pakistan government and that any attack will be met with force. And now al-Qaeda has combined with the TTP on a new level thanks to America, pouncing on the opportunity of replacing Baitullah with one of their own. Hakimullah, fiery, vocal of his allegiance, and malleable, was the perfect fit.

al-Qaeda’s swift action implies it prepared for Baitullah’s death for some time. Already suffering from diabetes and kidney problems, Pakistan had green lit his death from above after the TTP’s lengthy bombing campaign turned the populace against it. His death was predictable, allowing al-Qaeda ample time to plot - they were probably lying in wait the whole time. That al-Qaeda and its allies managed to install Hakimullah so quickly and relatively easily suggests that it still maintains strength and influence in the FATA.

Among those who threw their weight behind Hakimullah was al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

This unintended consequence leads to serious questions of how successful Biden’s plan would be. Alone it's nothing more than a quick fix to freeze or draw down troop levels, and thus doomed to fail. Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders, aware of the hazards of guerrilla warfare, are constantly grooming replacements and Afghanistan’s military history is deep enough to provide an endless pool of recruits. Hakimullah may not last long and he doesn't have.

The problem isn’t necessarily finding and killing Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, but that the “offshore” theory ironically demands concerted nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's not a substitute.

On top of this, the strategy actually wrestles control out of America’s hands. Authority can be effected through ground operations and genuine counterinsurgency, but White House officials have no idea what will happen after the missiles fall. They could inadvertently put al-Qaeda in charge of everything. Now the real question is, do they want this?

As the argument spins faster and faster around who America’s true enemy is, al-Qaeda or the Taliban, the answer seems simple - both. But an even easier answer could be forged by fusing them together. Then they are one and the same, no distinctions, absolute to target. With one missile al-Qaeda took over the TTP.

The same reaction recently occurred after the death of Saleh Nabhan, al-Qaeda’s commander in Somalia. A few weeks later Adi Zubeyr, al-Shabab’s leader, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Is that what President Obama wants? Given the result of these two assassinations, why else would Biden advocate a strategy that merges al-Qaeda with regional insurgents?

Vice President Joe Biden and his supporters should reconsider the effectiveness of their strategy. Drone strikes have killed plenty of “bad guys,” but they won’t turn the hose off, only nation-building partnered with reliable government can do that. Drones also play into the hands of al-Qaeda, who seem to use them as steps to take over the TTP’s ranks. Officials may believe their increased collaboration would make the war easier to sell, but intentionally merging the two groups could make the final entity harder to destroy.

Afghanistan needs to be solved in Afghanistan, not by pulling triggers thousands of miles away. Find a way out or do the job right.

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