An Enemy on the Run

A Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit fires on Taliban positions in Afghanistan's Helmand province Friday.
A Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit fires on Taliban positions in Afghanistan's Helmand province Friday. (By David Guttenfelder -- Associated Press)
By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 4, 2008

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- The most interesting discovery during a visit to this city where Osama bin Laden planted his flag in 1996 is that al-Qaeda seems to have all but disappeared. The group is on the run, too, in Iraq, and that raises some interesting questions about how to pursue this terrorist enemy.

"Al-Qaeda is not a topic of conversation here," says Col. Mark Johnstone, the deputy commander of Task Force Bayonet, which oversees four provinces surrounding Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Pete Benchoff agrees: "We're not seeing a lot of al-Qaeda fighters. They've shifted here to facilitation and support."

You hear the same story farther north from the officers who oversee the provinces along the Pakistan border. A survey conducted last November and December in Nuristan, once an al-Qaeda stronghold, found that the group barely registered as a security concern among the population.

The enemy in these eastern provinces is a loose amalgam of insurgent groups, mostly linked to traditional warlords. It's not the Taliban, much less al-Qaeda. "I don't use the word 'Taliban,' " says Alison Blosser, a State Department political adviser to the military commanders here in the sector known as Regional Command East. "In RC East we have a number of disparate groups. Command and control are not linked up. The young men will fight for whoever is paying the highest rate."

The picture appears much the same in RC South, where British and Canadian troops have faced some of the toughest battles of the war. Members of the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province describe an insurgency that is tied to the opium mafia -- hardly a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism.

Traveling to the British headquarters in Lashkar Gah in a low-flying Lynx helicopter, you fly over mile after mile of poppy fields -- and hundreds of Afghan men in turbans and baggy trousers out harvesting the resin that will be turned into opium. British military officers and diplomats describe the core problems in their sector as bad governance, corruption and lack of economic development, not a resurgent al-Qaeda or Taliban.

Terrorist attacks such as last week's assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai demonstrate that insurgents are still able to create havoc. Indeed, the statistics gathered by the NATO-led coalition show that civilian and military casualties are up this year. That instability undermines the good work of the development projects. But commanders say it's spasmodic violence, rather than a sustained and coordinated campaign by a tightly knit al-Qaeda.

Traveling in Iraq this year, I've heard similar accounts of al-Qaeda's demise there. That stems from two factors: the revolt by Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaeda's brutal intimidation and the relentless hunt for its operatives by U.S. Special Forces. As the flow of human and technical intelligence improves and the United States learns to fuse it for quick use by soldiers on the ground, the anti-terrorist rollback accelerates.

The al-Qaeda menace hasn't disappeared, but it has moved -- to Pakistan. The latest State Department terrorism report, issued last week, says the group "has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas."

This evidence from the field suggests two conclusions:

First, al-Qaeda isn't a permanent boogeyman; it's losing ground in Iraq and Afghanistan because of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, especially the alliances we have built with tribal leaders and the aggressive use of Special Forces to capture or kill its operatives. These anti-terrorist operations require special skills -- but they shouldn't require a big, semi-permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. Local security forces can handle a growing share of responsibility -- perhaps ineptly, as in Basra a few weeks ago or in Kabul last weekend, but that's their problem.

Second, the essential mission in combating al-Qaeda now is to adopt in Pakistan the tactics that are working in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means alliances with tribal warlords to bring economic development to the isolated mountain valleys of the FATA region in exchange for their help in security. And it means joint operations involving U.S. and Pakistani special forces to chase al-Qaeda militants as they retreat deeper into the mountains.

The solution isn't to send a large number of U.S. soldiers into Pakistan -- indeed, that could actually make the situation worse -- but to send the right ones, with the right skills.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address

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