If We Lose Afghanistan

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

AT THE heart of the Obama administration's deliberations about Afghanistan is the question of whether U.S. security rests on the defeat of the Afghan Taliban movement. The discussion often gets narrowed to the point of whether al-Qaeda, which is based in Pakistan, would gain a new haven in Afghanistan if the Taliban returned to power, so we'll start there. We won't, however, linger long, because for almost all military and civilian experts on the region the question is a no-brainer.

"Just like water running downhill, they're going to come back in," Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday. "I think there's a real possibility," said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Al-Qaeda, however, is not the only reason to fight the Taliban. In fact, it may no longer be the most important one. By most accounts al-Qaeda has been put on the defensive in recent years, badly damaged by U.S. drone attacks and by its defeat in places such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Taliban, on the other hand, has grown steadily stronger and more ambitious -- not only in Afghanistan but also in nuclear-armed Pakistan. The movement doesn't recognize the border between the two countries, since it is rooted in the ethnic Pashtun community that extends from southern Afghanistan through eastern Pakistan. By advancing to within 65 miles of Pakistan's capital earlier this year, the Taliban made obvious that it aims to destroy both governments.

It's true that the Taliban is fragmented, with some bits focused on Afghanistan and others on Pakistan -- though all are headquartered in Pakistan. But there is considerable evidence that the groups coordinate their actions. If the Taliban were to regain power in Afghanistan, it would provide a new base for attacks on Pakistan. And the Pakistani army, which has veered among backing the Taliban, making deals with it, and, most recently, going to war against it, would almost certainly give up its fight if the United States did.

That doesn't mean the Taliban or al-Qaeda would suddenly get hold of Pakistan's nuclear weapons -- though that is the ultimate danger. It does mean that the larger "Afpak" region that the administration has defined as a focus would be destabilized, along with much of the rest of south and central Asia. As long as the Taliban were a dominant force in Afghanistan, Pakistan would be in danger of succumbing to radical forces. In the likely event that Afghanistan was plagued by an endless civil war -- as it was during the Taliban's last ascendancy -- the country would again become a place of proxy conflict among Pakistan, India, Iran and other nations. Not those countries, but the United States would be blamed for the horrendous humanitarian cost -- including the brutalization of women that would occur wherever the Taliban gained authority.

Defeating the Taliban and fostering an Afghan government and army that can stabilize the country are daunting tasks that will require years of patience. It could be that even a concerted effort, along the lines proposed by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, would fail. There should be no mistaking, however, what the stakes of this conflict are. Whether or not al-Qaeda regains its pre-9/11 haven, a Taliban victory would be a catastrophe for the United States and its allies.

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