On Friday President Obama said he was “surprised” to win the Nobel Peace Prize and doesn’t “view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments.”
Here’s hoping he will feel more worthy after announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan.
Wednesday marked the beginning of Year Nine of the war. In the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Senator John Kerry, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Vietnam vet who knows a thing or two about the costs and consequences of a quagmire, convened a hearing titled “Confronting Al Qaeda: Understanding the Threat in Afghanistan and Beyond.”
It was timely, considering the United States went to war with the express purpose of “disrupting, dismantling and defeating the terrorist organization that attacked us on September 11,” Kerry said. Timely too because the president now faces increasing pressure to double down on US military presence there, rather than seek alternatives to escalation, including a drawdown of US forces. Two of the witnesses, Robert Grenier and Dr. Marc Sageman–both of whom served in the CIA, as station chief in Pakistan and on the Afghan Task Force, respectively–concurred that escalation would only further spread anti-American sentiment among Afghans and other Muslims, and that nonmilitary initiatives to contain Al Qaeda and foster civic development in Afghanistan would prove far more effective.
Kerry began the Q&A of the three witnesses by soliciting an update on how Al Qaeda is faring in Afghanistan eight years after the invasion. “The president’s strategy is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he said. “Is it a fair judgment to say that that has happened?… They’re not in Afghanistan?”
Sageman and Grenier agreed with that assessment. (The third witness, Peter Bergen, a journalist and senior fellow with the New America Foundation, said the number of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan wasn’t as important as “their influence ideologically and tactically.” As the lone witness who is a proponent of an increased military presence, it is striking that Bergen had the least amount of on-the-ground experience on the panel.)
Kerry also raised the issue of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven so that it can’t “plot at will against the United States.” He asked whether there is legitimate concern about “a new union [between Al Qaeda and] the Taliban.”
Sageman didn’t perceive such a threat.
“A Taliban return to power does not automatically mean an invitation to Al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan,” Sageman said. “The relationship between Al Qaeda and…[the] Taliban has always been strained.” In the event that the Taliban did extend such an invitation, Sageman noted in written testimony, “there are many ways to prevent the return of Al Qaeda…besides a national counterinsurgency strategy. Vigilance through electronic monitoring, spatial surveillance, a network of informants in contested territory, combined with the nearby stationing of a small force dedicated to physically eradicate any visible Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will prevent the return of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”