All Writings
January 11, 2010

9/11: Repercussions And Realignment, Part 4

Recently I was asked by some colleagues at the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara, Turkey to write a chapter of book they are publishing on the "Middle East after 9/11."* As many of you know, I am very supportive of Turkey's increasing involvement in the development of the Middle East, and I agreed to give my perspective on the seismic shift and its many repercussions that the events of September 11th had on the greater Middle East. Today, more than eight years have gone by since the economic and political hallmarks of United States were attacked by a rogue terrorist group, and the world is still coming to terms with how to effectively deal with terrorism born out of religious fanaticism and a discord between East and West that has been simmering since the Cold War. As the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved, the brawn or logic of the US and its allies alone will not suffice to create stability in the Middle East. To this effect, a careful cultural and psychological reading of what has moved the Middle East in the past eight years is critical to understanding the crossroads we are at today. With permission from ISRO, I will be releasing sections of the chapter over the next few weeks, continuing with Part 4: Afghanistan.

** Since this chapter, 9/11 Repercussions and Realignments was published, President Obama announced his official policy on Afghanistan, which takes into consideration many of the suggestions outlined below. The decision to send an additional 30,000 troops, as well as the time table for transferring authority to the Afghan troops in 18 months was widely dissected by the media, but overall should be seen as a positive development. If President Obama, Secretary Gates, General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry are able to follow the points below, it is likely that the US can start a successful troop withdrawal before the end of Obama's first term.

The war in Afghanistan:

What might have been considered a triumphal military feat against the Taliban and al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11 turned out to be merely the beginning of the United States' current dilemma in Afghanistan. The Taliban government's refusal to take on al Qaeda operatives and training camps operating out of Afghanistan brought America's military intervention in 2001. Within a few weeks the war, US forces overthrew the Taliban and pushed al Qaeda out of many of the city centers. The US and its allies were hailed globally for having ousted and largely destroyed one of the most oppressive regimes, and the American public supported what was seen as a fight against those who had attacked their way of life. It is tragic however, that America's initial success was not sustained through carefully planned reconstruction efforts and the building of Afghan military and security to prevent the return of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

President Bush's obsession with Saddam Hussein in Iraq shifted his attention from consolidating the gains from a war of necessity in Afghanistan to waging a war of choice in Iraq. In establishing the Bush Doctrine, based on preemption and America's sovereign right to attack anywhere its interests are threatened, President Bush moved on to Iraq with a plan that was ill conceived, ill managed, and at a cost exceeding one trillion dollars and still counting. Moreover, instead of capitalizing on the international good-will and sympathy engendered after 9/11 to rally the international community against international terrorism, he alienated nations with his unilateralism and "with us or against us" attitude. Nearly nine years later, the United States must now fight the war in Afghanistan anew while struggling to define what kind of war is worth the blood and treasure it will take to succeed.

The situation that President Obama inherited from the previous administration has thrust him into a difficult position in deciding what measures to take in order to bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion. Extensive deliberations over a new strategy and the next course of action have taken place by the White House, Obama's National Security Team, Congress and the military. After repeated failures to build a thriving democracy or eliminate terrorism, the new American administration is trying to redefine the objective of the war in Afghanistan-especially as President Obama considers sending additional American troops to bolster these efforts. To ensure that the end result of America's commitment to Afghanistan leaves the Afghan people with a country that is both safer and more prosperous, the US must focus on six key issues.

Adopting a counter-terrorism strategy:

The Obama administration must embrace under any circumstance a counter-terrorism strategy which consolidates its many civilian and military efforts in the region. It is important to note that the original purpose of the war in Afghanistan was to destroy al Qaeda and its operational structure-and this mission remains as valid today as it was in 2001. The administration's counter-insurgency tactics have thus far proved to be considerably successful, inflicting substantial losses to al Qaeda and rendering the organization considerably weaker than it has been in many years. However, in its broader counter-terrorism strategy to restore order in Afghanistan, the United States must be sure to distinguish between al Qaeda and the Taliban, as the later organization is both diverse and indigenous, so there is no realistic possibility of eliminating it. To deal with the Taliban in the long term, the United States must also differentiate between the ideological followers, those who are fighting for financial gain, and the "accidental guerillas" driven by personal vendettas against American heavy-handedness. The latter two are motivated by personal grievances and interests, and are likely candidates to join the political process if given a voice in local affairs that affect them.

The United States must, therefore, provide the Taliban with the security to reintegrate into their communities and give them the tools to establish a new means to support themselves. These people ultimately must be engaged, and their more ideological counterparts are marginalized, as there is no other realistic alternative given how deeply the Taliban are entrenched in Afghan communities. A variation of this strategy was instrumental in shifting the direction of the Iraq war, as the Sunni extremists were lured back into the political process in the Sunni Awakening. For a similar effort to succeed in Afghanistan, the Taliban members who would be willing to switch sides and the civilians who would also join the process must be sure that the American's will not abandon them once they change allegiance, as they are terrified of Taliban retribution. The safety of the Afghan civilians-as American General Stanley McChrystal has emphasized-must remain in the forefront of every strategy, as the Americans will need the trust of the Afghan people if they want a partner in this war.


An integral part of President Obama's plan for Afghanistan must address the reconstruction and revitalization needs of the Afghan people on a community level. Providing Afghan villages with jobs and resources so that people have a stake in their communities will be an essential part of undermining the Taliban. Capacity-building, as part of a comprehensive counter-terrorism agenda, should take place through Provincial Reconstruction Teams as they work closely with local Afghan ventures and Non-Governmental Organizations. Aid and reconstruction projects in Agriculture and education are often welcomed by the people, and can bolster military efforts throughout the region. In his March address on Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama stated, "To advance security, opportunity, and justice…we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs." In order to undermine the presence of the Taliban in Afghan communities, basic needs of the Afghan people, such as jobs, education, and healthcare, must be met.

Reconstruction should not entail building new cities with shopping centers; it means developing health clinics and an infrastructure of roads so that Afghan farmers can better transport their produce and foster trade. Over time, Afghans will develop a vested interest in maintaining what they have gained through reconstruction, and will work to secure these gains against the threats they face from the Taliban. In this respect, the US, World Bank, International Monetary fund and United Nations should devote aid and resources to those projects and organizations which have shown moderate success developing jobs and services. The focus of these efforts must be on sustainable development projects that Afghan communities can maintain and develop for years to come, encouraging active involvement.

Build a potent Afghan military and security personnel:

To sustain the two previous initiatives and to allow the United States to settle on a realistic exit strategy, the United States and its international partners must increase their efforts on training the Afghan military and internal security forces. The number of Afghan forces needs to be significantly increased and properly trained so that they will be capable of facing threats on their own over time. To that end, the United States must build up the capability of the Afghan army, while at the same time changing culturally the way they operate in terms of their mission, as well as their personal responsibilities to reduce civilian break-ins and casualties. The current Afghan military of 93,000 troops should be tripled in size, and the Afghan police force should be doubled from its current 80,000 members. This process will undoubtedly be extremely difficult and will take a substantial amount of time, yet it remains an absolute necessity. Without a strong and well-trained security apparatus, al Qaeda and the hard-core Taliban fighters can easily reconstitute themselves upon American troop withdrawal, and pose significant threats to the United States and its allies. This is where the Obama administration, NATO, and its international partners-especially the EU-should allocate training personnel and necessary funding.

Providing Pakistan with the military means:

Since the war in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to Pakistan, the Obama administration must understand that as long as al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan, they cannot be defeated. For this reason, the United States must make it increasingly possible for the Pakistani army to battle the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda on its own, with full US support. The Pakistani army takes pride in its fighting force, especially after its successful offensive last summer against the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat area. Encouraged by their success, the military has begun an even larger offensive in South Waziristan to uproot the Taliban and al Qaeda from their stronghold. What the Pakistani army needs is better and more sophisticated equipment and training to conduct a more independent and sustainable campaign. The Pakistani government-and especially the military-wants to demonstrate that they are fighting to preserve the national security and integrity of Pakistan, and that they are not merely acting at the behest of the United States. Enabling Pakistan to defend itself against the Taliban and al Qaeda should be the United States' ultimate objective, and the Obama administration must therefore do everything possible to realize that goal. In the same respect, large amounts of US money that have been used by Pakistani officials to beef up the military threat against India or fund lavish personal lifestyles need to be kept in check. The money that the US gives to Pakistan must come with conditions, and should be tightly allocated.

Addressing the pervasive corruption:

As part of a holistic American strategy, part of which must deal with nation-building, the US must work in tangent with the UN to address the pervasive corruption in Afghan government. While the Afghan democracy in its nascency, rampant corruption has impeded its ability to govern fairly, and caused a great amount of resentment from the people. If Afghans do not believe in the democratic process or its results, they will boycott it and undermine its legitimacy. So far this has had disastrous effects among the Pasthtun community, as flagging support for Karzai has translated into resentment for the American's who continue to support him. For this reason, the United States must ensure that the next Afghan government earns the trust of the public. Whether such a government emerges organically from a re-election or from a coalition, it is critical that the new government undertake some serious house cleaning. This will not happen without quiet American probing to see that that all new cabinet members are selected-to the best extent possible-based on professional expertise and merit rather than personal allegiances. The Obama administration must insist on this requirement, as it risks losing both its own credibility, and thereby the Afghan public support. Moreover, the United States and its allies must introduce more comprehensive training techniques among the Afghan security and military forces, to help instill a sense of nationalistic duty as opposed to ethnic allegiance. The US and its allies are in a strong position to do this, especially because they have a direct hand in their initial recruitment and throughout their training.

Establishing an exit strategy:

As the focus now shifts back to Afghanistan from Iraq, it is essential this time that the United States' goals are realistic and attainable, with a clear exit strategy in mind. This war is undoubtedly dangerous and complex, so anything less than a full consideration of the options available would put thousands of lives unnecessarily at risk. President Obama must insist on an exit strategy, so that the continued American campaign in Afghanistan is directed toward that end. It is equally important to emphasize that this is not just an American war. In the final analysis, the Afghan people and their government-and the same can be said about Pakistan-must learn how to deal with internal insurgents and terrorist groups that undermine their government. The Afghan and Pakistani people do not want to see their country ravaged by an endless war, nor do they want to see hundreds of thousands American troops effectively occupying their land.

Although the Taliban has staged a remarkable military comeback in recent months, it has been able to do so only because past failures to help Afghans develop a sustainable economy and a potent security force. The US abandoned the Afghans years ago after helping the Mujahedeen defeat the Soviet forces. The United States cannot repeat the same terrible mistake and lose this war, either by exhaustion or because of our inability to sustain it with the proper course of action. If the Taliban manages to defeat the United States, it will not only cause a resurgence among other Islamic groups, but it will have enormous implications for US military credibility, as they can rightfully claim to have defeated two superpowers. The Obama administration is not only morally obligated to bring peace to this ravaged country, but it is in America's ultimate national security interests.

*Sedat Laciner – Arzu Celalifer Ekinci (eds.), /11 Eylul Sonrasi Ortadogu/, (Ankara: USAK Yayinlari, 2009)