The Abandoned Front in the War on Terrorism

While conservatives have been focusing on Iraq, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been rebuilding their capabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the sixth anniversary of September 11 approaches, the American public and policymakers have been focused on the upcoming General Petraeus report and the debacle in Iraq. In the meantime, the situation in Afghanistan, a central battlefield in the fight against global terrorism, is swiftly deteriorating.

Let us not forget that it was from Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda trained for and planned their September 11 attacks. The Taliban—the extremist government of Afghanistan—gave Osama bin Laden and his organization a safe haven within its borders from 1996 until October 2001 when the government was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion.

Yet almost six years after the invasion of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain on the loose. And according to the most recent installment of the Terrorism Index, a survey of foreign policy experts conducted by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine, 84 percent of experts believe the United States is not winning the war on terror.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda have reconstituted their capabilities and command structure along the Afghan-Pakistan border, again posing a threat to the national security of the United States. These forces take advantage of the weakness of the Afghan and Pakistani governments in those areas, the paucity of international forces in Afghanistan, the lack of progress on reconstruction, and an exploding drug trade in Afghanistan.

Within Pakistan, the Taliban have effectively taken control of much of the tribal territories, and the absence of security and government authority in the region have made it a safe haven for Al Qaeda terrorists, according to the National Intelligence Estimate from July 2007. Afghan insurgents are now the de facto authority in much of the Pashtun south of Afghanistan, and attacks against coalition and NATO forces have dramatically increased over the past two years. For the first time, insurgents are using suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices in their attacks, tactics imported from the war in Iraq.

The U.S. approach to stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan over the last six years has been characterized by carelessness despite the dangers posed by a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the centrality of Afghanistan to U.S. national security interests. The United States has not provided the necessary resources, troops, and leadership to keep Afghanistan on the path to stability. Years after President Bush proudly proclaimed a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan and promised to help build a democratic state, reconstruction and economic development have stalled; opium production has skyrocketed; the Afghan government is weak, lacking in capacity, and often corrupt; and security conditions are deteriorating as the insurgency grows in strength.

Afghanistan is clearly in need of greater U.S. help. Stabilizing Afghanistan and countering the insurgency will require a massive renewed commitment. Afghanistan needs new infusions of aid, an increase in troop levels, and a shift in focus to state-building, specifically creating a competent, accountable government. The United States and its allies must counter the insurgency within Afghanistan with more forces and a renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency techniques that focus on securing the safety and support of the population.

The United States must also increase pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist and militant shelters that have developed within its borders. President Musharraf has provided significant assistance to the United States in fighting international terrorism, but he has been reluctant to take on the extremists in the border areas to the extent necessary. As long as the Taliban and other insurgents can rely on their bases within Pakistan, they will be able to conduct attacks in Afghanistan—and where insurgents are in control, Al Qaeda is rarely far behind.

The grim situation in Iraq threatens to undermine the mission in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are strained to the breaking point and Americans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with U.S. engagement in the Muslim-Arab world. But Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan has a democratic government that is not divided along sectarian lines; its security forces (especially the Afghan National Army) are loyal to the central government and are strengthening everyday; and it has a population that supports the international coalition and wants American troops to stay. With a renewed commitment, the United States and its allies can assist Afghanistan in becoming a stable state that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists such as the perpetrators of September 11.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow