19 Oct 2009

Afghanistan is “The Base”

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Peter Bergin, in the New Republic, explains the centrality of Afghanistan to the US effort defeat Islamic terrorism.

(Najibullah) Zazi, a onetime coffee-cart operator on Wall Street and shuttle-van driver at the Denver airport, was planning what could have been the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since September 11. Prior to his arrest last month, the FBI discovered pages of handwritten notes on his laptop detailing how to turn common, store-bought chemicals into bombs. If proven guilty, Zazi would be the first genuine Al Qaeda recruit discovered in the United States in the past few years.

The novel details of the case were sobering. Few Americans, after all, were expecting to be terrorized by an Al Qaeda agent wielding hair dye. But it was perhaps the least surprising fact about Zazi that was arguably the most consequential: where he is said to have trained.

In August 2008, prosecutors allege, Zazi traveled to Pakistan’s tribal regions and studied explosives with Al Qaeda members. If that story sounds familiar, it should: Nearly every major jihadist plot against Western targets in the last two decades somehow leads back to Afghanistan or Pakistan. The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 was masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, who had trained in an Al Qaeda camp on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Ahmed Ressam, who plotted to blow up LAX airport in 1999, was trained in Al Qaeda’s Khaldan camp in Afghanistan. Key operatives in the suicide attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000 trained in Afghanistan; so did all 19 September 11 hijackers. The leader of the 2002 Bali attack that killed more than 200 people, mostly Western tourists, was a veteran of the Afghan camps. The ringleader of the 2005 London subway bombing was trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The British plotters who planned to blow up passenger planes leaving Heathrow in the summer of 2006 were taking direction from Pakistan; a July 25, 2006, e-mail from their Al Qaeda handler in that country, Rashid Rauf, urged them to “get a move on.” If that attack had succeeded, as many as 1,500 would have died. The three men who, in 2007, were planning to attack Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. facility in Germany, had trained in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

And yet, as President Obama weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, the connection between the region and Al Qaeda has suddenly become a matter of hot dispute in Washington. We are told that September 11 was as much a product of plotting in Hamburg as in Afghanistan; that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are quite distinct groups, and that we can therefore defeat the former while tolerating the latter; that flushing jihadists out of one failing state will merely cause them to pop up in another anarchic corner of the globe; that, in the age of the Internet, denying terrorists a physical safe haven isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

These arguments point toward one conclusion: The effort to secure Afghanistan is not a matter of vital U.S. interest. But those who make this case could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism-and, at least for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be. Though it may be tempting to think otherwise, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.

A young Osama Bin Laden first arrived in the region around 1980 to wage jihad against the Soviets; he would spend most of his adult life in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda leaders have, since the ’80s, developed deep relationships with key Taliban commanders based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and members of the Haqqani family. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, has even married into a local tribe. …

Al Qaeda’s leaders are themselves keenly aware of the importance of maintaining a safe haven. The very words Al Qaeda mean “the base” in Arabic; and, as bin Laden explained in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2001, the name is not a reference to some kind of abstract foundation but, rather, to a physical spot for training: “Abu Ubaidah Al Banjshiri [an early military commander of Al Qaeda] created a military base to train the young men to fight. … So this place was called ‘The Base,’ as in a training base, and the name grew from this.”

But it isn’t just a safe haven that Al Qaeda wants; it is a state. As Zawahiri explained shortly after September 11 in his autobiographical Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, “Confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” No wonder Al Qaeda remains so committed to Afghanistan-and so deeply invested in helping the Taliban succeed.

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