Notes from Kabul: Al Qaeda defeat “within reach”

The new US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, has just arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul. His unannounced visit comes just one week after assuming his position. Speaking with journalists shortly before his arrival, Panetta said that a defeat of Al Qaeda was quote “within reach.” Why is Panetta so confident?

Kabul, Afghanistan — Following the death of Osama bin Laden and some other key Al Qaeda figures, the American Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta now feels that the same determination used to kill them could be used to capture or kill another 10-20 righ-ranking members of Al Qaeda’s leadership. He’s referring, of course, not just to Afghanistan, but the group’s reach in places like neighboring Pakistan, Yemen, Somolia and North Africa.

Notes from Kabul: Al Qaeda defeat
President Obama and the national security team receive an update on Operation Geronimo, a mission against Osama bin Laden (photo: United States Government)

His comments come at an interesting time. He just replaced Robert Gates, President George W. Bush’s top military man, who stayed on for the Obama administration. And Panetta’s new job was just one of a number of shifts in leadership. The head of the operation in Afghanistan, General David Petreaus, is taking over Panetta’s old job as head of the CIA. Petreaus’ number two is replacing him in Afghanistan. And there’s even been a shift in Washington’s ambassadors here in Kabul.

This is all part of a larger U.S. strategy intended to show that things are really kicking into high gear. And reflecting that, Panetta has come here to Afghanistan, quite confident that the Obama administration is ultimately doing right.

But the Americans will soon start leaving, as will some of the other foreign forces. Canada finished its combative role on Thursday, the first time it has ever left a war that is still ongoing. And what about the Afghan forces? Are they ready to handle a possible resurgence of the Taliban? President Barack Obama announced that he will gradually start to drawdown US troops from Afghanistan, starting this month (just in time to be surrounded by thousands of them at Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks). A partial handover of some sort of authority is expected on Monday. But there is a saying in Afghanistan: if you have the watch, we have the time. The Taliban do not have to fight to win, nor does Al Qaeda. They just have to survive. And it does not matter how long they wait, they will not go away.

New efforts backed by international leaders to include the Afghan Taliban in a future government thus seem like the only answer. Of course, there must be some sticks for such carrots, including their renouncement of violence.

The Israeli establishment could learn from what is taking place here, but the lessons could be both good and bad. If inclusion of the Taliban fails, Israel will cite it as reason to publicly and privately exclude Hamas from any negotiating table (assuming they would come in the first). And if inclusion succeeds, then Israel will cite a Taliban process of reform. And no, I am not equating Hamas with the Taliban. But if the U.S. actually does defeat Al Qaeda, Israel will insist it, too, can defeat what it calls “the local version of Islamic extremism”.

But using a conventional army in a battle against guerrilla warfare is difficult, if not impossible. Israel has learned as much in its dealings with Hezbollah, and the US has learned it in its ten-year dealings with Al Qaeda. If Panetta knows otherwise and can prove it, he just might succeed in changing how a number of defense ministers around the world view their own conflicts.