Containment Redux

The stated goal of the American war in Afghanistan is to prevent Al Qaeda from reobtaining a safe haven there and to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” the terrorist network.  The US has essentially adopted a new containment strategy for the 21st century.  During the Cold War, the main objective of US foreign policy was to contain the Soviet Union and prevent it from extending its territorial reach, either directly or through proxies.  The aim of containment redux is to confine Al Qaeda’s central leadership to Pakistan.

Whether containment redux will enable the US to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda is dubious.  The strategy will do none of the above in-and-of-itself because Al Qaeda’s headquarters is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.  Defeating the Taliban insurgency will not eliminate the militant bases across the border.

Drone airstrikes may help disrupt Al Qaeda by killing some of its leaders and forcing others into hiding, and having secure airfields in Afghanistan is critical for such operations, so in that sense subduing the Taliban would indirectly help the US achieve one of its ultimate goals.  But airstrikes alone will not dismantle the organization because individual leaders can be replaced, and they will certainly not defeat Al Qaeda by destroying it or rendering it incapable of carrying out mass-casualty attacks.

To dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda’s central apparatus, the US will have to persuade the Pakistani government to conquer the tribal areas in Pakistan and move against Al Qaeda leaders who are reportedly hiding in Quetta, or invade the area with American military forces.  The administration is incapable of doing the former, and it is unwilling to do the latter.

Containment redux may serve America’s national security interests, but policymakers should recognize the limits of what that strategy can achieve.  More direct military action in Pakistan will be required to achieve the administration’s counterterrorism  objectives, but the risks of escalation, including destabilizing Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, may not be worth taking.

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