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An Unnecessary War

Afghanistan used to be the central front in the war against terrorism. Now it's a distraction from it.

First as candidate and later as president, Barack Obama famously described Afghanistan as "a war of necessity:" a war the United States could not afford to lose. Obama restated the case in the speech he gave last December announcing his decision to add 30,000 troops to the battle, asserting that Afghanistan and Pakistan constituted "the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda," and adding that the threat would "only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity." The only way to counteract this threat, Obama insisted, was to bolster American military capacity, and to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy to "increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region."

Most of the debate around Obama's war plans has centered on that counterinsurgency strategy: Is President Hamid Karzai too corrupt and erratic, are the Afghan people too hostile to foreign forces, is institution-building too intrinsically difficult, and are Afghan security forces too inept to justify the massive and belated effort to build Afghan stability and capacity? But this is actually the secondary issue. The central question is: Is it necessary? Would withdrawal in fact gravely jeopardize American national security?

The recent tentative overtures which Gen. David Petraeus has made to Taliban leaders show that this is no idle question. Although the official American position is that the Taliban must accept the authority of the state, a far likelier outcome is that U.S. and Afghan forces would withdraw from areas which would then be effectively occupied by the Taliban. How bad would that be?

In their recent report, "A New Way Forward," the members of the Afghanistan Study Group, a panel convened by the New America Foundation, argue flatly that Obama was wrong in thinking that Al Qaeda would "operate with impunity" in the space vacated by NATO forces. "Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is very small," they write, and thus containable with classic counterterrorism measures. Moreover, the Taliban "would likely not invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence" in a re-Talibanized Afghanistan. In fact, the authors argue, "the current U.S. military effort is helping fuel the very insurgency we are attempting to defeat." University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape, a member of the panel, has concluded after a study of 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks that foreign military presence itself is the chief trigger of terrorist attacks.

How plausible is all this? Let's take the claims one at a time. Administration officials have estimated that no more than 400 or so members of al Qaeda remain in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda is arguably a spent force, depending increasingly on zealous but ineffective volunteers. Marc Sageman, a CIA veteran now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has asserted in congressional testimony that more than three-quarters of the terrorist plots against the West executed or foiled over the last five years have been carried out by "homegrown terrorists" with no organizational connection to al Qaeda -- a phenomenon he calls "leaderless jihad." Focusing vast resources on any piece of geographical space is thus a strategic mistake.

On the other hand, the terrorism expert Peter Bergen argues that "the numbers are a red herring." Osama bin Laden only had 200 loyalists at the time of 9/11, after all, and still managed to do a great deal of damage. What's more, he adds, since al Qaeda "has infected other groups they're embedded with," including the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani body which carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, counting al Qaeda alone is misleading. And the lack of recent spectacular attacks hardly proves that al Qaeda central is history. Today's headlines that packages containing explosive devices were sent from Yemen to two synagogues in Chicago may indicate that al Qaeda is still capable of mounting terror operations overseas. Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert who helped shape the Obama administration AfPak policy and now serves as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written that the failed plots of the "Christmas bomber" and of the Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi show that al Qaeda has in fact regrouped. Had either succeeded, no one would be talking about the organization's decline.

Bergen also takes issue with the claim that the Taliban wouldn't be as foolish as to let al Qaeda tag along if and when they re-occupy much of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban are not "rational actors," he says. "Housing al Qaeda was not a rational act. And there's no reason to believe they would behave any differently from the way they did before." Nor, says Bergen, is it correct to say that the Taliban have no goals beyond overthrowing the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some sub-groups do; others don't.

How can one predict whether or not Taliban leaders will do what Westerners would deem the rational thing? Patrick Cronin, a national security specialist with the Center for a New American Security and a signatory of "A New Way Forward," is candid enough to say, "We don't know." The Taliban might well put out a welcome mat for al Qaeda-style groups. The Haqqanis, who have carried out many of the suicide attacks against NATO forces and have worked closely with al Qaeda, are "the nub of the problem," Cronin says, because a Haqqani presence in eastern Afghanistan would offer a new platform for international jihadists. But Cronin notes that Pakistani security forces, which have long sponsored the Haqqanis, do not want to see an al Qaeda connection and have been trying to "rein them in." The Haqqanis may have to be included in any final settlement -- Pakistan will insist on it -- but NATO forces will continue pounding the frontier areas.

But "can the effort succeed?" and "how bad would failure be?" are not quite the same question. On the first, much evidence has piled up; and most, though not all, of it points to "No." Counterinsurgency strategy doesn't work with a corrupt and illegitimate government, and an insurgency that can take shelter beyond the Pakistani border. But experience to date tells us almost nothing about the second question. Paul Pillar, another veteran CIA officer and signatory of "A New Way Forward," argues that the Haqqani-al Qaeda link "is not immutable." That may be; but there's no more evidence on that subject than on the rationality, or irrationality, of the Taliban. The Council on Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb has consistently argued that a troop reduction in Afghanistan, like the withdrawal from Vietnam, would provoke apocalyptic fears but prove to be an anti-climax. I find that notion appealing, though not necessarily persuasive.

But all costs are relative. And against the uncertain benefits of maintaining a very large military presence in Afghanistan over the next three to four years are the very large costs of staying in such large numbers. The $100 billion a year or so in resources may be the least of it. Whether or not Pape is right that foreign military presence itself is the cause of terrorism, it is surely a provocation in the eyes of millions of Muslims, some tiny fraction of whom will be moved to attack the West. And whether or not Sageman is right that al Qaeda-centric terrorism has given way to leaderless jihad, the focus on Afghanistan absorbs assets needed for criminal justice and surveillance efforts in all the other places where terrorism now germinates. The war is a terrible drain on Washington's attention, and on U.S. soft power and prestige. "It's hard to be taken seriously in Asia when we are still bogged down in Afghanistan," as Cronin says.

There are very few true wars of necessity. The Civil War was one; World War II was another. When Mullah Omar refused to give up Osama bin Laden, a war in Afghanistan became necessary. But then the war changed character, and the nature of the adversary changed as well. A war against Islamic terrorism, in some form, remains necessary. But the war in Afghanistan does not.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Spectacle of the Society

France's half-century social-spending spree is coming to an end -- and Nicolas Sarkozy is stuck holding the bag.

Four years ago, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposed allowing employers to hire workers up to age 26 to their first job on a probationary basis and be able to fire them without the immense rigmarole imposed by France's elaborate labor laws. The French took to the streets in outrage; I was able to take my son to his first manif, or demonstration. The Socialist Party backed the protesters all the way; their candidate for president, Ségolène Royal, told me that it was unjust to provide job security for businessmen but not for first-time employees. President Jacques Chirac -- by then a depleted force -- withdrew the proposal, humiliating Villepin, who resigned in early 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy won the party's nomination for president and then trounced Royal in the election in March of that year.

Sarkozy vowed to haul France into the market-oriented world of the global economy, but most of the reforms he introduced in his first years in office were timid or clumsy. Now, after much hesitation, he has made good on his promise by proposing legislation to raise France's retirement age for minimum pensions from 60 to 62, still low by the standards of the European Union. And he has, inevitably, provoked the whirlwind, just as Villepin did: Unionized truckers have blocked gas stations and refineries; workers have taken to the streets; and high school students have racked up some very satisfying confrontations with the police. But the stakes today are much higher than they were in 2006; both Sarkozy's presidency and France's long-term economic health depend on the triumph of common sense.

The drama of rewriting the postwar social contract is taking place across Europe. Over the past generation, globalization has challenged Western economic dominance and forced wages downward throughout the industrialized world; the economic crisis that began in 2008 delivered the coup de grace. The crop of European leaders unlucky enough to hold office amid all this has been stuck with the unpopular job of offering solutions. British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed a radical assault on the benefits of social democracy, including not just deep cuts in welfare spending, but the elimination of cherished middle-class subsidies. Cameron has also proposed raising the retirement age -- to 66. Greece, where a wildly intrusive and inefficient government brought the country to within a hairsbreadth of bankruptcy, has been convulsed by popular resistance to Prime Minister George Papandreou's proposed cuts. Germany is widely admired for having made painful changes to labor laws without endangering social peace, but the Social Democrats who drove those reforms were booted out of office in a spasm of public anger.

What Sarkozy is proposing is quite modest by comparison. Raising the minimum age to 62, and the age at which a full pension kicks in from 65 to 67, hardly solves the problem of a smaller and smaller number of workers supporting an ever increasing number of retirees. Even the Socialists have long acknowledged the need to make changes in social security, and both sides have agreed that workers' contributions to the system should not be increased. That leaves only increasing the retirement age and extending the number of years of employment required before workers can receive their pension -- which Sarkozy has also proposed. And as Gilles Andreani, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, observes, pension reform is the ideal vehicle for sending a signal to financial markets "because it shows a dedication to reform and rigor, but doesn't endanger economic growth," as Britain's budget cuts do. Given this inexorable logic, why the melodrama?

First, Andreani says, Sarkozy dithered. Instead of getting the decision out of the way over the summer, as some of his advisors wanted, he let it drag on until the rentrée, the traditional season for street demonstrations. And melodrama in the face of social change is a French birthright. The French have the habit of deploying the revolutionary gesture in the service of the reactionary cause of stopping change. "There is no political life here," as Alain Touraine, a pillar of French sociology, told me back in 2006. "The French have a revolutionary world; everything is black or white." Modest reforms quickly become intolerable affronts to Justice, Equality, and so forth. Students of the best lycées, members of communist-run unions, bank tellers, and insurance agents alike can all become, for one glorious moment, resistants.

Sarkozy is also incredibly unpopular, with approval ratings of 30 percent. Weakened, he makes a perfect target for protests. And the president is seen as a friend of the rich, both because he swans around on yachts and because some of his earlier reforms involved lowering taxes on the well-to-do. Pension reform hurts the working man but not, of course, the banker. And retirement age is an especially sacred issue in France. "A lot of people in France live in pretty grim suburbs, cannot afford to participate in the luxuries of a city like Paris, and spend as much as four hours a day commuting," says Thomas Klau, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "For these people, the social contract is to look forward to an early retirement because you put your life on hold until the moment you stop working." Try driving around a soulless French suburb, and you'll see what he means.

Americans have no reason to feel smug on this issue. Experts in the United States have long agreed, as they have in France, that the social security system is unsustainable and will ultimately bankrupt the country. And yet both parties fall all over themselves to pander to voters on the protection of those benefits. I have recently been pelted with emails from a liberal, union-supported group called the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, which boasts that "over 135 members of Congress" have signed a letter to President Barack Obama opposing any cuts in benefits or any further increase in retirement age. Of course, all attempts to include serious cost-control measures in the health-care reform bill failed. Rewriting the social contract turns out to be very hard, no matter how obvious the need to do so.

Although the demonstrations in France have begun to spin out of control, with radicals and disaffected youth trashing cars and provoking confrontations with police, Sarkozy will not retreat on pension reform and is likely to win a vote on the issue. (Both houses of Parliament have approved the measure and are likely to take a final vote next week.) A victory would cement his claim of being a force for reform and modernization, and might even improve his dismal poll ratings. It would also forestall the (unlikely) prospect of France losing its AAA bond rating and thus falling victim to the frenzy of currency speculation that savaged Greece this year. The French tradition includes accepting the outcome with a shrug once you've done your all in the streets.

Still, something bitter will remain. The 2006 demonstrations were fueled in part by the French fear of and distaste for marketplace liberalism, insecurity, and risk. The economy has since become more open and entrepreneurial, even if the labor market remains fiendishly regulated. But the protests today are also rooted in a deep sense of injustice: Why are the rich getting away scot-free, while ordinary people pay the price? No senior executives of Société Générale, the giant bank brought low by the actions of a rogue trader in 2008, have been punished for blithely encouraging reckless behavior. As Klau notes, "The price for wresting capitalism from collapse is paid by the poorer and weaker sectors of society rather than those most responsible for the collapse, who continue to derive the most benefit from the system." It's actually surprising that the French, with their contempt for bosses and their famously inflamed class consciousness, have been content merely to simmer over Sarkozy without demanding that the rich share the suffering.

You have to wonder how long this forbearance will last as countries throughout the West adjust to their diminished conditions. The one populist movement in the United States, the Tea Party, opposes the inheritance tax, the repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and most economic regulation. Its agenda can barely be distinguished from that of the American Bankers Association. What happens when finally the time comes to pay the piper -- to reduce entitlement spending and increase taxes? Will the rich still enjoy their immunity? Not likely.

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