An Absence of Strategic Thinking

On the Multitude of Lessons Not Learned in Afghanistan

This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com. (Photo: The U.S. Army / flickr)

The withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan cannot properly be described as international, an exit, or a strategy. The so-called transition to Afghan leadership by the end of 2014 is a timetable driven largely by U.S. domestic politics. When this timetable is complete, Afghanistan will still be at war.

In December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama outlined the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan: “…to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” The most striking feature of this policy is the treatment of al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single and uniquely dangerous threat. This is not because it is an ungoverned space. Large areas of Somalia and Yemen also fit this description. Nor is it because the population has ideological sympathy for al Qaeda. Pockets of support for al Qaeda can be found elsewhere, including in the West. And it is also not the only staging ground for attacks on the West. Al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa have, in recent years, proven more lethal than the core of al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan.

Instead, the region presents a pressing danger due to the unique confluence of radical ideology and nuclear weapons within it. Adherents to radical ideology are spread throughout the globe, and at least nine states have nuclear weapons. However, only in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan are there adherents to al Qaeda’s radical ideology less than a day’s drive from the world’s least secure nuclear arsenal. Moreover, al Qaeda does not need Afghanistan to achieve its goal of acquiring one or more nuclear weapons for use against

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