Belmont Club

The Outlines of the Monster

Eli Lake warns that al-Qaeda is setting up for the potential kill in Afghanistan:

As President Obama outlines what he promises to be the end of the war in Afghanistan, new U.S. intelligence assessments are warning that al Qaeda is beginning to re-establish itself there.

Specifically, the concern for now is that al Qaeda has created a haven in the northeast regions of Kunar and Nuristan and is able to freely operate along Afghanistan’s only major highway—Route One, which connects the airports of Kandahar and Kabul.

“There is no doubt they have a significant presence in northeast Afghanistan,” Mac Thornberry, the Republican vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a lot of speculation about exact numbers, but again part of the question is what are their numbers going to be and what are there activities going to be when the pressure lets up.”

A look at the map shows what this implies. If you imagine a triangle with Kandahar, Kabul, and Peshawar across the border as vertices, then al-Qaeda is positioning astride the Kandahar-Kabul and Kabul-Peshawar edges. If it cuts these links, the game is over. Eli Lake can also read a map and sees the obvious:

If Thornberry’s warnings prove correct, then Obama is faced with two bad choices. He either breaks his promise to end America’s longest war or he ends up losing that war by withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan too soon, allowing al-Qaeda to re-establish a base of operations in the country from which it launched 9/11.

But Rep. Adam Schiff, “a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee,” says that is the least of Obama’s worries: “(H)e said today the threat from al-Qaeda was far more worrisome in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.” Somehow, without the press noticing, al-Qaeda has metastasized.

Still, there are forebodings that some kind of “Tet offensive” will happen in Afghanistan as soon as American forces become too small to make a difference. The 10,000 troops Obama will leave in Afghanistan will buy him time, but not much else. When they go, it may be the Last Helicopter Out of Saigon again:

One U.S. intelligence officer whose focus is Afghanistan said al-Qaeda and its allies have already gained access to the Kunar River Valley as U.S. forces began to draw down its presence this year.

Another concern for the U.S. military and intelligence community is the access al-Qaeda now has to Route One, the highway that runs through the provinces south of Kabul that connects the capital city to Kandahar. The U.S. intelligence official said there remains disagreement on the group responsible for a massive truck bomb that was intercepted last fall before it could detonate at its target, Forward Operating Base Goode near Gardez in Paktia Province. “There is a lot of evidence that this was al-Qaeda,” this official said …

Needless to say, this is not the picture of Afghanistan painted this week by Obama.

This is not a scenario that any military planner wants to contemplate.

There’s drums along the Don, too.

This week the clashes in Ukraine came perilously close to open warfare between the regular forces of that country and Russia. “It’s no longer about amateurs. There is a full-scale war going on, and it’s fought by professionals. The Russians are here — and they’re making a grab for power in eastern Ukraine.” This came as Russian “separatists” shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, killing 12 including a general:

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have shot down a military helicopter near Sloviansk, killing 12 people, the Ukrainian military says. It says the rebels used a Russian-made anti-aircraft system, and that an army general was among the dead.

There’s trouble in Russia, little ducks. Who will contain it? We heard Obama at West Point. Somebody else will. America just needs to find out who and join up with them.

This comes amid news that NATO itself is in crisis. The alliance is embroiled in an internal debate over how to deal with Russia. Some members are looking to meet the threat from Moscow using non-NATO structures. Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, writes:

The old assumptions of NATO and EU solidarity, in the eyes of the countries most at risk, are being tested as never before. Some are privately wondering about new regional security relationships and arrangements to deal with the Russian threat. The existing Nordic defense cooperation, Nordefco, is gaining weight; it includes Sweden and Finland which are not NATO members.

Some NATO members are frankly balking at joining in any new arrangements. Turkey, for one, wants no part of any arrangement that could lead to a face-off with Russia:

The new regional arrangements are controversial inside NATO, because they imply a failure of the existing system. Turkey objects fiercely to any NATO involvement with countries outside the alliance, fearing that it would set a precedent for NATO cooperation with Israel. That has jinxed experiments such as trying to get Swedish and Finnish warplanes involved in policing the airspace of Iceland, a defenseless NATO member. Any new arrangements are best sold as a complement to NATO — but in the background, the countries involved appear to realize that they may have to be a supplement, or in the worst case even a substitute.

The ulcers of the Obama years are now festering. The menaces, once so vague, are taking on a definite shape. America may potentially face severe security challenges in Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Poland, Baltics), Southwest Asia (Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan), the Middle East (Syria, Yemen, Iraq), North Africa (Libya, Egypt, Sub-sahara) and East Asia (South China Sea, North Korea, Taiwan and Japan). All of these hotspots are simmering, though none as yet have blown up into an severe international crisis.

But in each of these theaters the design margin is ebbing away. The potential for danger in each of them is growing and in time they will flow into each other. For American resources that must rush to meet one of them cannot also meet the other. Once the trouble starts in one place, the bad actors in other places will seize their chance for mischief.

Nor do we see a president tirelessly organizing the bulwarks of democracy at every threatened point, unless he is doing so from the golf course or at fundraisers. It is in this context that Obama’s rambling “defense policy” speech at West Point should be understood.

It was his “no mas” speech, to quote Roberto Duran.

He sounded basically beaten and was making anticipatory excuses for what he knows is likely to happen. The phrase “we have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one” is a masterpiece of understatement. It’s a shrug from the same man who said in August 2009 that:

This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.

He’s gone from “war of necessity” in 2009 to “so what?” in 2014. His string of failures since 2009 have essentially converted all of America’s security challenges into “wars of choice,” in the phraseology of Richard Haas. He’s defined success downward to the point where it merely consists of pointing out where he’s going to get clipped next. “Wars of choice,” stripped of its resounding name, essentially means Obama is hoping to evade everything coming his way in the next few years by choosing not to war, even when the enemy is attacking in full force. In the case of Afghanistan, he is doing the minimum necessary to keep the symptoms of his failure from spilling out into the open.

How long before the crisis breaks? How long before something comes along he can’t run away from or fob off with a speech? No one can say. The calm may last indefinitely, or it may shatter tomorrow. Events are no longer in the hands of Obama, but drifting on the winds of chance. The ball is rattling round the roulette wheel of history. Round and round it goes. Where it stops nobody knows. We’ve glimpsed the face of the monster in the woods. All we have to do now is hope he doesn’t come our way.

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