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.