Guess who's making a comeback in Afghanistan?

With support for the war in Afghanistan dropping and the US launching a new one in Libya, the Obama administration will come under tremendous pressure to curtail or end the fight in the Af-Pak theater.  Even some normally hawkish conservatives have begun questioning whether we should be fighting in this region ten years after 9/11.  The fight against al-Qaeda has transformed into a sloggish tribal conflict between Pashtuns and just about everyone else, and with the elected government struggling with corruption and baiting radicals into riots, perhaps the expiration date has arrived for enough people for Barack Obama to declare victory and go home.

Unfortunately, the problem with this scenario is that al-Qaeda has not yet been defeated — and in fact, appear to have gained enough momentum to reopen their Afghanistan franchise:

In late September, U.S. fighter jets streaked over the cedar-studded slopes of Korengal, the so-called Valley of Death, to strike a target that hadn’t been seen for years in Afghanistan: an al Qaeda training camp. …

Over the past six to eight months, al Qaeda has begun setting up training camps, hideouts and operations bases in the remote mountains along Afghanistan’s northeastern border with Pakistan, some U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials say. The stepped-up infiltration followed a U.S. pullback from large swatches of the region starting 18 months ago. The areas were deemed strategically irrelevant and left to Afghanistan’s uneven security forces, and in some parts, abandoned entirely.

How did this happen?  Unfortunately, the US decided that its presence in this region was more disruptive than helpful, and that a retreat would undercut the Taliban.  Instead, it allowed AQ to return:

American commanders have argued that the U.S. military presence in the remote valleys was the main reason why locals joined the Taliban. Once American soldiers left, they predicted, the Taliban would go, too. Instead, the Taliban have stayed put, a senior U.S. military officer said, and “al Qaeda is coming back.”

The good news is that the NATO coalition has adjusted its tactics to meet the new threat.  They have been conducting raids in the area, although from the WSJ’s report, it doesn’t appear that the US will attempt to secure these difficult areas as they did before.  Using both special forces and conventional troops, the coalition hopes to drive AQ back out of Afghanistan soon.

But that’s not the real problem, and everyone appears to understand it better now.  The US in both administrations tried to drive a wedge between the Taliban — mainly Pashtun radicals — and al-Qaeda, mainly by making the war so costly for Pashtuns that they’d give up their alliance with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Without those ties, this fight turns into a murky tribal conflict, or a civil war at best, in which it’s difficult to argue that American interests are at stake.  The reinfiltration of Afghanistan shows that the Pashtuns in the Taliban have no intention of dumping bin Laden and Zawahiri.  More to the point, they realize that they can afford to wait years for the US to leave in order to provide AQ with training camps and recruits to attack the West while the Taliban attempt to seize Kabul and Kandahar.  The training camps already perilously close to a vital route to Jalalabad.

A withdrawal from Afghanistan puts AQ back into a failed state where it can plot and attack at will.  Those are the stakes involved in a retreat at this point.

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