How can the American public be expected to support a new policy for Afghanistan when they don't know why we're there?
This is the question that bugs me as the Obama team continues to deliberate on its Afghan strategy. The president says we're there because al-Qaeda and its allies are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But his national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, has said there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Indeed, the terrorist group is reportedly based across the border in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
So what are we doing in Afghanistan?
This is the question the White House has yet to answer. The focus on al-Qaeda simplifies matters, but it fails to inform Americans of the full dimensions of the problem - and why the Afghan Taliban matters. Is it any wonder polls show support for our presence there is dropping fast?
Vice President Biden is gaining traction by arguing that we should concentrate on Pakistan and minimize our involvement across the border. Many pundits say it won't matter if the Afghan Taliban retakes the country, because it has broken with al-Qaeda.
So long as the White House talks only of al-Qaeda, the myth will grow that the Afghan Taliban doesn't matter. I understand why this myth is so attractive. If the Afghan Taliban is made up of primitives whose ambitions don't extend beyond their borders, it is no threat to us. So why bother to confront it?
But what if the Taliban and al-Qaeda are still wedded at the hip?
"Al-Qaeda is only part of the [jihadi] syndicate which operates in a loose coalition against us," says the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert who compiled Obama's first Afghan policy review in the spring. "This larger problem is what we should focus on.
"We've had this argument put forward that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not the same," Riedel continued. "We're told the Taliban are just angry Pashtuns, and we should focus on al-Qaeda and leave the Taliban alone. This is a fairy tale, a grotesque misreading of history."
Riedel says that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who played host to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and refused to give him up after 9/11, is still linked closely to the al-Qaeda leader: "While they do have different agendas, they've held together and nothing in the record suggests the Taliban is about to divorce." Riedel says he believes that if U.S. forces pull back, al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadis "would move to Afghanistan" as the Taliban took more territory.
Jon Landay and John Walcott, of the McClatchy Newspapers team that famously wrote of CIA concerns about overhyped intelligence on WMD before the Iraq war, now see the opposite problem. They write (with Nancy Youssef) that some U.S. intelligence analysts feel White House officials are minimizing the Taliban threat.
"Recent U.S. intelligence assessments," their article says, "have found that the Taliban and other Pakistan-based [jihadi] groups . . . have much closer ties to al-Qaeda now than they did before Sept. 11, 2001." These ties "would allow the terrorist network to reestablish bases in Afghanistan" and permit the expansion of radical Islam to Central Asia, should the Taliban retake Afghanistan.
And the noted Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, one of the world's top experts on the Taliban, told me a U.S. pullback in Afghanistan would lead to a "huge expansion" of Pakistani Taliban activity in his own country, which would threaten "uncontrolled chaos."
He said, "The blowback would be serious, and safe havens [for al-Qaeda] would be stepped up with the danger of a takeover of Pakistan." This raises the nightmare scenario that jihadis might try to provoke a war between nuclear-armed India and nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The reality of the Taliban threat doesn't tell us what should be done to fight it. It might be possible to split or woo away elements of the Afghan Taliban at some point. But as Riedel points out, "While the Taliban has the momentum, how are you going to get people who are willing to talk?"
Whatever decision he makes on strategy, Obama must come to terms with the threat the Afghan Taliban poses. And he must explain that threat to the American public.
That's why the current effort to downplay the Taliban and play up al-Qaeda is so risky. You can't confront one without a strategy to deal with the other. And the president can't persuade the public to back him if people don't understand the danger we face.