Leon Panetta’s Bombshell

Note: This post originally appeared over at 24 Peace Scholars.

CIA Director Leon Panetta dropped a bombshell during his interview with ABC News last Sunday, but it landed in official Washington without stirring the slightest shock. Panetta stated that the total number of Al Qaeda terrorists currently active in Afghanistan is “relatively small. At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less.”

So why are we still fighting this war? Why is it necessary to deploy nearly 100,000 U.S. troops, plus tens of thousands of contractors and soldiers from other countries, to counter fewer than 100 fighters? Why not declare victory and go home?

Al Qaeda has weakened significantly in recent years, as Panetta’s statement indicates. Bin Laden’s network has lost ground politically and militarily in many countries, most spectacularly in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s decline has been caused primarily by revulsion and opposition in many Muslim communities. The organization’s brutal methods and gruesome attacks have killed more civilians than the operations of foreign troops. Al Qaeda has also created enemies by challenging traditional tribal leadership structures in Iraq and other countries. While Al Qaeda remains a global threat to security, its core organizational structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan has eroded.

The military mission in Afghanistan is a war against the Taliban, not Al Qaeda. We may not like the Taliban and their often harsh and misogynous practices, but they did not attack the United States on 9/11. They do not have a global terrorist agenda. They are fighting us, as Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen famously observed, “not because they seek our destruction but because they believe we seek theirs.” The typical Afghan insurgent is “fighting us because we are in his space not because he wishes to invade ours.”

So let’s get out of the way and start withdrawing foreign troops. Panetta’s statement and the firing of General McChrystal create an opportunity and a need to re-evaluate current policy. Waging war to destroy Al Qaeda makes even less sense now than it did before.

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