With the American public growing more pessimistic about Afghanistan, war proponents are renewing their case in the face of new estimates that say no more than 100 al Qaeda operatives remain in the country.
In one of his first statements to Congress after being picked in June to command war operations, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus explained why nearly 100,000 troops are in Afghanistan nine years after the conflict began.
"In short," Gen. Petraeus said, "we cannot allow al Qaeda or other transnational extremist elements to once again establish sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies."
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta fueled the debate this summer by disclosing that his agency can count only 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. He said the number may be as low as 50.
Couple that with remarks by the former commander, retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who said, "I do not see indications of a large al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan now," and the question arises about why the U.S. is in Afghanistan, given it was al Qaeda that attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Why aren't U.S. troops fighting in Pakistan, where the al Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden, fled and regrouped?
James Jay Carafano, a military analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said a U.S. exit from Afghanistan would bolster al Qaeda throughout South Asia.
"If you don't have an Afghan government that can stand by itself, the Taliban will be back," he said. "That means civil war and maybe genocide. Al Qaeda will be back and so will camps that could lead to the next 9/11, plus a resurgence of terrorism across South Asia and huge propaganda victory for al Qaeda."
An al Qaeda resurgence also could lead to increased violence in the Kashmir region, he said, "meaning nuclear-armed Pakistan and India come to blows."
"NATO fails and crumbles" and "U.S. prestige and credibility crumbles," Mr. Carafano added.
Some pro-war analysts dispute the estimates on al Qaeda.
Bill Roggio, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who edits the LongWarJournal.org, said his sources, the enemy's martyrdom statements and a reading of command press releases indicate that many more al Qaeda operatives are in Afghanistan.
"I've been doing my own investigation on this, looking for al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan," Mr. Roggio said. "A thousand would be my estimate. A lot are low-level fighters. But they are members of al Qaeda."
A military intelligence source told The Washington Times that commanders think at least 600 al Qaeda members are fighting in Afghanistan.
For Mr. Roggio and other war supporters, the key issue is not just the numbers, but what would happen if the U.S. leaves now.
"The Taliban and al Qaeda already have safe havens inside Afghanistan, despite a U.S. presence," Mr. Roggio said. "If we walk away from Afghanistan, instead of keeping them occupied with fighting us, they are going to be free to do what they did prior to 9/11, which is plan attacks against the U.S.
"From a straight propaganda and recruiting standpoint, if we lose there, if we show them we are what bin Laden called the 'weak horse,' then their recruiting is going to go through the roof," he said. "If they can show they are successful there, that is an incredible propaganda boon.
"Also, al Qaeda's donors and supporters love a winner. If al Qaeda can show them they can win there, their coffers will fill up from their big donors," Mr. Roggio said.
Douglas Feith, who as the Pentagon's top policy official at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks was an architect of the war on terror, said leaving Kabul would hurt the counterterrorism campaign worldwide.
"There are many serious bad consequences of losing the war," Mr. Feith said. "The Taliban will gain in Afghanistan and may help terrorists against us again. The Taliban would gain Pakistan and may destabilize the government there, which has nuclear weapons.
"Jihadists worldwide and other U.S. enemies would be emboldened by our defeat," he said. "Afghans who cooperated with us would suffer. Others in the world would be reluctant to cooperate with us in the future."
Mr. Panetta said the war's mission is to prevent more attacks.
"Our purpose, our whole mission there is to make sure that al Qaeda never finds another safe haven from which to attack this country," he told ABC News. "That's the fundamental goal of why the United States is there."
Fewer Americans are buying that argument. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that 41 percent of Americans support the war, down 9 percentage points from May 2009.
In August 2009, as President Obama was sending reinforcements to Afghanistan and Gen. McChrystal was asking for even more troops, a Washington Post poll detected growing disenchantment. Fifty-one percent said the war was no longer worth fighting, up 6 percentage points from previous month. Two months ago, the number grew to 53 percent.
A new NBC poll found that 70 percent of Americans do not think the U.S. will win in Afghanistan.
Three factors seem to drive the numbers: the war's length, now in its 10th year; the number of casualties, including the 125 Americans killed in June and July; and the cost of war-related spending for Afghanistan, which the Congressional Budget Office says will reach $300 billion this year.
The House this year delayed for months a vote on a war-funding bill as a growing number of Democrats voiced opposition. When a vote was taken on July 28, 102 Democrats, more than double the number of a year ago, voted no.
The number of congressional Democrats abandoning Mr. Obama on the war has not yet translated into a groundswell of opposition nationwide.
Still, grass-roots anti-war groups are active. One is Veterans for Peace, a 7,500-member group based in St. Louis that also criticizes Israel and is supporting Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst suspected of providing thousands of pages of classified State Department and military reports on Afghanistan to WikiLeaks.org.
"VFP is opposed to the war in Afghanistan for several reasons, but the primary one is that it is an illegal war of aggression which has killed thousands of innocent people," said Leah Boyer, the group's vice president and a retired Navy commander who is now is now a full-time peace activist.
"The people and the government of Afghanistan did not attack the United States," she said. "There can be no justification for killing innocent people, and the problems of Afghanistan cannot be solved militarily."
Regarding the "safe haven" argument, Ms. Boyer said, "al Qaeda is everywhere. It is absurd to think that we can attack any country in which there is an al Qaeda presence. Our weapons do not kill just the 'bad guys.' Let's imagine that we could kill every single member of al Qaeda. Would the problem be solved? We will never achieve peace through killing."
Gen. Petraeus views the stakes differently. One of his first chores after he landed in Afghanistan on July 2 was to pen a message to the troops:
"Together, we can ensure that Afghanistan will not once again be ruled by those who embrace indiscriminate violence and trans-national extremists, and we can ensure that Al Qaeda and other extremist elements cannot once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on our homelands and of the Afghan people."
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