As I mentioned before, there’s a kicker quote in my piece today that cries out for further analysis:

“Al-Qaeda’s are capabilities basically almost nothing these days,” the ex-official said. “Sure, they’ve got a couple good operatives, and maybe will try to pull something big to make themselves relevant again … If we make them appear relevant — they’re at war with the greatest country on earth — then guess what? They’re gonna be big.” Instead, the ex-official continued, “if we treat them as insignificant, small, pathetic men with nothing to do with Islam, they’ll lose their relevance.”

So: if al-Qaeda’s capabilities are next to nothing; and the prospect of endless war in places like Afghanistan fuels the radicalization of U.S. Muslims; and we’re escalating the Afghanistan war; and we’re doing so to prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S…. then haven’t we reached the logical end of our tether with this policy?

Maybe we have. But I don’t think so. I think there’s an attendant risk of giving al-Qaeda a new lease on life in AfghaniPakistan, and that absolutely cannot be ignored. But I think there’s another way of looking at it that points to the end of this entire fucking bloody miserable enterprise, and on our terms.

We have a constrained-but/and-dubiously-capable al-Qaeda senior leadership in, most likely, north Waziristan. It is not under as much pressure as we would like. But it is under significant pressure in terms of its ability to export terrorism, as I believe Marc Sageman’s research, cited in my piece, demonstrates. Its affiliates are able to incite and inspire horrific acts of terrorism, as in Mumbai, and it’s got murky expansive capabilities in Yemen and Somalia. But those are also degraded capabilities, especially as compared to our capabilities in both counterterrorist targeting and homeland-security hardening. It’s harder for them to hit us, in other words, but it’s not impossible. And they want, as my ex-official says, to pull off something big to show they’re still relevant.

That points to the virtues of pressing the fight in the the Pakistani tribal areas and backstopped in eastern and southern Afghanistan against al-Qaeda’s strategic depth — and for ultimately winding down the war. This looks like the best possible chance for degrading al-Qaeda’s capabilities to, really, insignificance, so we can all go back to our business and this decade-long national “emergency” can be put to bed. What the advocates for pure counterterrorism in Afghanistan don’t have a sufficient answer to is what happens after specific JSOC strikes: how we, in other words, address the demand-side conditions that lead people in Afghanistan and Pakistan to eventually give more money and hiding places and intelligence to al-Qaeda and its allies, bandwagoning with them instead of the Afghan and Pakistani governments. After the West Point speech and the McChrystal/Eikenberry hearings, we have a plausible answer, I think, for how we go about addressing that question, through population-protection and rapid-impact development work. If that fails, then I think we’re fucked, and we have to think about mitigation. But that mitigation, absent an attempt at implementing this strategy, has a greater likelihood than this of yielding more open-ended hot war. The outcome of this strategy is long-term political, economic, diplomatic and security-sector support for the Afghan and Pakistani governments, probably with the occasional strike to keep al-Qaeda boxed in over the next five years.

But after that? If we can keep that containment going, then al-Qaeda the organization is whittled down, and al-Qaeda the “movement” is a marginal phenomenon. The copycat attacks it “inspires” in the U.S. have basically been easily foiled by domestic law enforcement. No infiltration of loose nuclear material, handed over to some radicalized U.S. Muslim cell. We’re looking at, basically, long-term vigilance against discrete terrorist attacks. But no massive threat that would require, say, open-ended war. We’ll have police and diplomatic challenges instead — basically, policy challenges.

Yes, there is a danger of blowback from the escalation right now. Not to be minimized, not to be explained away, but to be addressed. Afghans, however, are not rising up against us, and if we demonstrate through our actions that what we do actually protects them from harm and that we’re not going to be there forever, then I think we’ve mitigated all the attendant risks in the most responsible way. We’ll have created what we have not had in AfghaniPakistan since 2001: a hammer and an anvil, so to speak, and beyond that, al-Qaeda will be a forgotten phenomenon of the early 21st century. But that does require real action to both constrain al-Qaeda-the-organization tighter in the Pakistani tribal areas and break its strategic depth in Afghanistan.

And then that is it. With respect to my friend Bill Roggio, we have to get out of the “Long War” paradigm, which holds that success is measured primarily by maintaining hostilities. That route most likely will give al-Qaeda a new lease on life, because it astrategically increases the likelihood of inflammatory, counterproductive miscalculation. The “Long War” is a defeatest concept: it presumes we fight forever, gaining nothing but misery. Discrete police/intelligence actions after AfghaniPakistan are not “battles” in a “Long War”: they’re discrete police/intelligence actions that maintain our prophylactic. If we view them as a long twilight struggle because that’s how Hollywood taught us war ought to be waged, then we’ll reap nothing, as my ex-official put it, but the reestablishment of al-Qaeda’s relevance — precisely what we’re trying to destroy.

Is there an element of contradiction here? Not necessarily, and only when viewed superficially. Could it fail? Yes, it certainly could. But I see no better alternatives that don’t involve, in some cases, leaving in place the conditions that give rise to further danger. If you’ve got one, I’m all ears. The point here is to end this shit on our terms — even though that necessitates a burst of intensified fighting to get there.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman