Obama’s War: Prospects for the Conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan

This paper is based on a CIGI Signature Lecture given by the author on April 29, 2010.


My subject today is about what I believe is probably the single most difficult foreign policy issue facing the United States and Canada today: the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the war against al-Qaeda and the struggle against terrorism.

I’d like to start by taking you back 12 years to February 23, 1998, to the small city of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. On that day, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, another Egyptian, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi declared war on the United States of America and on its allies. They pronounced a judgment which few people paid attention to at the time:

To kill the Americans and their allies, civilian and military, is the individual duty incumbent upon every single Muslim in all countries in order to liberate the holy Al Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque in Mecca.

This is a remarkable statement. It’s not every day you read that someone has declared war on the United States and its Western allies. Since this declaration of war was made 12 years ago, al-Qaeda and its allies have carried out a remarkable terror campaign across the world — from Bali to Casablanca, from Riyadh to Islamabad; virtually every major city in the Islamic world has witnessed appalling acts of terror. This group has also carried out the first attacks upon the continental United States by a foreign power since 1814 and 1815, when the British army and the Royal Navy sacked Washington and tried to do the same to New Orleans.

The first attack was launched from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on December 14, 1999. It was a plot by an Algerian who had immigrated illegally to Montreal, who planned to blow himself up at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve in 1999. He was stopped at Port Angeles, Washington, and the plot was uncovered.

In the last six months of 2009, we saw an unprecedented wave of attacks by Al Qaeda on the continental United States. Two attacks are famous to everyone: the massacre in Fort Hood, Texas, which killed 13 American soldiers; and the failed attempt to blow up Northwest Air flight 253 as it was coming in over Southern Ontario to Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas Day.

The most worrisome plot, however, exceeded both of those strikes. It was a plot that centred around an Afghan-American named Najibullah Zazi. Zazi went to Afghanistan in 2008 to join the Taliban and fight the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban took one look at Zazi and said, “You’re too important to waste on the deserts of the Hindu Kush. We’re going to teach you how to make bombs and send you home to America.” That is exactly what they did. Zazi recruited two compatriots and they learned how to make bombs, which they produced for their attack. They planned to attack New York City on the anniversary of 9/11 on September 14, 2009. The three men intended to go to Grand Central Station, Times Square Station and one other station, then blow themselves up at nine o’clock in the morning.

Zazi and one of his accomplices have pleaded guilty to all of this in a free trial — not in Guantanamo — but at a trial with defence attorneys. The mastermind in al-Qaeda who sent the trio to the US was a man named Rashid Rauf. Rauf is a British citizen born in Birmingham, England of Pakistani origin. He is well-known to al-Qaeda watchers as the man who masterminded the attack on the London Metro on July 7, 2005, killing 52 people and wounding over 700. Rauf was also involved in the failed 2006 plot by al-Qaeda to simultaneously blow up seven or as many as 10 jumbo jets as they were flying across the Atlantic from Heathrow Airport to New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, Montreal and Toronto — a plot foiled by British intelligence just weeks before it was to take place.

The war against al-Qaeda and its allies is now the longest war in American history — longer than the Vietnam War and the American Revolution. Why do I begin with all of this? If you want to understand President Barack Hussein Obama’s policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is where he starts. For him, this is ground zero in determining what he should do as president. He told me this personally, but if you don’t believe me, this is what he said the purpose of the war in Afghanistan is on March 27, 2009: Our goal, as he put it then, is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Afghanistan and Pakistan and ensure that it no longer is a sanctuary for terrorism against America and the rest of the world. You cannot understand what we are trying to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan without understanding the threat that underlies it.

At this point, let me introduce an important caveat. The president asked me to chair the strategic review of American policy in February and March 2009; however, I’m no longer a member of the US government. I’m neither a spokesman for the president nor for the US government. To be candid, I am a strong supporter of President Obama and have been an adviser to him since February 2007, when his national security adviser for his presidential campaign, Tony Lake, asked me if I would serve as an unpaid voluntary adviser to the campaign. In the interest of pure candor and honesty, I should also tell you that I went home that night and said to my wife Elizabeth, “This is going to be fun, but the junior senator from Illinois is not going to become the next president of the United States. Senator Clinton will clean his clock in Iowa and New Hampshire.” So when I give you my predictions, bear that in mind.

I’m going to discuss three things. First, what did President Obama inherit in January of 2009? What did he become heir to when his predecessor, George W. Bush left office? Second, how is the US doing 15 months later? Can we see any sign of progress or defeat, or is it too soon? Third, can we succeed in this task? And when will we know if we’re starting to succeed?

View the full paper at the Center for International Governance Innovation web site »