National Security Network

New Challenges Emerge in Afghanistan

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Report 6 January 2010

Afghanistan Afghanistan al qaeda CIA Karzai Najibullah Zazi Pakistan President Barack Obama


The last few weeks have highlighted significant obstacles to the Administration's efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  President Karzai, whose rule is already overshadowed by widespread allegations of corruption and vote-tampering, has encountered new difficulties in working with the Afghan Parliament.  Over the weekend, Parliament rejected a large portion of Karzai's cabinet nominations.  Though the move did indicate a positive shift toward a more activist stance by the Afghan legislature, it also dealt another political setback that threatens to delay efforts to begin more substantive reform - a task the U.S. has identified as critical to the success of its overall mission.  Adding to the U.S.' woes, there continues to be fallout from the bombing of a CIA base in Khost, with the revelation that the agency considered the double-agent responsible for the bombing to be one of its most promising assets.

While these events underscore the difficulty of success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, events elsewhere underline the importance of America's core objective - to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda central, whose operations in the region present a serious national security threat to the U.S.  For the sake of reaching that goal, the President and his team must maintain focus, holding the Afghan government, and more importantly itself, accountable, creating the conditions for a transition away from a large-scale military presence, and resisting the calls for limitless commitment that Al Qaeda is happy to promote.

While silver lining emerges in Karzai cabinet dispute, Afghanistan continues to face governance challenges. The turmoil over Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet selection continued, with Karzai planning to "present a new list of cabinet nominees to Parliament on Jan. 9, a week after lawmakers rejected 17 of his 24 picks, including a powerful warlord," reported Bloomberg News.  On Monday, the Washington Post wrote  "With less than a week before the parliament is scheduled to take its six-week winter recess, Afghan and Western officials expressed concern that an extended delay in forming a new government could postpone urgently needed reforms.'  UN special representative Kai Eide described the situation to the New York Times as "a political setback," explaining: "It prolongs a situation without a functioning government, and that's a situation that has lasted since last summer. It's worrying in a conflict and when we need to focus on a reform program."  Still, the news was not entirely dismal, as Parliament's actions amounted to an unexpected display of independence and a strong preference for more accountable leadership.  Eide observed, "The Parliament has made full use of its power, and it's not the kind of rubber-stamp Parliament we see in a number of countries."  Speaking to the Washington Post, parliament member Shukria Barakzai said that vote "means the [parliament members] are thinking differently, and they want real change in the governance of the country."  According to the Post, "Parliament members said they rejected other nominees for a range of reasons: They saw them as representatives of warlords or ethnic groups, or they lacked competence."  While the situation undeniably complicates the already bleak governance picture, one which U.S. officials have identified as being equal in importance to the insurgency, the Afghan Parliament's actions do give some cause for optimism that a more effective, and accountable government may yet emerge. [Bloomberg, 1/06/10. Washington Post, 1/04/10. Kai Eide, via the NY Times, 1/04/10]

Emerging details from bombing of CIA base point to serious intelligence challenges going forward.  The intelligence community continues to reel after a suicide bomber killed seven CIA agents at a base in Afghanistan last week.  The New York Times reported new details on the case this morning, giving a more complete picture of the identity of the bomber.  According to the Times, the Jordanian operative turned double-agent, Hammam Khalil Abu Mallal al-Balawi, "was considered by American spy agencies to be the most promising informant in years about the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's top leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahri, the terrorist group's second-ranking operative," so promising in fact that the CIA operatives informed top officials at their agency and the White House of the meeting. 

The Times continued, "‘He had provided information that checked out, about people in Al Qaeda whom he had access to,' said a senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the C.I.A.'s contacts with the Jordanian are classified. ‘This was one of the agency's most promising efforts.'"

The excitement felt by CIA operatives over the intelligence possibilities offered by what turned out to be a double agent, underscores the urgent quest for quality intelligence on terrorist and insurgent operations in the region.  According to a Times story earlier this week, the C.I.A. used the base to gather information "to plan strikes against Qaeda and Taliban leaders, along with top operatives of the Haqqani network," strikes that senior national security officials have touted as a success.  While the full implications of the attack remain unclear, the Times suggested that it had "dealt a devastating blow to the spy agency's operations against militants in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, eliminating an elite team using an informant with strong jihadi credentials," and that it had "further delayed hope of penetrating Al Qaeda's upper ranks, and also seemed potent evidence of militants' ability to strike back against their American pursuers." [NY Times, 1/5/10. NY Times, 1/4/10]

Despite these complications, the national security imperatives of Afghanistan and Pakistan remain, particularly as central theatres in the administration's overall counterterrorism strategy.  In the President's speech at West Point, in which he unveiled his administration's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he made clear that the most immediate terrorist threat is posed by Al Qaeda operating between the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.   "I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda.  It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak."   As the President's senior advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism explained in a speech at CSIS last summer, "From its safe haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the so-called FATA, al Qaeda continues to recruit and train fighters-including extremists from Western nations-and to plot attacks."  In September, the administration foiled a plan by Najibullah Zazi, in a case the New York Times called, "the most serious in years."  As Time reported last year, Zazi had ties to terrorists operating along Pakistan's frontier: "According to court documents filed by the FBI, Zazi and an unspecified number of companions flew on Aug. 28 to Peshawar via Geneva and Doha...something about this trip inspired U.S. officials to ask Pakistani authorities to keep an eye on Zazi, and what they saw was unsettling. ‘There was reason to believe that Zazi met with terrorists in Pakistan,' a U.S. counterterrorism official tells TIME. The FBI confirms this, saying that since his arrest, Zazi has admitted to attending an al-Qaeda training camp, where he received instruction in weapons and explosives."  Zazi's case was not unique.  According to New America Foundation terrorism expert Peter Bergen, a number of the most significant plots or attacks since 9/11 have links back to the region, including the 2005 London bombings, the 2006 attempt to blow up passenger planes departing Heathrow, and others.  At the same time, the administration must strike a careful balance, treating the Al Qaeda threat with the seriousness and resources it deserves, while not going so far as to be drawn into an endless conflict that feeds into their strategic objectives.  [President Obama, 12/1/09. John Brennan, 8/06/09. NY Times, 9/24/09. Time, 10/01/09. Peter Bergen, 10/19/09]

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