It’s a matter of historical fact that the Bush administration spent the resources, time, and bureaucratic attention necessary to focus on al-Qaeda on Iraq instead. Task Force 121 hunted Baathists instead of al-Qaeda revanchists on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gear that could have been used in Afghanistan before that war spiraled out of control instead went to Iraq. If there’s a minimum contention that the foreign-policy community ought to embrace after Iraq, it’s that this country — and possibly just human beings as a whole — is not well positioned to fight two wars at once. (We’re leaving aside for a moment the wisdom of doing so, or lack thereof.) When the leader of the U.S. Special Operations Command just says outright that he can’t really focus on nuclear terrorism because of the demands of the Afghanistan war, the argument is kind of over.
But what this glosses over is that al-Qaeda isn’t the sort of entity that one can simply amass troops against and defeat. I’ve run myself ragged trying to understand the Afghanistan war, and the best I can do at this point is assess that there’s going to be a massive continuance of the war post-2011 in order to get us to some undetermined point whereby we hand over a maybe-weakened Taliban to the Afghan security forces, probably years and years from now. That’s a long and confused way of securing the U.S.’s minimal interests in Afghanistan, and it may not even work.
So it won’t really do to say that we get out of Iraq in order to redouble the fight against al-Qaeda. There’s still (a) Afghanistan, which is more-connected to al-Qaeda than Iraq was as a proposition but at this point has a momentum of its own; and (b) the fact that the areas of focus outside of Iraq and Afghanistan on al-Qaeda don’t lend themselves to anything Iraq-or-Afghanistan-like. Pakistan; Yemen; Somalia: you’re left with discrete, probably drone-based military strikes and maybe JSOC raids in such inhospitable areas for military action and support for local security forces. Everything else is indirect.
And the indirect stuff is more important! The demand-side security stuff, the renunciation of torture, the maintenance of American values (like, say, not preventing an Islamic recreation center in Lower Manhattan) — the wise, prudential, positive-sum balance of American interests and specific Islamic-world interests like ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, standing up for human rights and justice and basic dignity. That’s the stuff that drains the swamp and ends al-Qaeda. It’s what creates the anvil against which the JSOC/CIA hammer can strike. And ending the Iraq war and also eventually the Afghanistan war is part of that.
At their best, this is what Obama’s counterterrorism advisers really get. The trouble is that they don’t push the critique into the hard cases it needs to go, like indefinite detention without charge or the legality of killing American citizens without due process. If the “distraction” that we rid ourselves of by leaving Iraq is our persistent inability to think maturely about al-Qaeda nine years after 9/11, then we really will free up more than ISR assets for a necessary undertaking.