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Is Containing Al-Qaeda the Real Endgame in Afghanistan-Pakistan?

Dedicated readers know that since March I’ve been trying to determine how the Obama administration conceives of the actual endgame in Afghanistan-Pakistan — that is, the point at which we can say the mission is successful. The whole strategy is geared around the elimination of al-Qaeda’s safe havens in Pakistan and strategic depth in Afghanistan. But the path out of Afghanistan articulated by the Obama administration, and reiterated at West Point on Tuesday, is through a transition to overwatch with the Afghan security forces. So, once again: could we be transitioning to Afghan security control in the future, and sending U.S. and NATO forces home, while the al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan still exist?

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East and South Asia, got asked a modified version of this question by NPR’s Steve Inskeep this morning: “Can you win so long as there are safe havens outside of Afghanistan for the people you’re fighting?” Petraeus responded:

Depends how large the safe havens and sanctuaries are, obviously. And again, the objective is to see those whittled down on either side of the border. Again, there has to be a continued level of pressure and progress in that regard.

It’s a shame that Inskeep moved on to a different line of questioning. Because this sounds very much like Petraeus acknowledging that the U.S. cannot and will not kill every last al-Qaeda operative. What it can do, along with its Pakistani partners — and *can’t *do without them — is degrade al-Qaeda-central’s safe haven and harass it militarily when possible, so that it can’t export the extremism that senior officials continue to see emanating from the region. There’s a word for that: containment.

“Containment” in the post-9/11 age has acquired an unfortunate pejorative connotation. The Bush administration contrasted “containment” with “victory,” and repeatedly said that it was impossible to contain stateless terrorist networks. In doing so, George W. Bush ended up overtaxing American power without ever articulating how “victory” could be achieved; accordingly, it never was. But al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has proven over the past eight years that it does seek to hold territory, operating from somewhere. Reducing its ability to branch out from that place effectively limits the threat it poses, and gives U.S. and allied forces a place to respond if the cordon proves to be porous.

But is this actually how the Obama administration conceives of how the endgame is achieved — which is to say, an endgame that looks more like long-term vigilance and partnership with Afghanistan and Pakistan? When I posed that question in March to Denis McDonough, one of the most influential of Obama’s advisers, that seemed to be his answer. But the actual answer still remains unarticulated — by President Obama, by his critics, and by the entire constellation of U.S. foreign-policy analysts. And if containment is the answer, does the U.S. transition to Afghan security forces beginning in 2011 mean subcontracting out the military edge of containment to the Afghans?

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