Question: Why are we in Afghanistan?
Answer: To prevent al Qaeda from re-establishing its safe havens in that country.
Q: Why did al Qaeda choose Afghanistan for safe havens?
A: Because the local government, the Taliban, allowed al Qaeda to operate freely in their territory.
Q: What if some other government made the same offer? Could al Qaeda relocate?
A: Sure. In the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden based himself in Sudan. Al Qaeda has also operated in Somalia and Yemen.
Q: Is it realistic to worry that al Qaeda might move?
A: Very realistic. In fact, many people think that al Qaeda has already given up on Afghanistan.
Q: Where might al Qaeda go?
A: Theoretically, anywhere in the Islamic world where the local government does not take decisive action against them.
A: Yes, very much so. In fact, some believe Yemen has already replaced Afghanistan. And of course, if Yemen’s Western-oriented government collapses, the country might become even more hospitable to al Qaeda.
Q: I’ve noticed that quite a lot of governments are collapsing all over the Arab world. Could that collapse create opportunities for al Qaeda in Egypt? In Libya?
A: It would depend. For now, the Egyptian government continues to function, and continues to cooperate with the United States.
Q: But that could change, right? If, for example, a radical Islamist government took over?
A: Let’s hope not. But yes. A Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt might choose to look the other way if al Qaeda set up operations in Cairo — the same way the Syrians look the other way regarding Hamas operations in Damascus.
Q: Could radical Islamists take over in Libya?
A: Libya is not a country that can be “taken over” the way Egypt can. Egypt is a very organized society. Seize power at the top, and the government keeps functioning. It just follows new orders. But Libya is just an agglomeration of tribal pieces that the Italians assembled into a colony 100 years ago. Absent the dictatorial Moammar Gadhafi, Libya could disintegrate into a Somalia with money.
Q: Wait a minute. You just mentioned Somalia as a place where al Qaeda operates. If Libya breaks apart, could al Qaeda find a home there?
A: Yes indeed. When Iraq descended into civil war, local Sunni radicals organized themselves into an al Qaeda of Iraq. Many Libyans traveled to Iraq to fight with them, against the Americans. So yes, the potential is there.
Q: That would be a big, big problem, wouldn’t it?
A: You mean to have al Qaeda terror cells operating in a huge, disorganized territory a short boat ride across the Mediterranean from Italy? Yes, that qualifies as a huge problem.
Q: Is it possible that we have defined our strategic problem incorrectly? President Obama has put 80,000 Americans into Afghanistan in order to deny al Qaeda a base in that one country. But maybe our strategic problem is to deny al Qaeda a base in any country?
A: You could put it like that.
Q: Which would mean that concentrating so much American force in one place — and such a remote place — risks missing larger and nearer dangers in places like Libya and Yemen?
A: The usual answer to that is, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Q: Is that a good analogy?