At a recent panel discussion on Iraq and Afghanistan, Todd Gitlin expressed serious misgivings about the effort to banish the Taliban from Afghanistan. His remarks have now been posted on Dissent's website. Gitlin does not deny that the Taliban is very bad for Afghanistan, nor doeshe claim it would be impossible for us to defeat it (he claims not to know). But he doubts such a mission can be justified in terms of our own national security. Al Qaeda is not the Taliban, and Al Qaeda no longer needs a perch in Afghanistan, if it ever did:
Is the goal then to crush the 200 to 500 remnants of al-Qaeda? If so, this is not a convincing argument. Al-Qaeda is a stateless network. Territory is not a prerequisite for their operations. Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA counterterrorist center, wrote in the Washington Post: When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.
As for al-Qaedas remnants, they can regather in Pakistan—presumably many of them are already there—or, if they like, in Somalia. Just because Afghanistan borders Pakistan does not mean that al-Qaeda is on the way to acquiring Pakistans nuclear weapons. And if this is a concern, there are other, less destructive, less expensive ways to safeguard them.
So the prime argument for staying in is no longer self-defense. It is to prevent the Taliban from renewing their brutal rule, in particular, their oppression of women. This is an argument to take very, very seriously. Related to it is another preventive argument: for if withdrawal led to civil war in the north, and many more civilians were to die, it would be worth some risk to stay. But how much?