One of the fiercest critics of the proposed surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan warned on Sunday that the policy would distract America from the pursuit of global al Qaeda networks.
During an appearance on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) demanded that one question be answered when considering the implementation of the president's surge policy: Why send troops where al Qaeda isn't?
Pakistan, in the border region near Afghanistan, is perhaps the epicenter [of global terrorism], although al Qaida is operating all over the world, in Yemen, in Somalia, in northern Africa, affiliates in Southeast Asia. Why would we build up 100,000 or more troops in parts of Afghanistan included that are not even near the border? You know, this buildup is in Helmand Province. That's not next door to Waziristan. So I'm wondering, what exactly is this strategy, given the fact that we have seen that there is a minimal presence of Al Qaida in Afghanistan, but a significant presence in Pakistan? It just defies common sense that a huge boots on the ground presence in a place where these people are not is the right strategy. It doesn't make any sense to me.
The remarks by Feingold echoed earlier skepticism of an extended U.S. surge in Afghanistan offered by Vice President Joseph Biden, weeks before the policy was announced. And, as if to drive the point home further, they were delivered on the same morning that The Los Angeles Times published a story with a Sana, Yemen dateline, reporting that the growing al Qaeda presence within the country may end up toppling the government.
"Al Qaeda in the past focused on bombings and suicide attacks, but now it is also able to target security forces," said Saeed Ali O. Jemhi, an expert on terrorist groups in Yemen. "They have sympathizers and agents within the Yemeni security and intelligence forces. Al Qaeda is in a renewing stage, and its aim is to spread an Islamic caliphate across the Arabian Peninsula."
Feingold's concerns weren't merely that President Obama was taking his eye off al Qaeda at a time when the terrorist organization was resurgent. The Wisconsin Democrat also warned that U.S. policy in Afghanistan could actually push terrorists and extremists into Pakistan and, as a consequence, further destabilize the region.
"You know, I asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, and Mr. Holbrooke, our envoy over there, a while ago, you know, is there a risk that if we build up troops in Afghanistan, that will push more extremists into Pakistan?" he told ABC. "They couldn't deny it, and this week, Prime Minister Gilani of Pakistan specifically said that his concern about the buildup is that it will drive more extremists into Pakistan, so I think it's just the opposite, that this boots-on-the-ground approach alienates the Afghan population and specifically encourages the Taliban to further coalesce with Al Qaida, which is the complete opposite of our national security interest."
Administration officials, in a series of appearances on the Sunday show circuit, emphasized that the primary focus of the "extended surge" was to improve U.S. national security. A stable Afghanistan that would not become a base of terrorism, they added, was a paramount component in protecting America. As for Feingold's concern that Pakistan would be the ultimate loser in the Afghan surge, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about it directly during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press.
I think what we have seen over the course of this year is a sea change in attitude by the Pakistanis. If we had been sitting here a year ago and you had asked what they are going to do there wouldn't be much of an answer. Now you can say they are beginning to go after the terrorist who are threatening their very existence as a sovereign nation. They have had two military campaigns in the space of the last eight months and they are making real progress. What we are discussing and consulting with them over is how all of these groups are now a threat to them. There is a syndicate of terrorism with al Qaeda at the head of it. So we are doing everything we can to support them in what is really a life or death struggle.