As the Obama administration nears a crucial decision on how rapidly to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan, high-ranking officials say that al-Qaeda's original network in the region has been crippled, providing a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops.
The officials said the intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan — most dramatically the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — had left al-Qaeda paralysed, with its leaders either dead or pinned down in the frontier area near Afghanistan. Of 30 prominent members of the terrorist organisation in the region identified by intelligence agencies as targets, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, they said, reducing the threat they pose.
Their confidence, these officials said, was buttressed by information found in bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. They said the trove revealed disarray within al-Qaeda's leadership, with a frustrated bin Laden indicating that he could no longer direct terrorist attacks by lieutenants who feared for their own lives.
The American success in the counterterrorism campaign would seem to bolster arguments for a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan — an issue the administration is currently examining. The officials emphasised that Mr. Obama had not yet made a determination on that question.
Fighting al-Qaeda, they noted, was the main reason Mr. Obama agreed to deploy 30,000 more troops last year, even as he adopted a broader, more troop-intensive and time-consuming strategy of making key towns in Afghanistan safe from the Taliban and helping the Afghans to build up security forces and a better-functioning government.
The focus on progress against al-Qaeda was also a counter to arguments made by Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates and other military officials in recent days that the initial reduction of troops should be modest, and that American combat pressure should be maintained as long as possible so that the gains from the surge in troops are not sacrificed.
The military has been pressing for a plan under which only a few thousands troops out of the 1,00,000 currently in Afghanistan would come home immediately, with the bulk of the 30,000 troops sent last year remaining for another year or more.
The officials declined to discuss Mr. Obama's views on how many troops should be withdrawn, or how quickly. But their analysis of the counterterrorism operations clearly reflected conclusions presented to the president as the deliberations over force levels reach their final stage. The conclusions would seem to give Mr. Obama room to justify a more accelerated withdrawal than the plan sought by the Pentagon.
The White House appears to be moving swiftly to conclude the internal debate, with officials saying that the President may announce a decision as early as next week, avoiding the kind of drawn-out deliberations that preceded Mr. Obama's decision in late 2009 to increase troop levels in Afghanistan by 30,000.
Mr. Gates, in an interview on Friday, said: “This was a much more abbreviated process. Nobody wanted to go through what we went through in the fall of 2009.”
In the 18 months since then, one official said, Mr. Obama has developed strong views about what has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The infusion of troops into Afghanistan, he said, had broken the momentum of the Taliban, which in 2009 had made alarming inroads toward its goal of toppling the Afghan government.
Far from broken
But the success in singling out terrorists in neighbouring Pakistan has been far more striking, with another official saying that the United States was “poised” to defeat al-Qaeda in what was once its most thriving haven. The organisation could no longer use that region as a “launching pad for attacks,” he said. “The safe haven is a misnomer now,” he added. “It is anything but safe for Al Qaeda.”
Officials acknowledge that worldwide, al-Qaeda is far from broken. They consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to be the most immediate threat to the United States homeland, hatching plots from its base in Yemen like the attempt to blow up a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
The recent success against al-Qaeda also does not guarantee that its militants will not take root again in Afghanistan, particularly as the United States turns security over to a shaky Afghan government. And a fast reduction of troops could allow the Taliban, which is stalled but not destroyed, to regain power it recently lost to the surge.
In Pakistan, the recent gains could be reversed by the deteriorating relationship between the Pakistani and American governments, which threatens to curtail cooperation in counterterrorism operations and increase Pakistani opposition to drone strikes.
Still, for Mr. Obama, who is weighing the heavy costs of the Afghan war as well as an increasingly restive Congress and public, counterterrorism success is a potentially appealing argument for a relatively rapid American withdrawal.
In 2009, intelligence officials identified 30 top Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and along the Afghan-Pakistan border, a senior administration official said. “We took 15 off the battlefield last year,” he said, including Sheik Saeed al-Masri, the group's third-ranking operative until he was killed in a drone strike in 2010.
In addition, he said, five more of the 30 leaders on the 2009 list were killed this year, including Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war who was accused in 2009 of conspiring with two Chicago men to attack a Danish newspaper that had published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
While typically new operatives take the place of those killed, the rapid pace of attacks has dealt an unusually heavy blow to the organisation. An American intelligence assessment concluded that the 28 drone strikes the Central Intelligence Agency has carried out in Pakistan since mid-January have killed about 150 militants, according to an official.
And then there was the spectacular raid by the Navy Seal team that killed Bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2. It produced a cache of information — documents, hard drives and other materials — that officials said contained revealing discussions between Bin Laden and his key commanders. “The sense was clear that morale was hurt,” an official said, describing the findings without offering documentation or specifics about the internal communications. “They worried most about safety.”
The officials interviewed Friday made no attempt to disguise their belief that the counterterrorism campaign, which was favoured by Vice-President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2009, has outperformed the more troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign pushed by Mr. Gates, Gen. David H. Petraeus and other top military planners.
“This progress has been enabled by our surge, and the training of A.N.S.F., which will be critical to the durability of gains against the safe haven and against the Taliban,” said Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, referring to the Afghan National Security Force. “These gains would not have been possible at this rate and quality without the service of our men and women in uniform.”
Besides going after Qaeda and Taliban operatives, the counterinsurgency campaign includes a broad plan to try to improve governance in Afghanistan, fight corruption, train the Afghan Army, wean farmers off the cultivation of poppies, promote women's rights and protect local population centres.
When Mr. Obama decided in December 2009 to go with the more ambitious plan backed by the Pentagon, the President said he would allow “18 months to test those concepts,” a senior White House official said.
“What we've seen is the pursuit of Al-Qaeda has yielded probably even greater successes than we thought,” the official said. As for the assortment of projects under the banner of counterinsurgency, the official said that the “infusion of resources has allowed the Afghan National Army forces to be trained up.” (David E. Sanger, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.) — © New York Times News Service