Concern Grows About U.S. Focus On Afghanistan

More than eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day was a stark reminder that al-Qaida is still a serious threat to the United States.

The U.S. is sending tens of thousands of additional American troops — and other resources — into Afghanistan in a bid to wipe out the Islamist group. Yet the attempted bombing was planned in Yemen and allegedly carried out by a Nigerian. This has raised questions about whether the United States should be focusing so much of its efforts in Afghanistan.

One of the hallmarks of al-Qaida and its affiliates is their flexibility: They can quickly pick up and move, adapt and merge as circumstances require. That can make it difficult for U.S. and Western intelligence and counterterrorism agencies to track the terrorist network.

Sajjan Gohel, director for international security at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, says despite U.S. military and financial aid and training assistance for Yemen, terrorist groups were still able to form coalitions and plan attacks — like the one on Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

"That is something that has been going now for the last many years — it's not a new development — but it's only caught our attention following the Christmas Day terrorist plot," Gohel says.

The incident has raised questions about whether there is a similar potential threat elsewhere. Gohel points to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an organization based in Algeria. He says the Caucasus region is a concern, as is Central Asia.

There are also growing questions about whether enough assistance was provided to Yemen, and whether U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism agencies are on top of the potential threats — or if too much of the focus has been on Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Gohel says those two countries are still the primary concern for good reason.

"Afghanistan and Pakistan still is the big challenge, the big worry, because of the fact that you have the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, al-Qaida central ... a whole plethora of other terrorist groups operating in the region," he says.

But Gohel says there needs to be equal focus on other countries that pose a similar threat, such as Yemen and Somalia.

Michael Kraig, a senior fellow with the Stanley Foundation, agrees with Gohel — and takes it one step further. Given that al-Qaida is a global network, Kraig says, the United States needs to devote as much attention to all fragile or floundering states worldwide as it does to Afghanistan.

"You have to treat fragile states more equally in your monitoring, your intelligence, your diplomacy and your aid programs," he says.

Kraig says if it's all about Afghanistan, al-Qaida will simply move to "easier pickings."

There are enormous resources going into Afghanistan, including troops, intelligence agents, communications, drones and special forces.

Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says some assets are scarce, such as drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles.

But Cordesman is adamant that Afghanistan is not soaking up valuable resources.

"Not in intelligence, not in special forces, not in the mix of assets the intelligence community has to collect data for the kind of missions that currently exist," Cordesman says.

Cordesman says that intelligence agents who have developed expertise and language skills for a certain region cannot be easily shifted from one area to another. He says the battle against jihadism covers most of the globe, which is redefining how the U.S. military and its intelligence and counterterrorism agencies operate.

"This is changing the entire structure of U.S. intelligence, and we don't have all of the analysts and all of the assets we need to cover this. And that's not a matter of making trade-offs between Afghanistan and Algeria," he says.

Cordesman says it may take five more years before the United States develops enough core expertise to cover Afghanistan, Pakistan and other trouble spots.

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