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Concern Grows About U.S. Focus On Afghanistan

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Concern Grows About U.S. Focus On Afghanistan

Afghanistan

Concern Grows About U.S. Focus On Afghanistan

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The question is: Where is that war? The American presence in Afghanistan is approaching 100,000 troops, and yet the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day was planned in Yemen and allegedly carried out by a Nigerian.

NPR's Jackie Northam talks to experts about where the U.S. should be looking.

JACKIE NORTHAM: One of the hallmarks of al-Qaida and 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 Islamist group.

Sajjan Gohel, the director for international security at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, points to Yemen. He says despite military training and financial assistance from U.S. officials on the ground there, terrorist groups were still able to form coalitions and plan attacks like the one on Northwest Airlines Christmas Day.

Mr. SAJJAN GOHEL (Director for International Security, Asia-Pacific Foundation): 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.

NORTHAM: And it was a sobering reminder that al-Qaida still has the U.S. in its sights.

The incident has raised many questions: whether there's another potential and similar threat elsewhere. Gohel points to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an organization based in Algeria. He says the Caucasus are a concern, and Central Asia.

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

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

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

NORTHAM: 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, and takes it one step further. Kraig says given that al-Qaida is a global network, the U.S. needs to devote as much attention to all fragile or floundering states worldwide as it does to Afghanistan.

Mr. MICHAEL KRAIG (Senior Fellow, Stanley Foundation): You have to treat fragile states more equally in your monitoring, your intelligence, your diplomacy and your aid programs. Because if you take this lesson out of 9/11, it's all about Afghanistan, well then you end up with the result we've ended up with, which is al-Qaida simply moves to easier pickings.

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

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

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

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Not in intelligence, not in special forces, not in the mix of assets that the intelligence community has to collect data for the kind of missions that currently exist.

NORTHAM: Cordesman disputes that intelligence agents, people who've developed expertise and language skills for a certain region, can 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.

Mr. CORDESMAN: 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.

NORTHAM: Cordesman says it may take half a decade before the U.S. develops enough core expertise to cover Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the other trouble spots.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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