Couldn’t we fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan with a much lighter footprint? The Washington Post editorial page says no: “As for limiting U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to attacks by drones and Special Forces units, that was the strategy of the 1990s, which, as chronicled by the Sept. 11 commission, paved the way for al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington.”
Spencer Ackerman points out that the 9/11 Commission report says no such thing. On the contrary, it explains that the drone technology available at the time wasn’t up to the job (“In the configuration planned by the Air Force through mid-2001, the Predator’s missile would not be able to hit a moving vehicle”) and that special forces weren’t seriously considered (“no indication that President Clinton was offered such an intermediate choice, or that this option was given any more consideration than the idea of invasion”) during the period in question. One might also note that there’s no particular reason to believe that the Taliban would suddenly overrun the entire country in the absence of a heavy American military deployment. I’m not going to promise you that they wouldn’t—life is unpredictable—but anti-Taliban commanders exist with troops in the field and we could continue to support them in various helpful ways if we were so inclined.
It’s important to remember that these are all factors that need to be weighed at the margin. Grant that reliance on a light-footprint strategy makes the emergence of a safe haven more likely than would reliance on a heavy-footprint strategy. But how much more likely? And grant that the emergence of a safe haven makes a successful attack on the US somewhat more likely. But how much more likely? And at what cost? Compared with which other possible uses of the resources in question? Ever since 9/11, people have worried a lot about the threat of a an international terrorist group detonating a nuclear weapon in a western city. That’s a small chance, but with huge downside. It’s something we rightly worry about. But it seems to me that whether or not the Taliban controls a given patch of Afghan countryside has no bearing whatsoever on this element of the terrorist threat. Which should, I think, help us gain some perspective on what’s most important.