Al-Qaeda in Yemen has grown so strong and adept that the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Japan were forced to close their embassies in Sanaa, Yemen, this week - so seriously are they taking al-Qaeda's "live and active threat," as John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism adviser, put it. "They've grown in strength."
Ten days earlier, it was able to send a man to the United States on a mission to blow up an airplane. He almost succeeded. What does all of that say? It says to me: Why on Earth is the U.S. sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan?
Speaking to cadets at West Point last month, Obama said: "I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak."
Actually, as he spoke, al-Qaeda in Yemen was plotting that airliner attack. It failed, but set off weeks of familiar recrimination and confession. At the very same time, fatalities in Afghanistan were mounting and set a record for the entire period of the West's engagement there, since October 2001. Seven Central Intelligence Agency officers were killed last week. One-third of all Americans killed in Afghanistan died during 2009. The number of British fatalities doubled.
Taliban fighters killed those soldiers. The United States and NATO are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, not al-Qaeda, which now has only a negligible presence - fewer than 100 men, the U.S. says.
Certainly the Taliban is a despicable, radical group, intent on enforcing the most extreme interpretation of Islamic law, turning women into uneducated chattel and men into cowed adherents. But has anyone ever shown evidence that the Taliban are a direct threat to the United States or the West? No.
Certainly the Taliban gave cover to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan prior to October 2001, and the two groups are allies of sorts in the tribal regions of western Pakistan now. But Matthew Hoh, a State Department officer stationed in Afghanistan, resigned last fall, upset over the conduct of the war - particularly what he called the conflation of the Taliban with al-Qaeda, he told numerous interviewers.
"Al-Qaeda is a worldwide organization with an apocalyptic vision to establish an Islamic caliphate throughout the world," he told the New York Post. "The Taliban's views are very local. They are not in cahoots. They have separate goals."
The fear, of course, is that if allowed to retake power in Afghanistan, the Taliban would give al-Qaeda its old haven once again. Osama bin Laden could leave his cave and climb down from the mountains. Perhaps. But this time the United States would be watching closely. If bin Laden resurfaced, he would almost certainly be captured or killed.
So what exactly are we fighting for - particularly since we now know that al-Qaeda has several other safe havens from which is it able to carry out deadly attacks. Pakistan, Somalia, Indonesia - and Yemen. Don't forget: Al-Qaeda in Yemen attacked the USS Cole off the southern city of Aden 10 years ago, killing 17 U.S. servicemen.
"The attack on the USS Cole should have been the loudest wake-up call against al-Qaeda," Abdul Karim al-Iriyani, a former prime minister of Yemen, remarked last week.
Of course, Pakistan also remains an important headquarters. Last fall, FBI agents in New York arrested Najibullah Zazi and his father on charges of planning a terror attack in the United States using sophisticated homemade bombs. The two received extensive instruction in bomb making and terrorist strategies from al-Qaeda - at a training camp in Pakistan.
Hoh, the former American diplomat, noted that a terrorist operative can plan an attack from almost anywhere. All he needs is an Internet connection, as was the case for the logistician behind the Sept. 11 attacks. He planned everything from a small apartment in Hamburg, Germany.
Still, Yemen offers a congenial location for a terrorist headquarters. Its people live in abject poverty; the average annual income is $870. Only 59 percent of the adult population can read and write. Only one person of every 100 uses the Internet. All of that presents fertile ground for al-Qaeda recruiters so that, now, Yemen has far more al-Qaeda operatives than Afghanistan, the White House says.
So, besides incurring ever-more casualties, what's the U.S. doing in Afghanistan?
Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University.
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