Statement on Afghanistan to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

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As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, 216 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., Thursday, December 03, 2009

Mr. Chairman, Senator Lugar, members of the committee:

I would like to provide an overview of the strategic thinking and context behind the president's decisions, in particular:

The nexus among Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; and Our objectives and how the president's strategy aims to accomplish them.

As the president first stated in March, and re-emphasized on Tuesday night, the goal of the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies and to prevent its return to both countries. The international military effort to stabilize Afghanistan is necessary to achieve this overarching goal.

Defeating Al Qaeda and enhancing Afghan security are mutually reinforcing missions. They cannot be un-tethered from one another, as much as we might wish that to be the case.

While Al Qaeda is under great pressure now and dependent on the Taliban and other extremist groups for sustainment, the success of the Taliban would vastly strengthen Al Qaeda's message to the Muslim world: that violent extremists are on the winning side of history. Put simply, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have become symbiotic, each benefiting from the success and mythology of the other. Al Qaeda leaders have stated this explicitly and repeatedly.

The lesson of the Afghan Taliban's revival for Al Qaeda is that time and will are on their side. That, with a Western defeat, they could regain their strength and achieve a major strategic victory--as long as their senior leadership lives and can continue to inspire and attract followers and funding. Rolling back the Taliban is now necessary, even if not sufficient, to the ultimate defeat of Al Qaeda.

At the same time, one cannot separate the security situation in Afghanistan from the stability of Pakistan--a nuclear-armed nation of 175 million people now also explicitly targeted by Islamic extremists.

Giving extremists breathing room in Pakistan led to the resurgence of the Taliban and more coordinated, sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan. By the same token, providing a sanctuary for extremists in southern and eastern Afghanistan would put yet more pressure on a Pakistani government already under attack from groups operating in the border region. Indeed, the Pakistan Taliban, in just the last year or so, has become a real threat to Pakistan's domestic peace and stability, carrying out--with Al Qaeda's help--escalating bombing attacks throughout the country.

Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of Afghanistan and likely a renewed civil war. Taliban-ruled areas could in short order become, once again, a sanctuary for Al Qaeda as well as a staging area for resurgent militant groups on the offensive in Pakistan. Success in South and Central Asia by Islamic extremists--as was the case twenty years ago--would beget success on other fronts. It would strengthen the Al Qaeda narrative, providing renewed opportunities for recruitment, fund-raising, and more sophisticated operations.

It is true that Al Qaeda and its followers can plot and execute attacks from a variety of locations--from Munich to London to Denver. What makes the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan uniquely different from any other location--including Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere--is that this part of the world represents the epicenter of extremist jihadism: the historic place where native and foreign Muslims defeated one superpower and, in their view, caused its collapse at home. For them to be seen to defeat the sole remaining superpower in the same place would have severe consequences for this country and the world.

Some say this is similar to the "domino theory" that underpinned and ultimately muddied the thinking behind the U. …