And yet, as President Obama weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, the connection between the region and Al Qaeda has suddenly become a matter of hot dispute in Washington. We are told that September 11 was as much a product of plotting in Hamburg as in Afghanistan; that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are quite distinct groups, and that we can therefore defeat the former while tolerating the latter; that flushing jihadists out of one failing state will merely cause them to pop up in another anarchic corner of the globe; that, in the age of the Internet, denying terrorists a physical safe haven isn't all it's cracked up to be.
These arguments point toward one conclusion: The effort to secure Afghanistan is not a matter of vital U.S. interest. But those who make this case could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism-and, at least for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be. Though it may be tempting to think otherwise, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.
Ten years later, could Al Qaeda return to Afghanistan and use it again as a launching pad for terrorist strikes?
The question has taken on heightened urgency as the Obama administration searches for a new war strategy, and Pakistan carries out its first major military offensive in the tribal region that Al Qaeda has called home since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The issue is also a source of surprising disagreement within the counter-terrorism community.
Some are skeptical that Al Qaeda would return to Afghanistan, even in the event of a substantial U.S. military drawdown. Doing so would mean leaving a sanctuary in Pakistan that has afforded significant protection for eight years, despite a barrage of U.S. Predator drone strikes.
Others argue that Al Qaeda is under mounting pressure in Pakistan, and that a return to Afghanistan is all but inevitable if President Obama endorses anything other than a full-scale, counterinsurgency campaign there.There is broad agreement among U.S. intelligence officials that Al Qaeda has a minimal presence in Afghanistan and would probably like to return there if it had the chance....
...One senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said the number of Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is in the "dozens," and that most function as low-level fighters with no significant leadership presence.
"Al Qaeda brings very little to the fight in Afghanistan," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Militarily, he said, "if you removed Al Qaeda from the equation in Afghanistan, it wouldn't matter."
That may be by design. Over the last eight years, Al Qaeda has burrowed deep into Pakistan's tribal belt, and fostered a closer relationship with local Taliban elements that are focused on carrying out attacks against the Pakistani government.
The Afghan Taliban, by contrast, has sought to distance itself from Al Qaeda, and to portray its insurgent campaign as a local fight.
A statement last month attributed to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar urged the West "not to be deceived" by Obama's assertions that the Afghanistan war is necessary because of the Al Qaeda threat. "The West does not have to wage this war," Omar said.......U.S. intelligence officials said there is little sign of an active relationship at the top of the organizations, and probably no contact whatsoever between Bin Laden and Omar......Still, they point to ongoing coordination at lower levels. And in his recent military assessment, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said Al Qaeda aids the insurgency with "ideological motivation, training and financial support."
There are reasons that Al Qaeda might be reluctant to relocate. The protective, rugged terrain of Pakistan's Waziristan region and the group's ties with the tribes there offer advantages the terrorist network would struggle to replicate in other places such as Somalia or Yemen.
Pakistan has served as such an effective haven that after eight years, the trail for Bin Laden "is not just cold, it's frozen over," Riedel said.
Moving across the border would expose Al Qaeda operatives to risks of detection by satellites, CIA drones or spies on the ground. And even if the U.S. was to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, America is likely to have a substantial military presence there -- and freedom to operate, unlike in Pakistan -- for years to come.
Edit #2 (Courtesy of Pat O): Seems that Nathan Hodge at Wired's Danger Room has also noticed an ideological shift in the Taliban, based on contact with al Qaeda. Well worth the read.
Focus: This is the crux of the whole Afghanistan debate--What is the relationship between these two organizations?