How the Iraq Debate Could Help Afghanistan

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Washington may currently be consumed with the topic of whether and how to begin withdrawing from the chaos of Iraq, but the other (forgotten) front in the war on terror is likely to attract more attention in the months ahead. There has always been more support in Congress for bringing al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts to justice than for waging war in Iraq. And that tendency is sure to grow even stronger given the tide of anti-Iraq-war lawmakers elected to office earlier this month and the arrival of new leadership at the Pentagon.

While the U.S. military is stretched tight in both Afghanistan and Iraq, senior U.S. officials have been telling Congress that U.S. support for Hamid Karzai's beleaguered national government needs to continue for at least another decade; the U.S. has spent $12 billion so far trying to get the country on its feet for the first time in a generation, and the Taliban has been especially resurgent in the last several months. On Monday, Illinois Senator (and possible 2008 Presidential candidate) Barack Obama said the U.S. should begin drawing down its troops in Iraq over the next four to six months in part to redeploy more to Afghanistan. "The President's decision to go to war in Iraq has had disastrous consequences for Afghanistan," he said in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "We have seen a fierce Taliban offensive, a spike in terrorist attacks, and a narcotrafficking problem spiral out of control."

There are now about 42,000 Western troops (slightly more than half American) deployed in Afghanistan. They often summon the U.S. Air Force to bomb enemy positions, indicating just how resilient these mountain fighters can be. Nearly 300 Americans have been killed in and around Afghanistan, about 10% of the U.S. death toll in Iraq.

As in Iraq, the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan is the bare minimum — not enough to guarantee victory, but sufficient to get bogged down for years. More than half of the country's gross domestic product comes from the burgeoning opium crop, and the national government exerts little power beyond greater Kabul. There is now an average of 20 insurgent attacks daily in Afghanistan, up from five a year ago. More importantly, some of those attacks are coming from Pakistan, where the U.S. military is formally barred from hunting down foes. That makes efforts to find bin Laden, believed to be holed up the region, even more difficult.

U.S. special forces, backed up by CIA agents and officers, have little information on bin Laden's whereabouts despite the $25 million bounty on his head. The last time they came close to him was in late 2001, when he apparently escaped a tightening noose as he fled his mountain redoubt at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan.

"Bin Laden remains a very significant person," U.S. Army Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the top American officer in Afghanistan, said Tuesday at the Pentagon. "It's critical for, I think, all of the world that bin Laden — a man who has committed atrocities that have affected our nation at great loss of lives, at great loss of treasure — that this man is one day brought to justice and he is either captured or he's killed." Eikenberry said getting him — dead or alive — "remains as much of a priority as it has since the United States of America was struck on 9/11."

Unfortunately, even killing or capturing bin Laden isn't likely to break the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's grip in the remote region. "The loss of a series of al-Qaeda leaders since 9/11 has been substantial, but it's also been mitigated by what is frankly a pretty deep bench of low-ranking personnel capable of stepping up to assume leadership positions," General Michael Hayden, head of the CIA, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, on November 15. "Though a number of these people are new to the senior management, they're not new to jihad."

Beyond that, U.S. officials say, Afghanistan can't be viewed in isolation. Like the carnival game of Whack-a-Mole — where furry creatures keep popping up out of holes you're not hammering — success in Afghanistan will solve only half of Washington's terrorism challenge. Victory there, officials insist, will mean little in the war on terror if the U.S. fails in Iraq — and ends up providing al-Qaeda and its allies the kind of sanctuary in Iraq that they once enjoyed in Afghanistan. But that's a problem the military wouldn't mind having. For as long as the U.S. is bogged down trying to prevent Iraq from further degrading, the odds of achieving any kind of lasting success in Afghanistan are pretty slim.