Renewing our Focus on Afghanistan

By: Greg C. Reeson

Over the past few months, several factors have contributed to what appears to be a renewed focus by the Bush administration on the war in Afghanistan. Of course, the ongoing violence in Iraq is still center stage at the White House, in the Congress, on the campaign trail, and in the minds of American citizens. But there can be little doubt that President Bush is taking steps, with a new sense of urgency, to shift resources and attention to the faltering war against remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Shifting U.S. attention to Afghanistan at this particular moment makes sense. Trend lines in Iraq indicate a clear reduction in most indicators of violence over the past eight months, while violence levels in Afghanistan are steadily increasing as confident Taliban fighters seek to exert more control and influence outside of traditional strongholds. As troop levels in Iraq continue to decline, more combat power is needed in Afghanistan where NATO member countries have consistently fallen short in providing the necessary resources in personnel, equipment, and, more importantly, combat capability. Finally, an increasingly unstable Pakistan is proving more and more unwilling, or unable, to control Islamist militants within Pakistan and along the border with Afghanistan. Each of these deserves further attention.

A resurgent Taliban has been consistently increasing the number of attacks against coalition forces, the Karzai government, and Afghan civilians. Each year since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 has become more deadly than the last, and each year the Taliban has pushed a little farther out of its safe havens, taking control of more and more territory and terrorizing a frightened population that has no confidence in the ability of coalition or government troops to protect it. Al-Qaeda remnants still exist, but they are largely confined to the tribal areas along the border with Pakistan and exercise little, if any, command and control capability. Still, they threaten the future stability of Afghanistan and have to be reckoned with.

NATO has failed to meet U.S. expectations since taking the lead in Afghanistan in 2003. Not only are troop contributions from member countries insufficient for the task at hand, but national caveats and short-term deployments hinder operational effectiveness and the flexibility of commanders to employ troops when and where they are most needed. While most of the combat burden is being borne by the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Canada, other member countries prohibit their forces from serving in dangerous areas or engaging in any form of combat except in cases of self-defense. Additionally, member country tour lengths typically fall far short of the deployment cycles of American units, causing a lack of cohesion and forcing constant re-learning of local terrain and population features. Many NATO countries subscribe to the notion that reconstruction and development will make the Taliban and al-Qaeda irrelevant, but neither is possible without first providing security for the population.

In Pakistan, the ruling government is increasingly fragile as President Pervez Musharraf steadily loses his grip on power and opposition figures struggle with each other for primacy. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto demonstrated the ability of Islamist radicals to move freely within Pakistani society and to cause chaos and fear among the population. The United States is becoming increasingly aggressive in targeting militants on Pakistani soil because the minimal effort previously put forth by Islamabad is quickly fading away. Simply put, Pakistan cannot be relied on to be a consistent and dependable ally in the war on terror.

So what should the United States do to head off a disaster in Afghanistan?

The first step has already been taken. The nomination of General David Petraeus last month to succeed Admiral William Fallon as the commander of CENTCOM, the combatant command responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was a long overdue recognition that the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda is far from over. Petraeus is considered by many in Washington to be America’s leading expert on counterinsurgency, in both theory and in practice. He is credited with successfully turning Iraq away from the disaster that would have accompanied full-scale civil war and his confirmation by the Senate will bring a fresh set of eyes to the Afghan problem.

Second, we have to inject American leadership into the overall effort in Afghanistan. That means increasing American force levels, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already alluded to by mentioning the possible deployment of an additional 7,000 U.S. troops next year. The additional combat power mentioned by Gates would bring the total number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to around 40,000. Injecting American leadership also means taking over command of forces battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the volatile south, another idea alluded to by Gates. Adding more American troops and taking over the fight in the south would make the overall effort in Afghanistan distinctly American.

Third, the United States should take whatever actions are necessary inside Pakistan to combat militant Islamists hindering our efforts in Afghanistan. Whether the Pakistani government is unwilling or unable to apply pressure to the tribal areas along the Afghan border is irrelevant. What matters is that militants cross the border freely and engage in attacks that kill coalition and government forces and Afghan civilians.

Finally, the United States should continue to put pressure on our NATO allies to remove restrictions on their forces, increase troop levels, and provide more economic and security force training assistance to the government of Hamid Karzai. Of course, this is more easily said than done, but it needs to be said nonetheless. European countries contributing to the fight in Afghanistan are faced with declining public support at home for continuing the war, defense budgets that have been in decline for years, and a significant capability shortfall that makes interoperability with American forces nearly impossible. Everyone recognizes that NATO is failing in Afghanistan, and the alliance is starting to fracture. These problems will not be fixed overnight. But they will also not be fixed without consistent and hard-nosed diplomatic pressure from both the President and the Congress.

Make no mistake about it. We are in danger of losing the war in Afghanistan. We have not lost it yet, but the danger of losing is real. We cannot sit around and wait for our allies in NATO or the government in Pakistan to do what they have promised. President Bush understands this and is taking steps now to make sure that Afghanistan does not once again become a failed state for terrorists to take advantage of.

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