The talking heads have already picked over the bones of the Obama administration's review last week of Afghanistan policy, but missed out on an overall estimate of progress in "the war on terrorism." It is, after all, why the U.S. is in Afghanistan in the first place. Eliminating a sanctuary in a failed state to international terrorists was and still is the name of the game.
While the term has been discarded, the problem of global terrorism not only remains but conditions have worsened.
The centrally directed network of al Qaeda, however effective in 9/11, has now given way to regional groups and even individual "freelance" terrorists - "death by a thousand cuts."
Recruitment of second- and third-generation acolytes is growing in Western Europe and the U.S., as local Muslims either dissimulate or refuse to take up the cudgels against terrorism committed in their faith's name.
So long as jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not defeated, the bandwagon effect promises other sanctuaries - whether it's in Yemen, Somalia or North Africa.
With U.S. finances in crisis, the burden of two Mideast wars becomes all the more difficult - especially since the Pentagon soon will have to turn from obsession with asymmetrical warfare to the growing conventional and nuclear menace in Northeast Asia posed by North Korea.
Whatever his accomplishments, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke's death dramatized the failure of the U.S. government's South and Central Asia regional strategies. Afghanistan remains only one portion of a much larger and more troubling canvas.
Sweden's most recent terrorist episode again spotlights Europe's growing Muslim problem. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel flatly stated, "Multiculturalism has failed." Not only are jihadists finding suicide-bombing candidates among young European Muslims, but contrary to the left's insistence on "fundamental issues" as the cause, recruits are more often than not middle class, educated and in no way - except romantically - connected to "the starving masses."
The Obama Mideast brain trust, mesmerized by the Israeli-Arab feud, see its "solution" as the key to healing the environment nurturing terrorism. But leaked State Department cables reconfirm that that feud is only one of many issues roiling the Islamic world. The growing threat from Iran preoccupies the Persian Gulf regimes and Egypt.
As important as rooting out Afghanistan Taliban remains, the potential disintegration of neighboring Pakistan is just as critical. The publicity given to civilian casualties from U.S. drone attacks - fanned by the Pakistani left - obscures what is happening. Growing ethnic violence in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and only port; bloody conflict between the Sunni majority and minority Shiites; atrocities targeting Christians; intertribal killing as well as heavy losses in army campaigns in the border areas; and a continuing civil war in Balochistan are all helping to undermine the country's fragile civil society. The George W. Bush administration's pressure to return to "democracy" has resulted in an incompetent, corrupt, fractured administration.
All this provides fertile ground for terrorism and, just as important, training facilities for Western Muslim recruits. The future of a nuclear-armed, 175-million-strong nation is hanging in the balance.
Growing U.S. public opposition to the country's wars risks a repeat of the dynamic of the Vietnam War and France's Algerian conflict: a military victory abandoned in the face of domestic political opposition.
Growing costs will become increasingly a major issue as the American economy sluggishly recovers from the 2007-08 financial crisis. But now it is emerging that there are possibilities of mitigating these costs by exploiting Afghanistan's abundant natural resources, despite the continuing fighting.
Mid-December saw the signing of a proposal to build a 1,000-mile gas pipeline, a longtime American oil company project, to carry gas from Turkmenistan, which boasts the fourth largest reserves in the world, to India and other world markets through Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Success of the project would also undermine Russia's former monopoly on energy transport from the region and limit Beijing's growing access to Central Asian fossil fuels. Transit fees for both Afghanistan and Pakistan would be substantial. Kabul could offer returns to tribes whose land the pipeline would traverse, an old British Indian concept. Just as pipelines in Algeria and Burma function despite domestic political turmoil, the project in still-unstable Afghanistan may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.
Such creative strategies would help pacify the tribes that the Taliban exploits while serving to integrate the region. Mr. Holbrooke made little headway with this task - in no small part because of the complications posed by Pakistan's conflict with India over Kashmir, which was outside his portfolio. But even a minor success would help ease the burden for American taxpayers at a time of continuing economic difficulty at home.
- Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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