- - Thursday, July 10, 2014

The place where American military forces are most needed is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but on our overrun border with Mexico.

Like other national security problems, this one smoldered for a long time before becoming exponentially worse over the past two months. Now there are only two realistic alternatives: Either fix border security or else reap the whirlwind. The effort needs to begin by mobilizing the National Guard and deploying it along the southern border, where only half of supposedly sovereign U.S. territory is actively controlled.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, who grew up along the Texas-Mexico border in Laredo, understands its nuances and contradictions. His well-earned reputation for candor has often offended those who prefer their illusions, whether Republican or Democrat. Lately, he has been in the headlines for being among the first to recognize that the surge in child immigrants demanded a hands-on response, and that a White House focused mostly on public relations needs to “roll up its sleeves” lest the situation become “Obama’s Katrina.” He won’t say which White House operative told him to knock it off, but the savvy opinions of his constituents always come first.

A shrewd politician, Mr. Cuellar understood that the tsunami of child border-crossers could easily become a Tea Party recruiting poster. As the flood inevitably spreads out to all points of the compass, people are bound to remember certain other embarrassments. Like that time in El Paso, shortly before the famous raid against Osama bin Laden, when President Obama boasted that the southern border has never been more secure. With deportations up and more Border Patrol agents than ever, the president mocked Republicans who wanted the walls higher. He even joked that they wanted to turn the Rio Grande into a moat, complete with alligators.

Even then there was unmistakable evidence that enemies can often learn lessons. In the January 2010 edition of Orbis, I wrote about the increasingly close ties between the Mexican drug and terrorist networks, warning that “there is every reason to believe this storm is upon us.” With Americans demanding more and more illegal drugs, the cartels control a sophisticated supply chain reaching into rural, suburban and urban neighborhoods. The logistical empire that brought methamphetamines into the local high school could also move unaccompanied refugees, human traffickers or, for that matter, weapons of mass destruction. Would you prefer improvised explosive devices, persistent chemical agents or other lethal weapons? Just as with FedEx or UPS, the cargo is only a minor detail when the proper logistics network is in place.

The only really shocking thing would be if those criminal or terrorist networks failed to exploit their advantage in penetrating a homeland where the defenses are often more apparent than real — especially since that southern border has lately turned into what military strategists call “a target-rich environment.” My San Antonio hometown is now the country’s eighth-largest metropolitan area. Thanks to the fracking revolution, the Eagle Ford Shale formation is turning South Texas rednecks into latter-day Beverly Hillbillies, new oil wells becoming as common as longhorns. This area, though, is also an incredibly soft target for the Islamic State, Hezbollah or any other group wishing us harm.

Think I’m kidding? Marine Gen. John Kelly leads the unified command responsible for Latin America south of Mexico. He raised eyebrows last week when telling reporters that the “insatiable U.S. demand for drugs” has created “an incredibly efficient network” for moving children, drugs or weapons of mass destruction “so long as they can pay the fare.” Even more startling, “Many argue that these threats are not existential and do not challenge national security. I disagree.”

I think Gen. Kelly is correct and that the surge in child immigration is only the first wave of an epidemic for which prevention is the only antidote. That is where the National Guard, traditionally America’s first line of constabulary defense, is an especially appropriate instrument. The Border Patrol, even when reinforced, is only a mobile police presence, often deployed miles away from the actual border. The National Guard, however, is the domestic component of the U.S. Army, created to control and defend American territory against any attacker. Overused and close to being used up during the wars on terrorism, the guard is still well-trained and equipped for its next mission: Ending the infiltration of American soil by foreign invaders. According to Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, the 414,000 infiltrators caught last year came from 100 different countries.

Let Texas be the test case for rebuilding the National Guard and remolding it into the linchpin for 21st-century homeland defense. Then just try to imagine the signal that will send to the cartels and their allies.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.