Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Iraq and Afghanistan are perilously close to becoming failed states. How and why Iraq has gotten to this point is altogether obvious.

The many blunders and miscalculations in American policy and subsequent mistakes in Iraq are self-evident. But as many now say, “we are where we are” and must make do. Afghanistan, however, was different. Indeed, by comparison, Afghanistan up until last year could have been called the “uncola war” compared to Iraq.

To understand this reference, recall that several years ago, to differentiate itself from the darker-colored Coke and Pepsi competitors, 7-Up was branded as the “uncola.” If many things were dark in Iraq, Afghanistan was almost the reverse mirror image. From the start, things went right.

Following September 11, the international community was filled with support and sympathy for America.In Paris the very next day, the headline in LeMonde read “We Are All Americans.” For the first time in 52 years of existence, NATO invoked Article V of its charter. The attack on America was declared an attack on each individual NATO member state.

When President Bush made the courageous decision to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan, many were worried that America could repeat the failures of the Russians, British and Soviets over the past two centuries. But few were opposed to the reasons and justification for Operation Enduring Freedom. That the United States decided to go it largely alone was also understood because of the innovative and bold strategy that would topple the Taliban and that other military help could confuse and complicate the operation.

The war plan was a textbook case for economy of force operations. With relatively tiny numbers of Marines, Special Forces and paramilitary to start, followed by a modest deployment of soldiers, the Afghan Northern Alliance sensibly was tasked to provide the bulk of ground forces. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were not needed. And from the air, Navy and Air Force pilots delivered devastatingly lethal and precise firepower that broke the Taliban’s ability to fight. The only major mistake was allowing Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to escape from Tora Bora into Pakistan. Then, in the peace that followed, a democratic government was duly elected and President Hamid Karzai took office. A donors’ conference began raising reconstruction funds and nearly three-dozen other states joined the coalition to help transition Afghanistan towards becoming a fully functioning state.

NATO determined that Afghanistan was so strategically and politically important that it took the historic decision to deploy thousands of miles outside of its traditional security boundaries and play a major role in security assistance and reconstruction.Had Churchill, Truman and Eisenhower returned to earth, no doubt they never would have believed NATO was in Afghanistan. And, over the past two years, NATO began assuming responsibility for the entire International Security and Assistance Force. On July 31, NATO completed this transfer and ISAF, under British Lt. Gen. David Richards, has about 20,000 soldiers in country, matching an equal number under U.S. command.

Unlike Iraq, there were no immediate grounds for sectarian violence or religious cleavages. There were no vast caches of ammunition literally lying about. And there were no strategic resources such as oil over which to quarrel. Tragically however, Afghanistan began to deteriorate.

The fundamental causes were incipient Taliban and Pashtun militants who had not been killed or captured, warlords who literally ruled most of the country outside Kabul and poppies. Today, poppy and opium production account for at least of half of Afghanistan’s GDP. In fact, opium production exceeds external demand by about a third. But worse, the drug money has been cycled to Taliban insurgents and to warlords increasing their power and influence.

As a result, two weeks ago, NATO’s Supreme Commander, Marine Gen. James Jones, called for the additional forces that had been promised but not delivered by NATO’s 26 members. The increase is small — roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the current force. But it is the transport, helicopter, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities those forces bring that are crucial.So far, only one member state has anted up.

The consequence is obvious. If Afghanistan deteriorates and NATO cannot deliver the security and assistance promised, not only will the credibility of the alliance be badly damaged. The alliance could dissipate, especially given the negative attitudes of the European members to the war in Iraq. In forty years of the Cold War, the Soviets could not break NATO. Today, Afghanistan could.

What to do is not an easy question to answer. Given European antagonism toward the United States, strong American leadership could backfire. The best answer is to heed Gen. Jones’ warning and send the needed troops. If NATO does not, then the uncola war could too easily turn into Hemlock for the alliance.

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