- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

U.S. military officials insist that, while the Iraq war is a strain on the armed forces, it is not significantly hurting the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Concerns about the growth of the Islamic threat along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have mounted in recent months, especially last week with Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker testifying before Congress about progress in Iraq.

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and House Armed Services Committee chairman, opened his hearings Wednesday by saying that “troops in Iraq … cannot be sent to Afghanistan to hunt down [Osama] bin Laden,” thus the Iraq war “is putting at risk our ability to decisively defeat those most likely to attack us.”

But several defense and intelligence sources bluntly reject that hypothesis, telling The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that real political and military constraints on U.S. actions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would not be solved by throwing into the fray masses of soldiers hypothetically freed up by an Iraq pullout.

Among other things, they note, the militant Islamic resurgence is largely taking place in Pakistan.

“The center of gravity is on the other side of the border,” a U.S. intelligence official said. “The weight of the organization is on one side, inside Pakistan. That doesn’t preclude our concerns, or the ability for [al Qaeda] to mount operational attacks on our coalition forces inside Afghanistan.”

Over the past 18 months al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents have been successful in recruiting and moving throughout Pakistan’sFederally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) — an area, at 10,500 square miles, larger than Maryland.

Insurgents in the areas freely cross its porous borders with Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces to recruit and mount attacks on international security forces.

“There’s no way we’re going to put a brigade in the FATA region,” said a high-ranking military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Another defense official said, “Pakistan is a sovereign nation and it’s up to Pakistan to make the call on if they want foreign forces in their nation.

“There is certainly a misunderstanding by many on what we can and can’t do in the war on terror,” the official said, pointing out that sending armed forces into another country without authorization is generally called an “invasion.”

Both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have stated that the focus of the war needs to be placed on Afghanistan. Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has also stressed the importance of Afghanistan and counterinsurgency efforts in the region, while insisting that Iraq is just as vital.

“We cannot win a war against the terrorists if we’re on the wrong battlefield,” Mr. Obama said last year, highlighting what many Democrats have said for years.

At a roundtable meeting with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, Gen. Petraeus said he was “keenly aware — number one, of the strain on the force and of course included in that, the strain on our troopers; number two, the strain on budgets; and number three, the strain on strategic flexibility.”

Yet he said not all the problems the U.S. faces in Afghanistan are about force levels.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials say an August 2006 peace accord between local Taliban militants and the Pakistani government, signed in an effort to reduce violence in the areas and win over the local population to Pakistan’s central government, provided the impetus that let terrorists and militants regroup and increase their numbers.

“They got more freedom to move again,” said the U.S. intelligence official. “That was something that was absolutely disastrous. The Pakistanis realize that terrorists operating within Pakistan are not just an external problem but a serious internal security problem that Pakistan needs to address as well.”

Pakistan is also in the throes of “tremendous” social and political conflicts, and has lost roughly 700 soldiers during the past six months of military operations in the FATA region.

“There is a growing debate inside the Defense Department as to whether Special Ops forces would be the best way to counter the growing threat in the region,” a defense official said. “There’s certainly pros and cons to this. Many believe the only truly effective counterinsurgency effort will come from the Frontier Corps that are recruited from the FATA region to fight al Qaeda and the militants inside Pakistan.”

The Frontier Corps is a Pakistani federal paramilitary force recruited and trained to help local law enforcement with border patrol and anti-smuggling operations. The forces have been recently used in military operations against insurgents and militants in FATA.

Such events as the December assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the October Karachi bombings and the July Red Mosque siege have all opened the Pakistan government’s “eyes to the real threat of terrorism.”

U.S. defense officials said that terrorist organizations and militias have been successfully recruiting inside Pakistan, and though the Taliban “is not popular” among most Afghans, there has to be a concerted effort to limit its ability to recruit and gain strongholds in the region.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said last week: “Afghanistan is an economy-of-force campaign and there are force requirements there that we can’t currently meet.

“So, having forces in Iraq don’t — at the level they’re at — don’t allow us to fill the need that we have in Afghanistan,” he added.

It is a complex situation and cooperation with Pakistan is also going to be key in gaining ground against al Qaeda and holding off Taliban influence in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence and defense officials added.

“Its not necessarily a zero-sum game,” the U.S. intelligence official added.

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