Thursday, July 31, 2008

While the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is proving to be an extraordinary success, the same cannot be said for the military situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent. It is almost seven years since the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed close to 3,000 Americans, were carried out by al Qaeda terrorists given sanctuary by the Taliban regime in Kabul. In the fall of 2001, a combination of CIA operatives, several hundred commandos and waves of air strikes drove the Taliban from power. Today, there are more than 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, together with more than 22,000 from NATO countries. But the increase in U.S. and NATO forces has been dwarfed by the ability of the Taliban and its allies to find new cadres of terrorists.

Recently, terrorists bombed the Indian Embassy in Kabul and almost assassinated Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Last month, Taliban fighters escaped from an Afghan prison and captured several villages, which were subsequently retaken by NATO forces. But a large part of the instability inside Afghanistan emanates from outside the country - in particular, Pakistan, where Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s government has made “peaceful” engagement with the Taliban a top priority and has released hundreds of lower-level jihadists from prison.

As Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times reported Tuesday, Pentagon officials and military specialists say the No. 1 reason for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is the chaos in the neighboring (and largely ungoverned) tribal region of Pakistan - where al Qaeda and Taliban operatives are left alone to train, recruit and cross the border to create mayhem in Afghanistan. That is why Mr. Karzai declared on June 15 that Afghanistan had the right to launch cross-border strikes against terrorist bases in Pakistan. “We’re seeing a greater number of insurgents and foreign fighters flowing across the border with Pakistan, unmolested and unhindered,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen said recently. “This movement needs to stop.” Adm. Mullen is correct. In the short term, that will require intensified diplomatic pressure on Islamabad - which until now has found it easier to appease the jihadists than to deal with U.S. displeasure over Pakistan’s role in fomenting discord in Afghanistan. But the status quo cannot continue indefinitely: Eventually the Pakistani government will act against subversion emanating from its territory, or some outside force will take action.

Dealing with Pakistan-based subversion is just the first step toward stabilizing Afghanistan. President Bush and his successor will be faced with some critical decisions about whether to increase the size of U.S. military forces in that country, and if so, whether these should be in the form of conventional armies or special forces. As Mr. Scarborough wrote, Adm. Mullen believes that there are too few U.S. and European troops to hold ground that is captured. But U.S. veterans of the Afghan war, speaking on background, warn that larger conventional forces are much less useful than expanding the role for special operations forces. Both sides have a point. Assuming that the military situation in Iraq continues to improve, that would free up more troops to come to Afghanistan, as Adm. Mullen suggests. But we do not see any inherent contradiction between expanding both conventional and special operations forces. Both have unique, important roles to play in stabilizing Afghanistan.

The major problem when it comes to increasing the size of allied forces in Afghanistan, however, continues to be the refusal of many NATO countries to pull their weight. The United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia provide close to two-thirds of the nearly 52,000 troops serving in the International Security Assistance Force, But countries like France, Germany and Italy impose severe restrictions on the movement of their troops, often rendering them useless for the most critical, dangerous military operations in Afghanistan.

For the current democratic government in Kabul to survive and eventually stand on its own, however, will also require much greater leadership from Mr. Karzai and members of his cabinet. That means more effective training of Afghan security forces. It means pushing ahead with Marshall Plan-type efforts (with Western assistance) if necessary to eradicate the country’s heroin crop and come up with substitutes for farmers to grow. It means going after corruption and drug trafficking.

All of the above - and more - will be necessary to achieve victory in Afghanistan. The decisions fall to the Bush administration and the 110th Congress - not their successors.

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