The Other War

The media has focused great attention on the news that the Iraqi prime minister had finally managed to assemble a cabinet, albeit with the three most important posts (those of interior, defense and national security) having been filled by interim appointees. Still, Americans are anxious for good news from Iraq, and they are likely to be heartened by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s stated goal that Iraqis will have control of security in most of the country by the end of this year. In a related story, President Bush told an audience in Chicago that the United States had “reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror.”

Meanwhile, on the pessimism front, the war in Afghanistan has taken an ugly turn. The front page of today’s Washington Post features a story of heavy fighting in Kandahar province. Reuters is reporting that Taliban fighters ambushed a squadron of Afghan police in southern Afghanistan. The AP on Sunday described heavy fighting in Helmand province, the country’s main opium-producing region, and also violent clashes in Zabol, and today is reporting still more violence in and around Kandahar. 

The good news appears to be that Taliban loyalists and insurgents are bearing the brunt of these attacks. Among the estimated 305 people killed in the last week, the AP determined (somehow) that “most of the dead were militants.” Still, as the United States plans to turn over security responsibilities in southern Afghanistan to NATO by the end of July, the question must be asked: If, after nearly four and a half years of fighting resistance remains strong and the Karzai government dangerously weak, is it time to question our strategy in the country that played host to the 9/11 plotters, and where, it is believed, a number of Al Qaeda and Taliban officials continue to operate? Or, more to the point, if the goal of operations in Afghanistan is to eliminate Al Qaeda and its affiliates and allies, are we, to quote the immortal words of Secretary Rumsfeld, “capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

If the answer were yes, then the number of attacks should be declining. Alas, the answer appears to be no. Seth Jones, a security analyst at the RAND Corporation, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

We’ve seen since 2002 the level of violence has gone up each year. The number of attacks by insurgents and the number of deaths caused by them has gone up every single year.

For most of the last few years what we’ve seen is small numbers of Taliban insurgents. Now we’re seeing growing numbers.

This is actually a disturbing trend, more of a conventional rather than an unconventional war.

Those seeking a new approach might turn to two papers published by Cato on the subject: Ted Galen Carpenter’s “How the Drug War in Afghanistan Undermines America’s War on Terror” (Foreign Policy Briefing no. 84, November 10, 2004); and Subodh Atal’s “At a Crossroads in Afghanistan: Should the United States Be Involved in Nation Building?” (Foreign Policy Briefing no. 81, September 24, 2003).

The war in Afghanistan is, and always should have been, the true central front in the war on terrorism. We cannot undo the decision to divert intelligence and military assets away from the fight there, and toward the fight in Iraq. But we can refocus our attention back to Afghanistan and we must be prepared to alter our strategy if the current course is not leading in a positive direction.