Op-Ed: How the U.S. should approach its mission in Afghanistan

In the wake of the devastating attacks of 9/11 on the United States by Islamic militants, United States military forces quickly deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan, but did not capture Osama bin Laden. The Bush Administration faced the prospect of months of feckless pursuit of bin Laden and perhaps another potential attack on U.S. soil by Al Qaeda. If that happened, the White House might have been punished by voters in 2004 for ineptitude in its war on terrorism. The war in Iraq made it possible for the Bush Administration to appear more energetic and effective in its struggle against terrorism than it might have had it focused solely on the conflict in Afghanistan.

However, the conflict in Iraq also resulted in the diversion of military resources from Afghanistan. One result is that the U.S. military must rely on air power that results in more civilian deaths. Now it must also face a revived insurgence in Afghanistan supported by elements that have safe haven in Pakistan.

In recent months the Bush Administration has taken increasingly energetic steps to combat these forces in Pakistan. The highest priority must be given to the development of Afghan security forces that are better able to deal with insurgents within the country, even if they have a haven in Pakistan.

This is a risky policy. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. So does its neighbor, India. Another neighbor, the Shiite regime of Iran (Sunnis predominate in Pakistan) may also be developing nuclear weapons. At least 70 percent of Pakistanis disapprove of military cooperation with the United States. Military operations by the U.S. in Pakistani territory could strengthen anti-American, even Islamic extremist, elements in the Pakistani government, which then would be more likely to become involved in explosive confrontations with India or Iran or provide nuclear materials to Al Qaeda or like-minded groups.

President Bush might enhance his legacy by capturing Osama bin Laden. An October surprise in the form of the capture or death of Osama bin Laden could benefit the Republican Party in the November election. An international crisis in the form of a tense confrontation with a new, anti-American government in Pakistan would draw attention away from domestic economic problems in the U.S., another potential plus for Republicans as the election approaches. While President Bush may not consciously make any of these calculations, the structure of the current situation creates incentives that might lead him to underestimate the risks inherent in the current U.S. military’s activities in Pakistan.

The next administration will almost certainly continue the trend toward redirecting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Senator Obama has already indicated a willingness to take action in Pakistan without the permission of the Pakistani government. As a matter of U.S. security, a new administration, of either party, should give higher priority to recruiting, training and equipping Afghan security forces.

(This appeared in The Tennessean on Oct. 3, 2008)

Media contact: Amy Wolf, (615) 322-NEWS

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