Ever since the Taliban collapsed late last year, Washington’s favorite parlor game has been speculating about which countries would be the targets of phase two of America’s war on terrorism. Iraq was everyone’s favorite, especially after President Bush in January declared it part of a 21st-century “axis of evil.”
Then, last week, events in Afghanistan reminded us that phase one of the war remains unfinished. The largest battle of the war so far was waged by about 2,000 American, Afghan and allied soldiers who fought Al-Qaida forces in the rugged Shah-e-Kot mountains south of Kabul.
Unlike most Taliban troops, these fighters did not lay down their guns or abandon their jihad against America. Instead, they regrouped in the countryside, waiting for an opportunity to attack our troops, if not retake control of the country. The fighting was fierce—and a war that had previously spilled little American blood took a sudden turn.
Even before the new fighting erupted, there were signs of mounting instability in Afghanistan’s major cities. In recent weeks, some administration officials have acknowledged what many Afghans had long argued—that the same warlords who helped unseat the Taliban now threaten the new government of Hamid Karzai. As a result, discussions in Washington and Europe have intensified on expanding the international peacekeeping force sent to help stabilize Afghanistan.
Fortunately, while much of Washington’s attention moved beyond Afghanistan once the Taliban was ousted, the Pentagon’s didn’t. Although Osama bin Laden was no longer featured in the president’s speeches, military leaders knew that Al-Qaida fighters remained at large in Afghanistan and said so. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that “some prominent U.S. lawmaker said the war in Afghanistan was essentially over. I think it’s just beginning.”
The question now facing Washington is whether it’s too risky to consider opening a major new front in the war on terrorism—such as in Iraq—when the first phase remains unfinished. And we need to think hard about what constitutes long-term success. Will we have succeeded if we finish off Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, but leave the government so unstable that it cannot keep its people safe—or keep terrorists out?
Worried that regrouped Al-Qaida forces might threaten U.S. troops and the Karzai government, the Pentagon launched “Operation Anaconda.” The goal is simple, though brutal: Surround and close in on Al-Qaida fighters, just as the anaconda encircles its prey and crushes it.
Unlike last December in the battle at Tora Bora, at least 1,000 regular U.S. combat soldiers are fighting on the ground this time, signaling that the Pentagon learned from its earlier mistakes. At Tora Bora, it tried to limit American involvement, and casualties. U.S. warplanes bombed from the sky while Afghan forces, helped by a few dozen U.S. special-forces soldiers, did the dirty work on the ground. Some Afghan troops were easily bribed, and many Al-Qaida fighters, including possibly bin Laden himself, managed to escape.
With U.S. soldiers fighting on the ground—and with escape routes from the valley reportedly blocked—the fate of Al-Qaida forces at Shah-e-Kot appears to be sealed. But success comes at a cost—eight Americans were killed in the first 48 hours of battle. The death toll reflects the treacherous terrain and the tenacity of the largely non-Afghan Al-Qaida fighters. They can’t get home and know that even if they could, they would likely be jailed. They see only one choice: to fight and die.
So as Operation Anaconda continues, U.S. troops could suffer more casualties. No one knows how many Al-Qaida fighters remain elsewhere in Afghanistan. But the Pentagon thinks the number could be substantial. That is why Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed suggestions that last week’s fighting represents Al-Qaida’s “last stand” in Afghanistan: “We have to expect that there are other sizable pockets, that there will be other battles of this type.”
And that reality means that considerable U.S. military resources will be tied down in Afghanistan for months to come. This should not affect our ability to conduct anti-terrorist training in Georgia, the Philippines or Yemen, but it could limit our ability to pursue major military operations elsewhere.
President Bush understands the need for a stable Afghanistan. “I think we did learn a lesson…from the previous engagement in the Afghan area,” he said last October. “We should not just simply leave after a military objective has been achieved.” If we fail to stabilize the country this time, we will confirm the Islamic world’s belief that Americans are more interested in destroying their societies than in making them work.
Unfortunately, the chances of failure may be growing. Last month, the CIA warned that Karzai’s interim government, which runs the capital city of Kabul and not much else, is threatened by a power struggle among rival warlords.
Afghanistan’s current predicament stems partly from the same war-fighting strategy that let Al-Qaida forces escape from Tora Bora. When it chose not to send regular U.S. combat troops into battle, the Pentagon armed and paid warlords to do the fighting. Now flush with weapons and cash, those warlords are competing with the cash-strapped government for power.
But hindsight is 20/20. Looking forward, the Bush administration needs to figure out what to do to prevent Afghanistan from plunging into chaos. Everyone agrees that Washington should help it build a national army, develop its law enforcement capabilities and establish the rule of law. The issue is what to do in the meantime.
During his February visit to the White House, Karzai asked Bush to support quadrupling the size of the peacekeeping force and extending its mission to other major Afghan cities besides Kabul. This 4,900-member force, composed entirely of non-U.S. troops, has already restored order to the capital. But countries will not contribute more peacekeepers unless Washington gives the go-ahead.
The Pentagon opposes expanding the peacekeeping force. Last month, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld asked: “Why put all the time and money and effort into that? Why not put it into helping them develop a national army so that they can look out for themselves over time?”
But these questions posit a false choice. It would be one thing if focusing today on building an Afghan army could produce an effective fighting force tomorrow. But it will take months to build even a rudimentary force. It will take much longer to build one that can make warlords submit to its authority. Moreover, while the Pentagon justifiably fears that involvement in Afghan politics could turn our troops into targets—as happened in Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993—the reality is that we are already involved. The only question is whether we are prepared to use our presence to shape Afghanistan’s future in our favor.
That will require more money, more troops, more diplomacy and more patience—from Washington and our allies. And that, in turn, means less will be available for reconstructing countries such as Iraq that might become the target of major military operations.
So we need to think hard about when—and how—to move into the war’s next phase, whether in Iraq or elsewhere. Bad timing can undo even the best intentions. Unfortunately, opposition to asking questions about the war is intense. When Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota worried last month that the war was expanding “without at least a clear direction,” Republican leaders labeled his remarks “disgusting” and accused him of “giving aid and comfort to our enemies” and of trying to divide our country.”
But stifling debate is dangerous. We face many risks in our war on terrorism. One of them is trying to do too much, too soon. Doing that would be a mistake. Doing it without any thought would be a tragedy.