TOPICS: America’s ‘other war’ on terror

The report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, got short shrift when President Bush announced his “New Way Forward” for Iraq. Key recommendations of the 10-member bipartisan panel - from the withdrawal of US combat troops by early 2008 to a diplomatic initiative to talk to Iran and Syria - were either watered down or dismissed outright. Hopefully, the study group’s views on America’s “other war” in Afghanistan will fare better. Little noted at the time the study group released its report in December were three observations on the connection between American involvement in Iraq and a successful outcome for the US mission in Afghanistan. So it is especially important that the Bush administration and Congress pay attention to the ISG’s observations.

Observation No. 1: “The huge focus of United States’ political, military and economic support on Iraq has necessarily diverted attention from Afghanistan.” The study group acknowledged what the Bush administration has consistently refused to concede: namely, that efforts to secure and rebuild Afghanistan have been undermanned and underfunded because of the Iraq war. In the words of Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska: “The oxygen has been sucked out of everything because of Iraq.”

Observation No. 2: “Increased deployments to Iraq would hamper our ability to provide adequate resources for our efforts in Afghanistan.” The study group rightly noted that “America’s military capacity is stretched thin: we do not have the troops or equipment to make a substantial, sustained increase in our troop presence.” Choices must be made, and, in the opinion of the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, an increase in troop strength in Iraq is the wrong choice: “If we’re surging troops anywhere, it should be in Afghanistan.”

Observation No. 3: “[T]he longer that United States political and military resources are tied down in Iraq, the more the chances for American failure in Afghanistan increase.” Among the negative consequences foreseen by the ISG of a prolonged American military involvement in Iraq is the possibility of a return to pre-9/11, “square one” conditions in Afghanistan: “If the Taliban were to control more of Afghanistan, it could provide Al Qaeda the political space to conduct terrorist operations. This development would have national security implications for the United States and other countries around the world.”

Working on a bipartisan basis, the Bush administration and the new Democratic majority in Congress should come up with a “New Way Forward” for the war in Afghanistan. This plan would include a long-term security commitment and a doubling of economic and counternarcotics assistance. Afghanistan deserves to receive the attention, priority, and resources it needs to succeed. — The Christian Science Monitor