October 8, 2004
By James Phillips
Afghanistan, already a major front in the war on terrorism, now
has also become an important front in the American presidential
campaign. Senator John Kerry has charged that the Bush
administration made a huge mistake in the war against terrorism by
diverting military forces from Afghanistan to Iraq. "Iraq is not
even the center of the focus of the war on terrorism," Kerry said
derisively in the first debate on September 30. "The center is
Kerry correctly stresses the importance of defeating terrorism in
Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden
before they were ousted in a lightning military campaign after the
September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But he errs in castigating
Bush for not putting more troops into Afghanistan, as he did at the
debate: "The president moved the troops so he's got 10 times the
number of troops in Iraq that he has in Afghanistan, where Osama
bin Laden is."
First of all, bin Laden is widely suspected of hiding in Pakistan,
not Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis have ruled out the deployment
of any American troops on their soil. But more importantly, Kerry
makes the mistake of comparing apples and oranges.
The postwar situation in Afghanistan is far different than in Iraq.
What is needed there is not more American troops, but better
intelligence on the whereabouts of Taliban remnants, who are
seeking to shoot their way back into power, and on their
predominantly Arab Al Qaeda allies.
Unlike in Iraq, opposition forces in Afghanistan were effective
allies in toppling the anti-American regime and actively
cooperating with the United States in rooting out its supporters.
This is why the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces were forced to flee
across the border into Pakistan's frontier provinces, which they
are now using as a staging area to launch attacks into
By cooperating closely with the Afghan opposition, the Pentagon was
able to rapidly deploy American forces 8,000 miles away and expel
the Taliban regime from Kabul by November 12, 2001, before the
World Trade Center had actually stopped smoldering. Most of the
fighting on the ground was done by the Northern Alliance
opposition, bolstered by American special forces who called in
pinpoint air strikes.
The heavy reliance on Afghans to conduct the ground war helped save
American lives, but it also had a major downside. Bin Laden and
several hundred of his followers are believed to have escaped the
encirclement of their mountain stronghold at Tora Bora in eastern
Afghanistan in early December 2001 and to have fled into Pakistan.
The swift deployment of American troops in a ring around Tora Bora
might have led to the capture or killing of bin Laden. But such a
deployment would not necessarily have succeeded, as the American
forces did not have detailed knowledge of the local terrain and
possible escape routes or the support of local villagers, who long
had been showered with money by bin Laden.
It is overly simplistic to say that the Iraq war, launched 15
months later, distracted American forces from capturing bin Laden.
By the outbreak of the Iraq war in March 2003, bin Laden long had
disappeared, probably burrowing into the autonomous tribal belt of
western Pakistan. There is no evidence that bin Laden would have
been caught if the Iraq war never had happened.
In fact, the search for bin Laden and the war in Iraq were vastly
different kinds of campaigns that required different sets of
military assets. The hunt for bin Laden was primarily an
intelligence effort augmented by small units of special forces and
Afghan auxiliaries who operated as commandos in the mountainous
terrain along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The war in Iraq
primarily required heavy armored forces and mechanized infantry
units backed by air power. To suggest that the Pentagon could not
obtain both at the same time, particularly when Afghanistan already
was liberated from Taliban rule and its new government was
cooperating in hunting bin Laden, is to suggest that the American
government could not walk and chew gum at the same time.
True, scarce intelligence assets were stretched thin. But the
intelligence units operating in Afghanistan required personnel that
spoke Dari, Pashto and Urdu - the languages of Afghanistan and
Pakistan - not Arabic, as in Iraq. And the units searching for bin
Laden had ample help from Afghans strongly motivated by a desire to
avenge the deaths of comrades killed by bin Laden's international
brigade and by his Taliban allies.
Kerry's argument implies that if more American troops had been
deployed in Afghanistan, then the situation today would be much
better. But not only was a larger American military presence in
Afghanistan not necessary for military reasons, with the possible
exception of Tora Bora, but it also would have involved a
substantial risk of provoking a political backlash among
Afghanistan's notoriously xenophobic population.
The deployment of additional American troops also could backfire
politically by undermining the interim government led by President
Hamid Karzai. A huge American presence would have made it easier
for the Taliban and other Islamic radicals to paint Karzai as an
American stooge propped up by American troops.
Afghanistan today is making substantial progress under Karzai's
leadership. More than 2 million refugees have returned from exile
to rebuild their war-torn country. The economy is expanding at a
rapid pace, and the shattered infrastructure is being repaired by
an influx of foreign aid.
But serious problems remain. The Taliban, operating from
sanctuaries in Pakistan, are active in eastern and southern
Afghanistan, where they are launching increasing attacks on
government targets. The destruction of traditional irrigation
systems and a prolonged drought have led many farmers to switch to
the cultivation of hardy poppy plants, which are harvested to
produce opium and heroin. This has led to the expansion of illegal
drug exports that often finance the militias of local
But Afghanistan today is in much better shape than Iraq. Afghans
are slated to hold their first presidential elections this
Saturday. Karzai, who has become a popular figure, is projected to
defeat 22 political opponents to become Afghanistan's first elected
leader. Ultimately it will be Afghans, not Americans, who will bear
the prime responsibility of defeating terrorism in
Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at
The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First published in The Forward
Afghanistan, already a major front in the war on terrorism, now has also become an important front in the American presidential campaign.
Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
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