September 18, 2006

September 18, 2006 | Commentary on

Afghan anxiety: No 'Cut & Run'

Last Thursday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee and a potential '08 candidate, tried to turn the rhetorical tables on the Bush administration by accusing it oddly enough of a "cut and run" strategy in - of all places - Afghanistan.

Kerry claimed the administration's policy is "cut and run while the Taliban-led insurgency is running amok . . . while Osama bin Laden and his henchmen hide and plot in a lawless no-man's land," emboldening terrorists and making America less safe, AP reported.

Sheesh . . . Couldn't Kerry at least have come up with something a little more original than the tired and tattered "cut and run"?

OK, things have gotten tougher in Afghanistan since the Taliban started its spring offensive, but the idea that the Bush Afghan policy is "cut and run" is hogwash - as evidenced by successful U.S.-NATO-Afghan counter-Taliban operations in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces last week, which killed 500 fighters and recaptured a number of towns.

Besides, everyone - especially the White House - knows that failing in Afghanistan would be political suicide - and a major setback in the War on Terror.

And while "a snapshot of Afghanistan [at the moment] can be depressing, the movie is much better," according to the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, speaking at a security conference last week in Geneva.

Eikenberry, on his second tour in Afghanistan (that is, someone with his boots actually on the ground), pointed out that the country has a new constitution and has held enthusiastic democratic elections. And the new government has put lots of kids back in school, especially young women and girls.

Eikenberry didn't take credit for - but could have - the fact that Afghanistan is no longer an al Qaeda training base. Some 36 nations, including 20,000 NATO troops, are involved in a multilateral effort to put the country on a solid political, economic and security footing.

Yes, he admitted, some big challenges remain for the international community to tackle - especially matters unrelated to military operations.

Eikenberry lamented reconstruction progress, noting he'd choose more money for economic development over another battalion of U.S. soldiers. Such "non-kinetic" solutions are a vital policy complement to military ops in winning the Terror War. Without question, poverty-stricken Afghanistan needs more roads, schools and medical clinics as much as it needs troops.

Making the Afghans stakeholders in their future will undermine two of the greatest threats facing that country today: drugs and the Taliban.

Unfortunately, while the Taliban limited opium production during their brutal reign, Afghanistan is now once again the world's No. 1 poppy producer. Opium production is up 60 percent over last year, according to the United Nations, making Afghanistan responsible for 90 percent of global opium supply.

The big problem: Ill-gotten gains from the opium trade are financing warlords, the Taliban and possibly other terrorists.

The worst-case scenario, of course, is that the profits from Afghan narco-terrorism finds its way into the pockets of a terrorist group hell-bent on an attack in the United States. Terrorism can be cheap, but it isn't free.

The other worry is the Taliban's recent resurgence in southern Afghanistan; their latest tactic is inciting other Afghans (e.g., their fellow Pashtuns) into a broader war against the Kabul government and Coalition forces.

Another unsettling development is Islamabad's "truce" with the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the border, leading to the imminent removal of troops from areas where the fundamentalist group is most active.

Despite reassurances from Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf about the peace pact, the Bush administration is unnerved - and with good reason. Last week saw an uptick in Taliban activity.

Without pressure from the Pakistanis, the lawless, tribal areas of the border region with Afghanistan could easily become - if they haven't already - an even bigger safe haven and financial/logistical staging ground for the Taliban insurgency.

After all, the Pakistani side of the Afghan border was used to great affect by the mujahadeen in the fight against the Soviet Union, starting in 1979. We all remember how that war turned out . . .

Politics and sloganeering aside, progress is being made in Afghanistan, though plenty of work remains: getting more NATO troops/equipment (e.g., helicopters) in country - and into the South, increasing economic development, improving the police and fighting poppy production.

Kerry's assertions that Bush has a "cut and run" policy toward Afghanistan couldn't be further from the truth. If anything, after nearly five years, our policy proves that we're heckuva lot more about "stay and win" than "cut and run" any day.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The New York Post