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Helping Afghans Fight for Themselves

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 Afghanistan.”

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 Afghanistan.

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 warlords.

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 Afghanistan.

James Phillips is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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