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Baghdad > Kabul By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In his address to the nation on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush reiterated the most important part of his strategy, “that America must confront threats before they reach our shores, whether those threats come from terrorist networks or terrorist states.” It is the focus on combating states that support terrorism that is the great divide between the Bush administration and its critics on the antiwar left and isolationist right. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, has gotten great play from his recent claims that the war in Iraq has been a diversion from the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But this is an old argument. Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, tried to make this a theme during his failed presidential bid, saying on September 24, 2004, “The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy -- al Qaeda...George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority.” This was also the argument made by those Democrats who opposed the resolution granting the president the authority to use force against Iraq in 2002.

In point of fact, the Iraq campaign did not reduce U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who led Central Command during the planning and execution of both invasions, writes in his memoirs American Soldier that President Bush had stressed to him that the momentum in Afghanistan not be lost during the Iraq campaign. Franks assured him, “we will stay focused on Afghanistan because strategically our operation there will be the flank of Iraq.” And the general believes “our mission in Afghanistan never suffered.” Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, who was Frank’s deputy commander, confirmed in his memoirs Inside Centcom, “We didn’t need to divert a single trooper from Afghanistan to Iraq. The Afghan war and the anti-terror Coalition did not suffer one bit. In fact, few people know that the very day we launched our attack against Iraq, we also launched a massive operation in Afghanistan.” He recalls telling President Bush on March 17, 2003, “We’re ready to go in Iraq....we are not doing to jeopardize the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.”


The US military was not overextended by the initial Afghan and Iraq war plans. Indeed, the original plan for Iraq envisioned sending 300,000 troops, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted the plan be revised downward and Franks agreed. In the end, only about half that number were sent. The over extension that Army and Marines ground forces now suffer is from the duration of the wars, and the repeated deployments of a military radically downsized in the 1990s, not from the initial campaigns.


But there is more than an error of fact involved. The critics have made an error in strategic thinking. Ad hoc terrorist groups like al-Qaeda do not pose the major threat to American security or global interests. Terrorism is the tactic of the weak. There was no surge of al-Qaeda forces across the Middle East after 9/11 like there was a surge of Japanese forces across Asia after Pearl Harbor. Osama Bin Laden’s plan is to take control of the region by overthrowing governments which he believes are being propped up by American power. In a tape released Monday, OBL’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahri warned America, “You should not waste your time in reinforcing your troops in Iraq and Afghanistan because they are doomed to defeat and are already all but defeated. Instead, you have to reinforce your troops in two regions. First is the Gulf, where you will be thrown out after you are defeated in Iraq, at which point your economic ruin will be achieved. The second is Israel, because the jihad reinforcements are getting closer to it.” This confirmed what President Bush said later than night, “the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us.” Al-Zawahri also threatened Egypt and Jordan for their support of Israel during its campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon.


Al-Qadea, however, does not have the means to achieve any of these grandiose plans. Though there has been a resurgence of Taliban activity in Afghanistan, five years after it was driven out of power, it is being defeated by Coalition forces who now operate under the NATO banner. It has not been possible to completely eradicate the Taliban because of their ability to retreat into the wild tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border. On September 5, Pakistan signed a so-called “peace accord” with pro-Taliban tribes to cover its withdraw of government troops from the region. In return, the fighters pledged to stop attacks inside Pakistan and across the border, though few expect the Taliban to abide by their pledge in regard to Afghanistan. So NATO troops will have to remain on guard, but there is no reason to believe that the Taliban will ever be able to regain control of Kabul. They are currently being badly hammered by a NATO offensive.


For political reasons, critics want to exaggerate the Taliban. An alarmist report from the leftist Center for American Progress last October claimed, “the Taliban have become increasingly sophisticated, employing new warfare tactics. They are now using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs, tactics that appear to have been imported from Iraq. They are also attacking soft targets, such as schools, clinics, and government offices, rather than coalition forces.” Falling back to terrorism against civilian targets is not “sophistication.” What reliance on such weapons and tactics actually indicates is a brutal movement, but one  weak in numbers, unable to contest for control of territory or the state. In terms of the stages of warfare, they are at the very bottom rung.


In Iraq, the terrorist are not faring any better. The most dangerous threats in Iraq are not the foreign fighters of al-Qaeda, but the sectarian strife of militias and hit squads rooted in the Sunni and Shia communities. The gravest threat to the survival of the U.S.-backed democratic government in Baghdad is the “Mahdi Army” of Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a political movement, a militia and, the most dangerous factor, support from Iran. As reported in the Washington Post on September 12,  Mustafa Yaqoubi, an aide to al-Sadr, has predicted “there will be civil war” in Iraq. “No matter the number of people who would lose their lives...It would be better than the Americans staying.” he said.  It would not be OBL who would gain by such a conflict, it would be Iran.


The White House’s identification of state-supported terrorism as being a greater danger than ad hoc cells has been proven correct. The Mahdi Army, Hezbollah and Hamas have all been more successful than al-Qaeda. Even before Hamas won the election in Gaza, it was acting as an alternative regime. Hezbollah surged into southern Lebanon after Israel withdrew from the buffer zone it had been holding. Its massive inventory of rockets and anti-tank missiles was supplied by Tehran and Damascus, along with training and a levying of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.. 


The tactic of using state-supported militias to advance the imperial ambitions of regimes is very old. Historian John F. Guilmartin, Jr., in writing about the Ottoman Empire, noted “The prevailing Western view holds that the natural pattern of human affairs consists of prolonged periods of peace interspersed with brief, intensive wars.” But this is not the pattern in the Middle East where, “far more common in the broad sweep of history are prolonged conflicts where the transition from peace to war is more blurred.” To fundamentalist Muslims, war is perpetual. If campaigns of conquest are not possible, then ghazi (raiding) warfare is to be conducted. This is more than mere “terrorism.” It is the tradition of weakening bordering communities by attrition until conquest is possible by regular armies. This practice is now quite evident in Iran’s strategy to dominate the region.


The waging of war is expensive even in a low-intensity setting, and only states can muster the resources needed to pursue ambitions on a scale grand enough to be considered strategic. It is the danger posed by governments under radical leaders that poses the real danger. President Bush showed he understands this when he said in his address last Monday, “if we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons.” Iran is the case in point, but behind Iran are China and Russia who have provided diplomatic and material support to Tehran. The use by Hezbollah of an Iranian-built C-802 anti-ship cruise missile of Chinese design against an Israeli gunboat off the coast of Lebanon in July encapsulated in one act the multi-layered threat that the United States faces in the future.

It is thus more important to determine who will rule in Baghdad than in Kabul, because Iraq has far more resources at stake than does Afghanistan. And who rules in either capital is more important than in what mud hut Osama bin Laden spends the night. There can be no slacking in the effort to combat terrorist groups because they may be plotting mass murder in the morning. But the anti-Iraq critics have their priorities inverted if they thinks Washington should give up the larger prizes or ignore the greater threats to only pursue the smaller concerns.

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William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.

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