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A One-Front Terror War? By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, July 10, 2008


“I don't have troops I can reach for . . . to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq,” said Admiral Mike Mullen on July 2. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explained, “Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there.” Adm. Mullen’s statement breathed new life into an old claim by leftist Democrats who still wanted to sound tough, that the United States was fighting the wrong war in the wrong place by concentrating forces in Iraq rather than in Afghanistan.

 

Sen. Barack Obama says as president he would immediately withdraw thousands of U.S. ground troops from Iraq and send them to Afghanistan to help defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“It's time to refocus our attention on the war we have to win in Afghanistan,” Obama said in a recent speech. “It is time to go after the al-Qaeda leadership where it actually exists.”

 

The Democratic contender, whose opposition to the Iraq war was the core of his primary campaign, has embraced the old saw that Iraq diverted scarce military resources from taking on the “real” terrorists in Afghanistan. Because al-Qaeda operatives trained for the September 11, 2001, attacks in Afghanistan, even otherwise antiwar liberals say they want to fight there. Obama’s camp also seems to believe that the United States has relied too heavily on forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that is, from America’s European allies. “Afghanistan should have been our fight,” said retired Air Force General Tony McPeak, national co-chairman of Obama's campaign.

 

McPeak’s notion that America should go it alone in Afghanistan runs counter to the left-wing criticism of America for going it alone in Iraq. The charge since 2003 has been that it was a mistake for the Bush administration to act “unilaterally” in Iraq without the support of major allies. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry argued that other nations shared the U.S. goal of stability in Iraq. If elected president, Kerry said he would use his powers of persuasion to convince them that they share in the war effort. “Our soldiers are bearing the brunt of this operation,” Kerry said. “Our military is to some degree overextended. American soldiers are bearing the huge majority, the lion's share of this.”

 

The United States did have a “coalition of the willing” that sent troops to serve alongside American soldiers and Marines in Iraq, most notably British, Poles, Australians, South Koreans, Italians, Rumanians, and Ukrainians. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made his famous statement about the difference between “Old” and “New” Europe, which generally coincided with socialist Western Europe and post-communist Eastern Europe. The governments of the latter were more supportive of a forward American policy, having had bitter experiences with brutal dictators. Most of the non-U.S. troops have been withdrawn since the initial invasion, but over the course of the Iraq War, some 43 countries committed troops for some period as part of the coalition.

 

The two European countries that did the most to block UN Security Council support for the Iraq invasion were France and Germany. Liberals and those further left have repeatedly cited the statements of then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac as bringing into question the legitimacy of American action. Indeed, the operative meaning of “unilateral” was not that Washington was truly alone, but that it had not won the support of key international institutions like the UN.

 

In Afghanistan, however, both Germany and France have committed troops, and the campaign is officially a NATO operation. The U.S. invoked the mutual defense treaty immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Only about half the forces on the ground in Afghanistan are American; whereas even at the height of foreign participation in Iraq, American troops accounted for three-quarters of the coalition.

 

Obama opposed the “surge” of American reinforcements into Iraq, but now wants a “surge” in Afghanistan. He may be right in the second case, for exactly the reasons he was wrong in the first case. The surge has worked in Iraq. As reported in London’s Sunday Times on July 6, “American and Iraqi forces are driving Al-Qaeda in Iraq out of its last redoubt in the north of the country in the culmination of one of the most spectacular victories of the war on terror. After being forced from its strongholds in the west and centre of Iraq in the past two years, Al-Qaeda’s dwindling band of fighters has made a defiant ‘last stand’ in the northern city of Mosul.” Radical Shi’ite militias are also being beaten down.

 

The notion that al-Qaeda in Iraq is somehow a different or less dangerous al-Qaeda than the one headed up by Osama bin Laden is untenable. As bin Laden himself stated in an audio message posted on jihadist websites December 28, 2004, “The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers [Iraq]. The world's millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.”

 

Iraq has always been the more important theater in the two-front war that America has been waging. In population, oil reserves and geographic location, Iraq is of much greater strategic value than Afghanistan. When forces are limited, priorities have to be assigned, and Iraq has deserved the higher priority. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Militants only gain the power to upset regional balances or support large scale aggression when they can seize control of governments and mobilize national resources. Iraq is a much larger prize to Jihadists than is Afghanistan. It is also the key to containing Iran – a state radical Islamists did capture.

 

In World War II, the decision was made to make the defeat of Nazi Germany the top priority even though it had been Imperial Japan that had attacked Pearl Harbor. The superior military and economic strength of Germany made it the more dangerous enemy, so American and allied forces fighting in Europe had first call on manpower, equipment and supplies. Once fully mobilized, the U.S. “Arsenal of Democracy” poured forth the means to take the offensive in the Pacific as well, and Japan was defeated only a few months after Germany.

 

There is hypocrisy in the Democrat’s complaint that U.S. forces are stretched thin and cannot fight with overwhelming power in both theaters. It was Democratic president Bill Clinton who ordered drastic cuts in American ground troop strength, leaving the Bush administration without the combat power needed to sustain long campaigns on two fronts. In 1990, when the first Gulf war broke out, the Army had 18 divisions. President George H. W. Bush reduced the Army to 14 divisions in post-Cold War euphoria. Then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney called the 14 divisions the “irreducible minimum” needed to protect American interests. President Clinton then cut the Army further to 10 divisions. The last time the Army had only 10 divisions was just before the Korean War, a conflict for which the country was unprepared and in which the military suffered heavy casualties during the first year of fighting.

 

It was under President Clinton that the “swing strategy” was first discussed. In this strategy, the U.S. would hold on one front while forces are concentrated to win on the other, primary front. Then forces “swing” from the victorious campaign to reinforce the secondary front and push on to victory there. Though the Clinton Pentagon ceased talking about this strategy out of embarrassment, force level cuts made it the only practical response when faced with multiple challenges. It was pronounced as official doctrine in the Quadrennial Defense Review released only a few weeks after 9/11 (but written beforehand).

 

As the situation in Iraq continues to improve, more American forces can be shifted to Afghanistan. The situation there is not as grave as Democrats and the media portray. The Taliban has not been destroyed, because it can retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan to recover. As long as those sanctuaries exist, the Taliban insurgents can strike into Afghanistan. But they are too weak to take and hold any territory of value. The Taliban cannot stand against Allied counter-attacks. Much of the violence that gains headlines are terrorist attacks, like the suicide car bomb that killed more than 40 people near the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7. Shifting to terrorism from attacks to seize territory is a sign that the Taliban effort is actually moving backwards. Terrorism requires less strength than ground offensives, but, by the same token, cannot threaten conquest. The Taliban cannot win control of Afghanistan in the face of a significant U.S.-NATO presence.

 

Some 40 countries have troops in Afghanistan, but the front line along the Pakistani border is manned mainly by American, British, Canadian, Australian, and Dutch troops, who make up three-quarters of all forces serving in the country. The French continent of 1,700 soldiers remain around Kabul, while the 3,400 Germans are in the north, far from the fighting. The Italians hold the strategic area around Herat which borders Iran.  The U.S. is sending another 3,200 Marines to reinforce the summer campaign because the Europeans claim they cannot find additional troops. This is despite the fact that the 27 countries of the European Union have 500 million people and an aggregate economy larger than the United States. So, while NATO forces can play a useful role as auxiliaries to American efforts, continental Europe cannot be depended upon to act like a true major power for the foreseeable future.

 

The Afghan War will be a long one if the Taliban continue to find sanctuary in Pakistan. But the war can be kept at a low level as long as the American will to resist remains strong, and some valiant allies can be rallied to the cause.

 

But this new turn of events is because we are winning the War in Iraq, against the hopes of the Left.


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


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