Terrorism battleground shifts to Afghanistan

By Lee Hamilton
Jul 28 2008

 Afghanistan is larger than Iraq in terms of both size and population. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, guests of the Taliban, plotted the Sept. 11 attacks in Afghanistan. And America went to war there in October 2001, with the international community's blessing, to capture or kill those responsible for the attacks.

Yet today there are only about 36,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, less than one-third the number stationed in Iraq.

The costs of our lack of attention have been high of late. In June, a Taliban prison raid freed 1,000 inmates in Kandahar, 400 of whom were Taliban. On July 13, Taliban forces nearly overran a U.S.-Afghan outpost in the Weygal Valley near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, killing nine and wounding 15 American soldiers. More U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan (52) than in Iraq (43) since May. Suicide bombings increased by 40 percent during the first half of 2008 as compared to 2007.

Afghanistan is producing opium -- used to make heroin -- at record levels, supplying 92 percent of the world's total. Narco-trafficking funds the Taliban's insurgency and undermines the Karzai government, which is weak and rife with corruption.

Our NATO allies' contributions have been disappointing, with national restrictions on the use of their troops precluding participation in the more dangerous, but most crucial, missions. The provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs), which should be relying on civilian expertise and leadership, are increasingly dependent on military staffing.

There is some good news. Most Afghanis want international forces to stay. The international community has pledged $21 billion to reconstruction. Educational opportunities for both boys and girls have expanded greatly. Road construction and other infrastructure projects are underway. The elected parliament is functioning better, access to health care has improved dramatically, and refugees are returning home.

But we still need a clear goal and should dedicate the necessary resources to achieving it.

We should not aim for a pure democracy in the near future, but rather a government that is strong enough to: defend its borders, ensure internal security, deny a safe haven to terrorists, and protect fundamental human rights. Expanding our goals beyond this should be avoided.

Even achieving these modest goals will require additional combat brigades on the ground, as well as a stronger commitment to training a 52,000-soldier Afghan army. The recent increased reliance on air power and subsequent civilian casualties is undermining our efforts to win hearts and minds.

The U.S. and its allies should work with the Afghan government to appoint a super envoy to assist President Karzai's efforts to fight corruption and deliver basic services to the people.

On the counter-narcotics front, poppy eradication has failed to hamper opium harvests. Ultimately, we must curb demand for heroin, the fundamental driver of Afghanistan's drug economy.

The central front in our war against terrorism is now in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is intolerable and dangerous that, almost seven years after 9/11, those responsible for the attacks remain at large in this region, destabilizing Afghanistan and planning future strikes on the West. Our recent Pakistan policy has not led to the disruption of such plotting, all the while alienating the Pakistanis.

Pakistan's new civilian government needs to get on track. We have common enemies in al-Qaida and the Taliban. We should support democracy and economic growth, especially in the tribal regions, but America cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary in Pakistan. If we have accurate intelligence about al-Qaida or Taliban leaders we must act against them, if Pakistan does not.

Afghanistan is a poor, multi-ethnic, sectarian, fractious country, and it will remain so for years to come. Our commitment to its government and people should be for the long haul, with realistic expectations.

 (Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)