The Forgotten War

Ahmed Rashid has an interesting piece in The Telegraph about the rising violence in Afghanistan as the Taliban – flush with opium money – has begun to reemerge in many Afghan provinces:

Fighting a full-scale guerrilla war is not what countries such as Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany and others enlisted for. The mandate from their governments is reconstruction, not combat.

“Nato will not fail in Afghanistan … the family of nations will expect nothing less than success,” General James Jones, the head of US and Nato forces in Europe, told a recent seminar in Madrid.

Gen Jones is now desperately trying to persuade contributing countries to end the restrictions they impose on their troops, making it impossible for some of them to fight or commanders to run a proper military campaign.

“What is the point of deploying troops who don’t fight,” ask many Afghans. That is why Gen Jones calls these caveats – they now number a staggering 71 – “Nato’s operational cancer”.

As in Bosnia, Europe’s military weakness is ensuring that reconstruction fails due to a declining security situation. NATO simply doesn’t have the ability to project force unless the US does the majority of the fighting – and the security situation in Afghanistan has gotten to the point where more fighting needs to be done.

US troop strength in Afghanistan has been relatively constant since 2001, with just under 20,000 US troops operating in the region. The Pentagon had planned to reduce this number by 3,000, but it doesn’t seem like the degraded security situation will allow that to happen – nor should it until the violence is brought under control.

Al-Qaeda is realizing that Iraq may be a lost cause, but refocusing on Afghanistan can be more profitable for them. They know that NATO is weak and unable to fight, and that the opium trade provides a ready source of funding. However, every conflict in which the US involves itself ends disastrously for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We’ve been operating in the region for five years, and despite our relatively small numbers the troops in Afghanistan are predominantly Special Forces troops with years of anti-terrorist and anti-insurgency training under their belts.

The Pentagon needs to realize that Afghanistan needs more US troops, not less. The combination of US air power and Special Forces is an exceptionally deadly one, and the desolate topography of Afghanistan is in many ways an advantage to us – but we can’t both pull out 3,000 troops and fight a Taliban that’s getting funding from Pakistan’s ISI, the Iranian government, and the opium trade. As Michael Yon personally observed, opium is undoubtedly one of the chief problems in the region – but also the only thing that keeps many Afghans from starving to death.

Rashid is only partially right when he suggests that radical militant Islam is centered in Central Asia – it began there during the Soviet invasion, but was always an Arab-dominated movement. However, even as we fight in the Arab theater in Iraq, we can’t forget that Central Asia is also a key region for the jihadist movement, and allowing al-Qaeda any safe refuge is unacceptable. NATO cannot do the job, and if we are to once again suppress the Taliban, American troops will be needed supported by American air power. Other than the UK, Europe has neither the force of arms nor the political will to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda knows where our weaknesses our, and now that Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda splinter group in Iraq has been largely ground into dust, Afghanistan is reemerging as al-Qaeda’s new primary front for international jihad. Central Asia has always been a critical front in this war, but also in terms of international geopolitics as Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing all have interests in the region. Ensuring American interests are protected in this region remains one of our key foreign policy challenges.

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