NEW YORK—Five years after the Republicans got us into war against Iraq, Democrats want to double down on a war that's even more unjustifiable and unwinnable—the one against Afghanistan.
By any measure, U.S. troops and their NATO allies are getting their asses kicked in the country that Reagan's CIA station chief for Pakistan called "the graveyard of empires." Afghanistan currently produces a record 93 percent of the world's opium. Suicide bombers are killing more U.S.-aligned troops than ever. Stonings are back. The Taliban and their allies, "defeated" in 2001, control most of the country—and may recapture the capital of Kabul as early as this summer.
"So," asks The New York Times, "has Afghanistan now become a bigger security threat to the United States than Iraq?" Barack Obama's answer is yes. He spent last year parroting the Democratic National Committee's line that Bush "took his eye off the ball" in Afghanistan when we invaded Iraq. Thankfully, he abandoned that hoary sports metaphor. Iraq, he says now, "distracted us from the fight that needed to be fought in Afghanistan against al-Qaida. They're the ones who killed 3,000 Americans."
Sorta. But not really. Osama bin Laden bragged about ordering the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, yet has repeatedly denied a direct role in 9/11. He's probably telling the truth. The hijackers were mostly likely recruited by Islamic Jihad, which is based in Egypt. Saudis, including members of the royal family, financed the strikes against New York and Washington. Pakistani intelligence funded and supervised the camps where some of them trained.
Al-Qaida may have been peripherally involved in 9/11; its leadership certainly knew about the plot ahead of time. They may have fronted some of the expense money. But 9/11 wasn't an al-Qaida operation per se. Afghanistan's connection to 9/11 was tertiary. At the moment the first plane struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center, most of al-Qaida's camps and fighters were in Pakistan. As CBS News reported on January 29, 2002, Osama bin Laden was in a Pakistani military hospital in Rawalpindi on 9/11. The Taliban militia, which provided neither men nor money for the attacks, controlled 90 percent of the country.
It has long been an article of faith among Democrats that Afghanistan is the "good war," a righteous campaign that could be won with more money and manpower. But the facts say otherwise. The U.S. Air Force rained more than a million pounds of bombs upon Afghanistan in 2007, mostly on innocent civilians. It's twice as much as was dropped on Iraq—and equally ineffective.
Six years after the U.S. invasion of 2001, according to Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, the U.S./NATO occupation force has surged from 8,000 to 50,000. But the Americans are having no more luck against the Afghans than had the Brits or the Soviet Union. The U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai controls a mere 30 percent of Afghanistan, admits McConnell. (Regional analysts say in truth it is closer to 15 percent.) Most of the country belongs to the charming guys who gave us babes in burqas and exploding Buddhas: the Taliban and likeminded warlords. "Afghanistan remains a failing state," says a report by Gen. James Jones, former NATO supreme allied commander. "The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid."
If he becomes president, Obama says he'll "ask more from our European allies" to win in Afghanistan. But he won't get it. As The New York Times puts it: "Why help the United States in Afghanistan, the European logic goes, when America would be able to handle Afghanistan much more easily if its GIs weren't bogged down in Iraq?"
Obama says he would send two more American combat brigades—between 3,000 and 8,000 troops. If 158,000 troops can't subdue Iraq, how can 58,000 do the job in Afghanistan? They can't. Afghanistan's population is 19 percent larger than that of Iraq. Its area is 49 percent bigger, with infinitely rougher terrain. Obama's proposed "surgelet" would result in troop strength of less than one-sixth of the 400,000 dictated by official U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine for a nation the size of Afghanistan.
Afghans say spring could mark the beginning of the end of the United States' first experiment in post-9/11 regime change. For more than a year, Taliban commanders have controlled the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway. "On one convoy last year, we were 40 vehicles and only 12 got through," Sadat Khan, a 25-year-old truck driver explained to the UK Telegraph as he pointed to "roughly patched bullet holes in the cab of his truck." Cops loyal to Karzai expect to be massacred. "Maybe we will lose 30 per cent of us this spring, maybe 60 per cent," police commander Mohammad Farid told the paper. He'd already been shot.
The Taliban say they'll retake Kabul this year and reestablish the Islamic fundamentalist government led by Mullah Omar. No one knows whether they'll succeed. But they've begun to strangle the city of Kabul. They're destroying its nascent telecommunications infrastructure, driving out foreign non-governmental organizations and businesspeople with terrorist attacks, and cutting off access to the remaining highways. Talibs promise to continue to target NATO troops, betting that Canada and other members of the coalition will pull out under pressure from antiwar voters. Bogged down in Iraq, the United States won't be able to send more soldiers to Afghanistan. Karzai's puppet regime won't last long.
If Obama is so eager to keep fighting Bush's wars, he'd be smarter to focus on the more winnable of the two: Iraq.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.