The prospect of fighting two ground wars simultaneously ought to worry official Washington. But it doesn't
Although effectively obscured the Second Bush Administration's "any pretext will do" determination to go to war against Iraq, the U.S. military is still fighting in Afghanistan. Rather than winding down, the number of U.S. troops in Operation Enduring Freedom doubled to roughly 10,000 over the last year and the numbers of attacks against them by Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas have been increasing. There were 55 attacks on U.S. troops in November alone.
Operation Enduring Freedom may have had a brilliant opening and a good middlegame, but there is no endgame in sight. Part of the problem is that while the U.S. won a rapid victory 14 months ago using precision aerial bombardment by the Air Force, precision bribery of local warlords by the CIA, and the less than precise soldiering of the Northern Alliance, it hasn't reconstructed the Afghan economy or constructed a client regime with political authority that extends beyond the capital city of Kabul. Billions of dollars in international aid that was pledged for reconstruction arrived late and the largest share went to meet immediate needs like food rather than for long term economic development.
'President' Hamid Karzai, recognized as little more than a figurehead ethnic Pashtun in a government entirely dominated by Tajiks, is only in power because Kabul is patrolled by 5000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) peacekeepers. Karzai may have declared private armies illegal, but in the rest of the country power is controlled by warlords with ethnic militias as formidable than the largely Tajik national army under the control of Defense Minister Mohammad Qaseem Fahim. Tajik warlord Ismail Khan controls 5 western provinces with an army of 5000.
Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum controls five northern provinces with 8000 troops. Hazara warlord Mohammas Karim Khalili controls much of central Afghanistan with an army of 8,000. Across the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan where the Taliban drew its support, former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is mobilizing Islamist and Pastun nationalist rage against the U.S.. In effect, Afghanistan is in the same chaotic state that preceded the Taliban seizure of Kabul back in 1996. Only now Afghanis have someone to target besides other Afghanis.
Pakistan is the other part of the problem. U.S. and other allied military personnel face constant attacks because the wobbly military regime of strongman Pervez Musharraf is unwilling or unable to control movement across Pakistan's 2430 kilometer long border with Afghanistan. The Pashtun North West Frontier Province of Pakistan is a virtual "no go" area for the Pakistani Army. As a consequence, Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas can stage attacks in Afghanistan and then flee to safe havens in Pakistan. Before 9/11, Pakistan had alienated Washington because of it nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation, support for the Taliban, state sponsorship of terrorism in Indian Kashmir, and human rights violations.
After 9/11, however, all was forgiven. Pakistani geography was simply too useful in the U.S. war against the Taliban to quibble about the niceties. But the U.S. alliance with Pakistan meant the adoption of rules of engagement that respect the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan, however notional. Thus the safe havens across the border in Pakistan.
What all this means is that the military brass running Operation Enduring Freedom have a nearly impossible mission. First, they are expected to eliminate the remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda guerillas with limited numbers of soldiers who may be withdrawn for the next scheduled war with Iraq in early 2003, while also respecting the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan and keeping U.S. casualties at or near zero so as not to alert the American public back home that they are still at war in Afghanistan.
Second, they are expected to help consolidate the authority of the government in Kabul. Frustration is leading the military brass to consider both new rules of engagement that would permit hot pursuit across the border into Pakistan and deployment of civil affairs units responsible for the kind of rural social and economic development projects that conservatives derided as inappropriate "nation building" during the Clinton Presidency. Neither is a solution. Hot pursuit would widen the war, but not end the guerrilla attacks. Civil affairs projects might improve the lives of the population, but will not win the government in Kabul political legitimacy that it doesn't have. At best they are stopgap measures.
At the current cost of a billion dollars a month and a handful of U.S. dead and wounded, Operation Enduring Freedom is an inexpensive war. At this rate the U.S. could continue to fight in Afghanistan for years. But the trends suggest it is going to get more expensive. Rather than focus on winning this war, however, the Second Bush Administration has decided to fight a second war with an equally uncertain endgame. Surely it is time for official Washington to start worrying.
By John Hickman, Especially for PRAVDA.Ru