The Bush administration's fixation on Iraq costs us dearly in the struggle to comprehensively confront the threat to global peace and stability presented by al-Qaida and its allies.
The Bush administration’s fixation on Iraq costs us dearly in the struggle to comprehensively confront the threat to global peace and stability presented by al-Qaida and its allies. President Bush’s final term in office is almost up, though, and the next president will have the opportunity to forge a better strategy.
Our special-operations forces are the “tip of the spear” confronting al-Qaida and its allies — the forces in our military best trained at all the facets of counterinsurgency needed to confront these global terrorist networks. But, with the majority of our special operations forces in Iraq, al-Qaida members are freer than they should be to spread their totalitarian ideology and deadly tactics in other countries around the world.
Afghanistan has become the poster child for the Bush administration’s neglect of key strategic fronts in the fight against al-Qaida and its allies. Afghanistan is roughly the same size as Iraq. It has a population comparable to Iraq. The country sandwiched between a now-destabilized Pakistan and Iran served as al-Qaida’s launchpad for the 9/11 attacks. These terrorists and their Taliban allies have a safe haven just across the border in Pakistan and violence was up sharply last year.
Despite all of this, the administration has yet to shake off its obsessive focus on Iraq and refocus on this vital region of the world. If one looks at U.S. troop numbers, Iraq is roughly six times as important to us as Afghanistan. The U.S. maintains approximately 25,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with more than 160,000 troops in Iraq. Since Sept. 11, the U.S. spent on foreign aid and diplomatic activities in Afghanistan and all other Operation Enduring Freedom countries only 31 cents for every dollar spent on similar activities in Iraq.
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Our continued, costly Iraq occupation precludes a sufficient troop increase in Afghanistan to confront a rising tide of violence. Suicide bombings in the first eight months of 2007 were up 69 percent from the previous year. The Taliban have increased their geographic presence in Afghanistan and are believed to be working with al-Qaida’s top leaders to fight the struggling government in Kabul.
But because we are so deeply involved in our ongoing occupation of Iraq, we do not have the troops to recommit to stop al-Qaida in other countries. In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen told us bluntly: “In Afghanistan, we do what we can; in Iraq, we do what we must.”
The challenge in Iraq involves a complex mix of violence instigated by a broad range of actors, some of whom are al-Qaida sympathizers. But most of the crisis consists of conflicts between local populations split along ethnic and ideological lines. Right now, we have our troops leading the restructuring of Iraq’s governance, training troops and police, refereeing multilayered civil conflicts and fighting al-Qaida forces.
There is a limit to how effective our military can be in structuring civil society in Iraq, and given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, we cannot continue to prioritize non-counterterrorism missions for our counterterrorism forces.
While Afghanistan exemplifies the administration’s tunnel vision when confronting national-security threats, it is far from the only area of neglect. I just returned from visiting our special-operations forces in the Pacific, and I can tell you firsthand that the ideology of violence and subjugation we face is very present in countries like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. News reports also indicate a troubling entrenchment of al-Qaida forces in central Africa.
Our special-operations assets are needed in dozens of countries worldwide, but the vast majority of them are in Iraq. By any objective measure, the United States is badly off-balance in our posture against al-Qaida and the violent totalitarian ideology it espouses.
Our preoccupation with Iraq at the expense of the broad struggle against terrorist groups must end. We must begin to redeploy our troops from Iraq, in part to free resources for other key fronts in the fight against al-Qaida-related groups, especially in Afghanistan. I have introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives, backed by House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., calling for such a redeployment.
Redeployment will be the first step in a foreign policy that begins to restore American leadership in the struggle to defeat al-Qaida’s violent totalitarian ideology.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, represents the 9th Congressional District of Washington state and chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s terrorism subcommittee.