Afghanistan The Good War, Still to Be Won

We will never know just how much better the fight in Afghanistan might be going if it had been managed more competently over the past six years. But there can be little doubt that American forces — and Afghanistan’s government — would be in far stronger positions than they are today.

How different things might be if the Bush administration had not diverted needed troops and dollars into the misguided invasion of Iraq, nor wasted years discouraging needed NATO military assistance, nor pulled its punches rather than pressuring a Pakistani dictator with, at best, mixed feelings toward the Taliban.

Those are some of the questions raised in a devastating Times account earlier this month of how Afghanistan’s “good war” went bad. The battle against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies is still winnable, and it is vital to American security. But victory will require a smarter strategy and a lot more attention and resources.

In the first months after Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, the world, the Afghan people and Washington’s most important allies were all on America’s side. Now, a resurgent Taliban army operates from Pakistani sanctuaries. It wins Afghan hearts and minds every time an errant American airstrike kills innocent civilians, and it gains even more whenever an aid-starved Afghan government fails to deliver on its promises of better governance, economic development and physical security.

America has never had enough troops in Afghanistan, not in 2001, when Osama bin Laden was on the run in the caves of Tora Bora, and not today, when much of the country is still without effective authority. Too few ground troops have meant too much reliance on airstrikes, leading to too many innocent civilian casualties.

Since the Iraq buildup began in 2002, it has drawn away the resources that could have turned the tide in Afghanistan, including the military’s best special operations and counterinsurgency units. Afghanistan, larger and more populous than Iraq, now has 23,500 American troops. Iraq has about 160,000.

The pattern with development aid has been similar. In 2002, President Bush vowed not to repeat his father’s mistake of leaving Afghans to rebuild on their own after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. He broke that vow. In proportion to its population, Afghanistan has received less American development assistance than Bosnia, Kosovo or Haiti. After years of pleas from American ambassadors, total aid is set to increase sharply this year. But with much of the money going to security-related areas like military training and drug eradication, the amount left for rebuilding — and to provide alternatives to working for warlords or traffickers — is grossly insufficient.

Rightly viewing 9/11 as an attack on a member state, NATO offered to send troops to fight alongside America in Afghanistan. The Bush administration first declined the offer, then accepted help on peacekeeping in Kabul and relatively secure areas of northern Afghanistan — shunting NATO away from combat areas. That finally changed in 2005, when Washington had to admit that it did not have enough troops to control the embattled south. By then, the fight had become far more difficult.

Washington’s mistakes have made Iraq a new staging area for international terrorism. The borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are still home to Al Qaeda’s most important bases and most dangerous leaders. Victory there will now be harder than it needed to be. But it is no less necessary.

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