03/18/2008 11:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time to Focus on the Greatest Danger

The fight to stabilize Afghanistan and drive out Al Qaeda and the Taliban for good has been stalled by Washington's misbegotten fixation on Iraq. Senior intelligence, diplomatic and military experts are sounding the alarm and calling for a new approach. The nation's 16 intelligence agencies agree that Afghanistan and its border with Pakistan is Al Qaeda's primary safe haven and represents the greatest direct threat to the U.S homeland. But rather than put US resources where they were most needed, the Bush administration diverted them to Iraq, with sobering results: the Taliban is now resurgent, Al Qaeda operates with impunity, and Afghanistan is in danger of collapse.

Experts agree that a new approach is possible, but urgent action is required that returns Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, to the center of our counterterrorism policy, provides the troops needed, works effectively with allies to bring in reinforcements, and takes advantage of the good will that remains among the Afghan people.


Al Qaeda has established a new and dangerous safe haven in northwest Pakistan. Edward Gistaro, the chief US intelligence analyst for international terrorism, told Congress that: "The primary concern is in Al Qaeda in South Asia organizing its own plots against the United States." The top leaders of the terrorist network, Gistaro added, are "able to exploit the comfort zone in the tribal areas" of Pakistan and Afghanistan and are "bringing people in to train for Western operations." Barnett Rubin, one of the leading experts on Afghanistan, observes that "Al Qaeda has succeeded in reestablishing its base by skillfully exploiting the weakness of the state in the Pashtun tribal belt, along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. In the words of one Western military commander in Afghanistan, 'Until we transform the tribal belt, the U.S. is at risk.'" [Boston Globe, 7/26/07. Foreign Affairs, 1/07]

America's 16 intelligence agencies say Al Qaeda, not Iraq, is the single biggest threat to American security and that the war in Iraq has worsened the terrorist threat. The 2006 and 2007 National Intelligence Estimates both concluded that Al Qaeda "will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad." The 2006 National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism also "cites the Iraq war as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology. The report 'says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,' said one American intelligence official." [NIE, 4/06. NIE, 7/07. NY Times, 9/24/06]

A National Defense University report concluded that the consequences of failure in Afghanistan may be greater than in Iraq. "At the strategic level, what happens in Afghanistan and beyond its borders can have even greater long-term consequences than how the struggle to bring a measure of stability and order to Iraq turns out. Failure would be disastrous for the United States and the region." A National Defense University report last month urgently called for "comprehensive action across all sectors of society to prevent that country from becoming a failed state." [NDU, 1/30/08]


From the beginning the Administration underestimated the required force levels necessary to secure Afghanistan. "The problems began in early 2002... when the United States and its allies failed to take advantage of a sweeping desire among Afghans for help from foreign countries. The Defense Department initially opposed a request by Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, and Afghanistan's new leaders for a sizable peacekeeping force and deployed only 8,000 American troops, but purely in a combat role, officials said." While the U.S. led-coalition had forces operating in combat missions outside Kabul, the coalition did not deploy peacekeepers outside of the city. "During the first 18 months after the invasion, the United States-led coalition deployed no peacekeepers outside Kabul, leaving the security of provinces like Helmand to local Afghans." [NY Times, 9/05/06]

The Bush administration's failure to commit ground troops in Tora Bora enabled Bin Laden to escape and develop a terrorist enclave in Pakistan. "The Bush administration has concluded that Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora... and that failure to commit U.S. ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against Al Qaeda... In the fight for Tora Bora, corrupt local militias did not live up to promises to seal off the mountain redoubt, and some colluded in the escape of fleeing Al Qaeda fighters. [Tommy] Franks did not perceive the setbacks soon enough, some officials said, because he ran the war from Tampa with no commander on the scene above the rank of lieutenant colonel." Barnett Rubin observes that "in the 2001 Afghan war, the U.S.-led coalition merely pushed the core leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan, with no strategy for consolidating this apparent tactical advance." [Washington Post, 4/17/02. Foreign Affairs, 1/07]


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, admits that Bush Administration has kept Afghanistan on the back burner. "The U.S. military's top officer acknowledged on Tuesday that for all the importance of preventing Afghanistan from again harboring Al Qaeda terrorists, Washington's first priority is Iraq. 'In Afghanistan, we do what we can... 'In Iraq, we do what we must.'" [AP, 12/11/07]

US efforts in Afghanistan receive roughly a quarter of the money directed towards stabilizing Iraq, despite the fact that Afghanistan is a larger than Iraq in both geography and population.
While Iraq has received $608 billion for the past five years, Afghanistan has received just $140 billion over the past seven. On average Iraq receives over $120 billion per year, while Afghanistan receives just $20 billion. [CRS, 2/08/08]

Washington remains 'transfixed' by Iraq, though the consequences of inattention to Afghanistan are severe. The Atlantic Council released a report last month calling for urgent action in Afghanistan and found that "Afghanistan remains a dangerously neglected conflict in a Washington transfixed by Iraq and by European publics indifferent at best and opposed to engagement at worst (where Afghanistan is blurred in the public mind with Iraq)... what is happening in Afghanistan and beyond its borders can have even greater strategic long-term consequences than the struggle in Iraq. Failure would be disastrous for Europe, North America, and the region. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are already breeding grounds for insurgency and terrorism, potentially worse than before September 11th." [Atlantic Council, 1/30/08]


Linking Iraq and Afghanistan hurts efforts in both conflicts, yet President Bush continues to insist that Iraq and Afghanistan are a part of the same war. A Center for American progress report found that "Conflating Iraq and Afghanistan results in the Bush administration's misdiagnoses of each country's unique challenges, and over-inflates the role of Al Qaeda in each theater. Furthermore, not only does it undermine European support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, but it means that when Congress tries to change the administration's failed strategy in Iraq, it must also hold up desperately needed funding for Afghanistan." Yet "President George W. Bush... continues to insist that Iraq and Afghanistan are the same war. Both countries, he said most recently in a speech in early February, "are part of the war on terror. These aren't separate wars. They're part of the same war." [CAP, 2/19/08]

A bi-partisan panel headed by Ambassador Tom Pickering and General Jim Jones found that Afghanistan has been neglected and is now in danger of collapse. "The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid, and without a clear and consistent comprehensive strategy to fill the power vacuum outside Kabul and to counter the combined challenges of reconstituted Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a runaway opium economy, and the stark poverty faced by most Afghans." [Center for the Study of the Presidency, 1/30/08]

Because of the Bush administration's abrasive and dismissive treatment of our allies, most emblemized by the flawed venture in Iraq, the United States now faces dwindling support for its mission in Afghanistan. "Referring to American pressure on Germany, Peter Schmidt, a security analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said, "Partners in an alliance have to also understand the domestic debates in a partner country like Germany." He added: "The Americans quite often show up in Europe and the president tells us, 'Look I'll never get that through Congress.' Something similar is happening here." [NY Times, 2/07/08]


It is within the capacity of the United States to stabilize Afghanistan, but the U.S. needs to replace a light footprint with the right footprint. The Jones-Pickering report calls for the U.S. to treat Iraq and Afghanistan as separate wars and to increase the U.S. commitment to the mission, replacing a "light footprint" with the "right footprint." [Center for the Study of the Presidency, 1/30/08]

Despite the Bush administration's missteps, the United States still enjoys strong support from the Afghan population. "Most Afghans continue to see the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban as a good thing -- 76 percent, although down from 88 percent last year -- and support U.S. forces remaining in their country... remarkable compared with America's image in most other Muslim countries." [ABC New Poll, 12/3/07]

Unlike in Iraq, where the coalition of the willing has nearly completely dissolved, America still has allies in its struggle in Afghanistan. Though the ranks of the 'coalition of the willing' continue to dissipate, now constituting only 7 percent of the multi-national force in Iraq, America still enjoys broad international assistance for its presence in Afghanistan. Of the troops participating in the ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, roughly 65 percent come from NATO countries other than the United States. While these countries can contribute more by eliminating cumbersome restrictions on their troop's use of force, their mere presence suggests that the US can solicit much greater support as it fights against those who attacked us on 9/11. [Washington Post, 12/07/07. NY Times, 3/07/08]

While Iraq is splintered by ethnic and sectarian factions, with no common view of the future of the country, Afghans remain united in their vision of a capable, but limited central government. A Center for American Progress report notes that "Afghanistan has a legitimate government led by President Hamid Karzai that is representative of its people, despite problems with corruption, lack of capacity, and an insufficient presence outside of Kabul. While Karzai's popularity has decreased since 2005, the majority of Afghan citizens are still supportive of his leadership." In addition, "a general consensus exists among Afghanistan's different ethnicities and communities over the government of Afghanistan." [CAP, 11/2007]

The Jones-Pickering report recommended that the United States match resources to priorities in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is larger in size and population than Iraq but has far fewer national and foreign troops. NATO's ISAF currently has about 41,000 troops from 37 NATO (including the U.S.) and non-NATO countries. The U.S. has approximately 10,000 additional troops deployed under its own command. The ASG endorses the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group that 'It is critical for the United States to provide additional...military support for Afghanistan, including resources that might become available as combat forces are moved from Iraq.'" [Center for Study of the Presidency, 1/30/08]