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If Iraq is lost, Afghanistan is not — at least yet

BY TOM PLATE / 8 October 2006

LIKE some drugged-out physicist with a far-out theory about the creation of the universe, I tried out my admittedly unusual ‘exit strategy’ for getting out of Iraq on almost anyone who would listen.

The unsuspecting audience included a world-famous China expert, a widely admired Asian ambassador, a Japanese diplomat who is close to the new Prime Minister of Japan, an internationally recognised Dean of a foreign-policy school, and a former top cabinet member in the Clinton administration. This was all in one day. And they liked the idea.

I couldn’t, alas, get inside the White House to run my exit plan past President George W. Bush. Allegedly, he was sighted holed up in the Lincoln Room frantically leafing through State of Denial. This is the new book by Bob Woodward that alleges a black hole of administration confusion, public deception, insider back-stabbing and an almost psychotic dependency on a denial of reality in all things involving the Iraq war.

Whatever your stance on this invasion, the bottom line is that the war is not going terrifically well, to say the least. US generals are despondent about not having enough troops on the Iraqi ground to do the job, and US troops on the ground are unhappy about the unceasing waves of terror attacks, the decreasing level of support from the U.S. public and the increasing sense that their Iraqi mission is indeed an impossible one.

Frankly, it seems like the latter phase of the Vietnam War all over again. But there is at least one important difference. When the Nixon Administration decided to withdraw, there was only one place for our troops to conceivably go: and that was home. In the current quagmire, there is a very honourable alternative: instead of cutting and running, US troops now in Iraq could  — and I would say should  — be sent to nearby Afghanistan.

Afghanistan — on the border with Pakistan, whose frontier regions offer shade to extremist groups --- could fall back into the hands of the Taleban, who are close allies with Al Qaeda. Afghanistan was the country that the Bush administration invaded after 9-11 but before Iraq. It is the one country that was directly connected to terrorism and the 9-11 catastrophe; by contrast, Iraq has never been.

At the time of the US retaliation, the Bush administration was supported by virtually everyone, including outspoken U.S. critics like then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. "Bush had to do something," Mahathir, now in unhappy retirement, told me shortly after the October 2001 invasion. "Afghanistan was the right call. Who could really oppose that?"

But as was accurately predicted by Mahathir and other Asians, such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew not to mention by many European notables like Jacques Chirac, as well — Iraq was the classic wrong call. It became the ambition that went too far. Before long, invasion became occupation; occupation engendered smoldering resentment; the liberators of Saddam became the jailors of Abu Ghraib, and the bad-guy terrorists had a cause worth rallying over: the new wave of infidels in Mesopotamia.

Now, public sentiment in the US for withdrawal is rising. Unmoved, defenders of the invasion condemn the ‘cut-and-run’ option as cowardice. But such a characterisation would be wholly misconceived if instead of running home, US soldiers were re-deployed to Afghanistan to finish the job their brothers and sisters begun three years ago.

This worthy mission has been languishing because of lack of troops; the US commitment in Iraq has arguably been made more difficult attracting terrorists from outside and boiling the passions within Iraq by the very presence of US troops.

The Pentagon has been calling the Afghan campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom. It is the enduring part that is now in peril. Taleban forces are making a strong comeback. Western commanders are calling for more troops. We know where to get them: from Iraq.

More troops need to be provided to military commanders in Afghanistan as soon as possible. That country cannot be permitted to fall into civil war, as has Iraq. It must be saved from that fate, the Taleban must be cornered and kept in a box, and Pakistan, which warily neighbours democratic India, must not become destabilised. An Afghanistan and a Pakistan united in terror would be a terrible collapse of Western policy in the region.

But at the moment, the Bush administration stands on the verge of losing both Afghanistan as well as Iraq. It scarcely takes a spaced-out rocket scientist to see that removing US troops from Iraq and repositioning as many of them as feasible (or, of course, rotating in other troops that otherwise would go to Iraq) in Afghanistan is what game theorists call a potential ‘win-win’ deal.

We cannot hold Afghanistan without more troops. More troops for Iraq are not on the cards and still might not work. Better to prioritise Afghanistan: For it is far better to have saved one country from disaster than to have saved none at all. At the moment, we run the risk of winding up zero-for two.

Prof. Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, teaches Asian politics and media at the University of California at Los Angeles

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