People on the Petraeus-Gates-Panetta side know that, with time and patience, insurgencies can be defeated. Colombia, Sri Lanka and Iraq are the most recent examples.
But more than this, those who share the Petraeus-Gates-Panetta view on Afghanistan are haunted by what happened the last time America lost interest in Afghanistan: when the Red Army was defeated and withdrew, America stopped caring about Afghanistan—until September 11, 2001.
Indeed, when asked this past March to make a case for staying the course, Petraeus bluntly replied, “Two words, and those are nine eleven,” reminding Congress that America abandoned Afghanistan once before. “I think it would be a mistake, a big mistake, to go down that road again.”
Whether we declare victory now or stay on until 2014 or 2020, it does seem the battlefront is shifting:
• Osama bin Laden, after all, was in Pakistan. He had been there for years. The jihadists are striking the Pakistani government at will and control parts of the country. It’s ironic that Pakistan was once a jumping-off point for tamping down al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is now the jumping-off point for tamping down al Qaeda in Pakistan.
• Yemen is disintegrating, and Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda is increasingly the epicenter of al Qaeda activity.
• Likewise, lawless Somalia provides an ideal environment for al Qaeda and its kindred movements.
• With a wary eye on Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is becoming a garrison state, buying up massive amounts of U.S. military equipment and working with Washington to build, equip and train a 35,000-man security force to protect Saudi oil facilities, the largest of which was targeted in a failed al Qaeda attack in 2006. (If the enemy hits the Saudi oil fields, we will long for the days of $4/gallon gas.)
Yet even with those other fronts coming to life, there are few places on earth more deserving of the American military’s attention than Afghanistan. This is partly because of the nature of the enemy, partly because of what Afghanistan spawned 10 Septembers ago and partly because of what America has already invested in Afghanistan.
“For Afghanistan to be able to survive,” defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak recently said during a meeting with Gates, “it will need your help beyond 2014.”
Speaking to U.S. commanders in late 2009, Wardak explained why the war-weary Afghan people have not turned against the U.S.-led NATO mission:
Afghans have never seen you as occupiers, even though this has been the major focus of the enemy’s propaganda campaign. Unlike the Russians, who imposed a government with an alien ideology, you enabled us to write a democratic constitution and choose our own government. Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you came to rebuild.
Indeed, not only did the U.S. military liberate 26 million Afghans by closing the book on the medieval Taliban, it also has laid the foundation for something better. It would be a shame to surrender and squander that. As Gates puts it, “Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away just as the enemy is on his back foot.”
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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