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Of Afghanistan, Iraq and wars unwinnable

| Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006


The resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan sparked an urgent appeal from NATO Supreme Commander James L. Jones. He needs ASAP an additional 2,500 troops from the alliance's European members to reinforce the 20,000 now on the ground. The Poles, with 100 soldiers at the Bagram Air Force base near Kabul, volunteered 1,000, but not before next February. The rest of the 26-nation alliance was noncommittal.

Even Serbia, the country NATO fought over Kosovo in 1999, was solicited. Belgrade volunteered five airport security and logistics officers.

NATO flunking?

The elephant at NATO meetings these days is the ugly possibility the alliance "could flunk its existential challenge in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan," said the widely read global newspaper Financial Times, and that such failure could take a heavy toll on trans-Atlantic security "and even relations between the Europeans themselves."

British, Dutch and Canadian units are doing most of the fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a controversial mission in all three countries, both in the media and in parliament. Canada is sending 200 more troops.

Allied armies are stretched with a wide variety of peacemaking and peacekeeping missions, most recently in Lebanon. Friendly governments fear the new Afghan war is unwinnable short of a major 10-year commitment, which parliaments and national assemblies would not allow democratic government to make. Meanwhile, Afghans know from their centuries-old experience that sooner or later foreigners leave -- and in this case the indigenous Taliban stays.

It is also unwinnable because on Sept. 5 Pakistan's President-Gen. Pervez Musharraf made a deal with the Taliban's rear echelon on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border. He ordered his army to stop chasing Taliban and al-Qaida in North Waziristan, where most of the bad guys in this picture are based. Tribal leaders who despise Musharraf also protect them.

In return, the turbaned honchos agreed to keep Taliban guerrillas from staging cross-border raids along an unmarked, uncontrolled Afghan frontier of jagged mountains and deep ravines. Anyone who expects them to live up to this deal is suffering from terminal naivete. The signal Musharraf sends to Mullah Mohamad Omar, the Taliban leader still in hiding, is that his support of militants has never really wavered since 9/11. Taliban and al-Qaida now have privileged sanctuaries in North Waziristan where Pakistani soldiers won't bother them.

Pakistan's military also released hundreds of prisoners, many with known links to al-Qaida. Soldiers abandoned advance mountain outposts.

Army fed up

Musharraf agreed to this pig-in-a-poke bargain because his army is fed up after losing some 700 killed and several thousand wounded, ambushed by their former Taliban allies. He also needs to redeploy some of the 82,000 troops he has along the Afghan border to cope with a growing insurgency in Baluchistan, which, in turn, also fuels the Afghan insurgency.

Pakistani Army officers have known all along they were ordered into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, from which they were excluded by treaty at the time of independence half a century ago, because Musharraf acquiesced to President Bush's with-me/against-me ultimatum a few hours after 9/11 stunned the world.

Musharraf also agreed to allow several thousand foreign fighters -- mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks and Arabs who made it out of the Tora Bora battle in December 2001 -- to stay put. Most of them married local girls and are indistinguishable from the rest of Waziristan's hostile population. A year ago, a few trainers in suicide and roadside bombing techniques joined them from Iraq. Today, suicide attacks in Afghanistan are almost as commonplace as in Iraq.

On Sept. 9, a suicide bomber killed Hakim Taniwal, the governor of Afghanistan's Paktia province. The very next day, at Taniwal's funeral, another suicide bomber killed five and wounded 30 mourners.

Over the past three and a half years, Iraq has taken away many military assets from Afghanistan. Conversely, the enemy has transferred assets from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Bigger than Vietnam

Geostrategic thinker and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski not only calls the counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq unwinnable, but he also describes Iraq as "the biggest blunder in the history of the United States," a sentiment widely shared among America's friends abroad, and by Democrats and "moderate" Republicans at home. The Vietnam War was also a major blunder, but not of the same magnitude; it was a local battle lost in a global war won.

Back from 12 days in the region, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan added, "Many Middle East leaders (told me) the American-led invasion of Iraq and its consequences have been catastrophic for the region" and that his interlocutors "were of two minds whether the Americans should leave Iraq."

MAD magazine couldn't have improved on the tragic-comical scenario when the judge at Saddam Hussein's trial for the mass murder of his own people, agreed with the defense Saddam Hussein was never a "dictator."

"The dictator must have been one of Saddam's 14 look-alikes," wisecracked one of the Iraqi journalists. An Iraqi cartoonist showed Uncle Sam hesitating at a fork on the road -- one prong gives Iraq to Iran; the other hands it back to Saddam.

Nostalgic confab

For anyone who might still be nostalgic for Cold War rituals, for the first time since 1979, Cuba hosted a "Non-aligned Movement" summit meeting led by America's enemies -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Some 50 heads of state and government dropped in for a stroll down Havana's memory lane -- and to hone their anti-U.S. speeches for their next stop, the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Pakistan's Musharraf was also in attendance, but then half his nuclear-armed country is governed by coalitions of politico-religious extremists whose leitmotif is anti-American and pro-Taliban.

Small wonder the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as their boss Donald Rumsfeld, are mugwumpish about the Pentagon's contingency plans for airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. The diplomatic obstacle course, followed by the kind of U.N. charade that preceded the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, strikes the military as preferable to precision-guided weapons against Iran. These might retard Iran's plans by a few years. But not the global maelstrom that would follow.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of United Press International and of The Washington Times.

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