Friday, July 07, 2006

A War Democrats Can Win

The New York Times
A War Democrats Can Win


IN 2003, the Bush administration left the war in Afghanistan unfinished and moved on to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This grand diversion of military, intelligence and diplomatic resources not only jeopardized success in Afghanistan but also initiated the collapse of international support and respect for the United States.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, American and NATO forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban. Leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar remain at large, and Osama bin Laden emerges regularly to threaten the West and inspire his followers.

It is true that Afghanistan has taken historic steps toward democracy. President Hamid Karzai is doing his best to unify the country, and there has been no insurgency comparable to the one in Iraq. But Afghanistan is hardly the shining example to the Muslim world that George Bush and Tony Blair promised. With warlords and drug barons largely in control and the Pakistani border still porous, the country has become the forgotten front in the war on terrorism.

On June 28, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Kabul to insist that Washington is still committed to Afghanistan. But I was also in the Afghan capital last week, as well as in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. What I heard from military officials, politicians, diplomats and aid workers was this: Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is still winnable, but American involvement is insufficient.

Back in Washington last week, partisan warfare had erupted over a Democratic proposal to establish a timeline for withdrawing American forces from Iraq. Even though the top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., was working on just such a plan, Republicans battered the Democrats as quitters, unwilling to hang tough in the fight against terrorism.

Next time, the Democrats should try a different strategy. Instead of calling for troop cuts in Iraq, they should call for transferring forces and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.

American forces are no longer the crucial factor in stabilizing Iraq. That will come only through politics, when Shiites and Sunnis commit to sharing power. But in Afghanistan, our efforts could still be decisive. Afghans are less hostile than Iraqis to American forces. And the British, who are leading the NATO mission set to take over next month, desperately need more combat power and air support in order to finally defeat the Taliban.

By forcing a debate on transferring American forces back to Afghanistan, the Democrats can avoid the trap of allowing Republicans to claim they are weak. They can argue that their proposal is not a withdrawal from the front, but rather a deployment to an equally important front where American leadership can make the difference in securing a long-term victory.

Democrats can justifiably argue their goal is to reverse the Bush administration's premature diversion to Iraq. If nothing else, such a debate would focus attention on the Bush administration's failure to finish the job in Afghanistan.

Americans know that Iraq has become a drain on our resources and reputation, but they are wary of giving up. On the other hand, since the Sept. 11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, public support for finally finishing off the Taliban and their allies in Al Qaeda can be sustained for a long time to come.

By marrying good policy with good politics in this way, the Democrats can help win the war on terrorism and help themselves at the same time.

James P. Rubin, an assistant secretary of state from 1997 to 2000, is the international news anchor for Sky News.