While Ted Galen Carpenter makes some valid points about the situation today in Afghanistan (“America’s Other War,” News, August), his attempt to blame everything on an alleged shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq is nonsense.  This is an old, tired charge made mainly by antiwar Democrats in the last election but abandoned when it did not hold up to scrutiny.

Ret. Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, who was deputy commander of Central Command while the Iraq invasion was being planned, states unequivocally in his memoirs Inside CentCom that “We didn’t need to divert a single trooper from Afghanistan to Iraq.  The Afghan war and the anti-terror Coalition did not suffer one bit.  In fact, few people know that the very day we launched our attack against Iraq, we also launched a massive operation in Afghanistan.”  He recalls telling President Bush on March 17, 2003, “We’re ready to go in Iraq. . . . [W]e are not going to jeopardize the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.”

The U.S. military was not overextended by the initial plans for war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Indeed, the original plan for Iraq envisioned sending 300,000 troops, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted the plan be revised downward.  In the end, only about half that number were sent.  Rumsfeld had also limited initial troop commitments to Afghanistan because of his distaste for ground combat.  As I wrote for the Army War College journal Parameters (Winter 2002), “Airpower in support of Northern Alliance fighters had led to the initial retreat by Taliban and al-Qaeda forces from Kabul back to Kandahar.  Air strikes also harassed that retreat; but without better armed and more mobile ground troops to encircle Kabul, the enemy could not be ‘bagged’ while still concentrated.  The deployment of even one airmobile brigade . . . would have made a major difference in the campaign right then.”  But it was not preparations for Iraq that prevented that deployment.

Rumsfeld’s fanciful notion of how wars should be fought, as opposed to how they must be fought when regime change is the objective, has been a common source of long-term problems in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The overextension that the Army and Marines now suffer is from the duration of the wars and the repeated deployments, not from the initial campaigns.  There is nothing more expensive than to try to fight a war on the cheap.

Carpenter makes two other errors.  First, he confuses defeating the enemy with eradicating the enemy.  It is virtually impossible to eradicate a terrorist group, especially one filled with religious fanatics that can retreat into a wild zone such as the Pakistan-Afghan border area.  It only takes a handful of survivors to regroup.  But the Taliban/Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan lack the strength to retake Kabul and have been repeatedly defeated in battles in remote areas.  And the United States has the aid of NATO in Afghanistan, which is expanding the scope of its operations.

Carpenter’s other error is thinking that ad hoc terrorist groups pose the major strategic threat to American interests.  Al Qaeda is actually one of the lesser problems in the region.  Terrorism is the tactic of the weak.  There was no surge of Al Qaeda forces across the Middle East after September 11 as there was a surge of Japanese forces across Asia after Pearl Harbor.  Carpenter cites a report from the leftist Center for American Progress, which calls improved explosives and suicide bombers “sophisticated.”  What reliance on such weapons actually indicates is a movement weak in numbers, unable to contest for control of territory or the state.  In terms of the stages of warfare, they are at the very bottom rung.  Carpenter is closer to the truth when he mentions that the stronger resistance now being met by Coalition forces in Afghanistan is from the opium farmers and the drug cartels.

The more dangerous threat in Iraq is the sectarian strife of militias and hit squads rooted in the Sunni and Shiite communities.  The gravest threat to the survival of the U.S.-backed democratic government in Baghdad is Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a political movement, a militia, and support from Iran.

The White House’s identification of state-supported terrorism as being a greater danger than ad hoc cells has been proved correct.  Hezbollah and Hamas have been much more successful than Al Qaeda.  They established territorial enclaves, armed and financed by Iran and Syria.  Even before Hamas won the election in Gaza, it was acting as an alternative regime.  Hezbollah surged into southern Lebanon after Israel withdrew from the buffer zone she had been holding.  In July, Israel was forced to rectify this error and counterattack back into Lebanon.

The waging of war is expensive even in a low-intensity setting, and only states can muster the resources needed to pursue ambitions on a scale grand enough to be considered strategic.  And behind Iran and Syria are China and Russia, who have provided diplomatic and material support.

So even if one accepts Carpenter’s false-choice argument, it is still more important to determine who will rule in Baghdad, because Iraq has far more resources at stake than does Afghanistan.  And who rules in any capital is more important than finding the mud hut in which Osama bin Laden spends the night.

We must continue to combat terrorist groups because their fanatics may be plotting mass murder in the morning.  But Carpenter has his priorities reversed if he thinks we should give up the larger prize to pursue the smaller.

        —William R. Hawkins
Burke, VA

Dr. Carpenter Replies:

Bill Hawkins makes some plausible arguments, but he makes others that are just strange.  For example, his allegation that I “attempt to blame everything on an alleged shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq” ignores major portions of my article.  In particular, I devoted considerable space to how the conflation of the War on Drugs with the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda has greatly complicated the latter.  There are other factors as well that have led to a regrouping of insurgent forces in Afghanistan.  Those factors include Washington’s reluctance to pursue enemy fighters into Pakistan (fearing that such a measure would undermine the fragile government of Pervez Musharraf) and the unresolved ethnic tensions within Afghanistan herself.  On the latter point, it is no coincidence that the largely Pashtun Taliban is enjoying its greatest revival in the predominantly Pashtun regions of southern Afghanistan.  Space limitations precluded me from discussing those issues in any detail, but I have written about them elsewhere.

Although all of those factors have played a role in the resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Hawkins is wrong to imply that the Bush administration’s shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq was irrelevant.  Redeploying Special Forces units, in particular, came at a crucial time.  We had the insurgents on the ropes and let them get away.  As any boxer can testify, that is a huge error in any fight.  All too often, the opportunity to administer a knockout blow does not come again.  That certainly appears to be the case in Afghanistan.

I agree with Hawkins that there is a difference between defeating and eradicating an enemy.  But the trend in Afghanistan does not suggest that even a credible defeat is certain any longer.  Hawkins minimizes the strength of the Taliban and Al Qaeda threat, because those forces are not able to take Kabul and other cities.  But that is the wrong metric.  The insurgents show a disturbing potential to make the country ungovernable.  That may be all that is needed to inflict a defeat on the United States in the war against radical Islamic terrorists.

It is gratifying that Hawkins recognizes that terrorism is the tactic of the weak and does not pose a lethal strategic threat to the United States.  That is a refreshing contrast to the view of Newt Gingrich, Joe Lieberman, and many other überhawks that the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism constitutes World War III.  It is important to keep the terrorist problem, nasty as it is, in perspective.

Unfortunately, the appropriate skepticism that Hawkins displays on that point is more than offset by his views on Iraq.  He embraces virtually every fallacy of the Bush administration’s stay-and-die strategy.  His argument that it is important “to determine who will rule in Baghdad” is breathtakingly naive.  Unless the United States is prepared to occupy Iraq for decades with several hundred thousand troops, it is simply beyond our capacity to determine who will rule in Baghdad over the long term.  There is mounting evidence that Iraq has already descended into a sectarian civil war.  The latest reports from the United Nations and other sources confirm that more than 100 people are dying of political violence each day.  That is happening in a country with a population of barely 27 million.  The equivalent fatality rate in the United States would be more than 1,100 per day, or some 400,000 per year.  If we were suffering that degree of carnage, there would be little debate about whether we were experiencing a civil war.

By invading and occupying Iraq, we destabilized the country and made the current bloody chaos inevitable.  By shifting our focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, we sacrificed an achievable victory in an arena directly relevant to America’s security to pursue the chimera of a stable, democratic, pro-Western Iraq.  It was a spectacularly bad trade.