Americans are understandably concerned about the grave security situation in Iraq.  The United States has suffered more than 2,500 fatalities in that conflict and has yet to defeat the insurgency.  Indeed, the level of violence in Iraq is increasing, and much of that violence now consists of sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites.  The American people worry, with good reason, that Iraq might be on the brink of full-scale civil war, with U.S. troops caught in the middle.

Until recently, the mission in Afghanistan seemed to be an impressive contrast to the debacle in Iraq.  Even though Washington never deployed troops in Afghanistan in anything close to the numbers it did in Iraq (some 20,000 versus the current 133,000 in Iraq), the policy appeared to be a success.  U.S. forces, allied with the indigenous Northern Alliance, routed Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in late 2001 with minimal American casualties.  Washington helped install a pro-Western government headed by Hamid Karzai, who was acceptable to most of the significant political powerbrokers in Afghanistan.  During 2002, political stability appeared to be returning to the country, and Osama bin Laden and his followers were on the run in the Tora Bora mountains.  Speculation was rife in Washington that the terrorist leader and most of Al Qaeda’s top operatives would soon be captured or killed.

That did not happen.  Instead, the U.S.-led military offensive in eastern Afghanistan faded in the last half of 2002 and early 2003.  Key units, including a crack unit of Special Forces personnel, were redeployed out of the country at a crucial time.  They were sent to Iraq, as the Bush administration geared up for war against Saddam Hussein.  In retrospect, that was a major strategic blunder that allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup.

And regroup, they have.  These terrorists are now inflicting significant casualties on American forces: In 2005, 99 U.S. soldiers were killed, compared with 52 in 2004, 48 in 2003, and a mere 12 in 2001.  Fifty-five soldiers have died already in the first five-and-a-half months of 2006—and that is before the surge in fighting that takes place every year during the summer months.  Those totals do not include fatalities suffered by other coalition (primarily NATO) forces and Afghan units or civilian casualties, which also are on the rise.  Overall, more than 1,600 people perished in insurgent-related violence in 2005—by far the highest annual toll since the war in 2001.  More than 1,000 people have been killed so far in 2006.

A report issued in October 2005 by the Center for American Progress  warned: “Despite the capture or killing of a number of key Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, as well as coopting some of the leaders into the political process, the insurgency is far from defeated.”  The report warned further: “The Taliban have become increasingly sophisticated, employing new warfare tactics.  They are now using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs, tactics that appear to have been imported from Iraq.”  That threat is likely to get worse.  Early this year, fugitive Taliban officials claimed that they had recruited some 200 suicide bombers to attack Afghan government and foreign military targets.

An April 2006 report from the Council on Foreign Relations (“Afghanistan’s Uncertain Transition from Turmoil to Normalcy”) succinctly describes the worrisome security situation:

After years of claiming that greater American and Afghan casualties are either signs of “desperation” by foundering terrorists or the result of more aggressive U.S. tactics that are pushing opposition fighters out of their safe havens, the U.S. government has now admitted that the insurgency is growing and becoming more effective.

Indeed, the definitive victory over Al Qaeda and the Taliban that seemed so tantalizingly close in late 2001 and most of 2002 is in danger of slipping away.  The Bush administration has been so preoccupied with the mission in Iraq that it is ignoring a resurgent danger in Afghanistan.  Washington’s focus has shifted from Osama bin Laden and his allies, who pose a clear and present danger to America, to the will-o’-the-wisp of trying to transform Iraq into a model democracy.   Waggish critics of the administration now jibe that Osama bin Laden has become “Osama Bin Forgotten.”

The United States needs to refocus her attention on the primary enemy, and that enemy is centered in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, given the reinvigorated insurgency, Washington faces serious obstacles to achieving victory in that country.

In addition to the other problems the United States confronts in Afghanistan, the War on Drugs threatens to interfere with the U.S-led effort to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  U.S. officials increasingly want to eradicate drugs as well as nurture Afghanistan’s embryonic democracy.  Under pressure from Washington, Karzai has called upon the Afghan people to wage war against narcotics with the same determination and ferocity with which they resisted the Soviet occupation in the 1980’s.  Given the economic and social realities in Afghanistan, however, that is an unrealistic and potentially very dangerous objective.

There is little doubt that drug eradication in Afghanistan has become a high priority for Washington.  Several factors account for the Bush administration’s concern, but the most important is the fear that drug commerce will corrupt Afghanistan’s entire economic and political structure.  Robert B. Charles, who just recently left his post as assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, emphasized that point to a congressional committee:

[S]tability in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without addressing the drug issue, and counternarcotics programs cannot be deferred to a later date.  Afghanistan is already at risk of its narco-economy leading unintentionally but inexorably to the evolution of a narco-state, with deeply entrenched public corruption and complicity in the drug trade undermining stability, containment of other threats, and all our assistance programs.

Just before moving from ambassador to Afghanistan to his current position as ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad also warned: “The narcotics trade poses a mortal threat to Afghanistan.  Narcotics pose a threat to Afghanistan’s political future: drug dealers could take over the political system.  Narcotics poses a threat to the economy: criminal gangs and mafia can bring the economy under their control.”

In addition to the general problem of corruption caused by drug money, U.S. officials are deeply concerned that the opium trade could provide a lucrative source of revenue for the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other enemies of the United States.  Charles noted that the drug trade had helped the Taliban regime stay in power during the late 1990’s.  Indeed, the DEA estimated that the Taliban collected more than $40 million per year in profits from the opium trade, with some of the cash going to terrorist groups that operated out of that country.  Today, according to Charles, “there are strong indications that these heroin drug profits provide funds, to varying degrees, to Taliban remnants, al Qaeda, destabilizing regional warlords, and other terrorist and extremist elements in the region.”

In early May 2006, a U.S. official in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post:

Drug trafficking is a threat to the security and very future of Afghanistan.  It is a narco economy but not yet a narco state.  If we lose Afghanistan to this thing, which we could, once again we would have a fertile breeding ground for the next Taliban, the next Al Qaeda, the fundamentalists who thrive in unstable conditions.

Yet Washington faces a serious dilemma if it conducts a vigorous drug-eradication campaign in Afghanistan in an effort to dry up the funds flowing to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, because these are clearly not the only factions involved in drug trafficking.  Many of Karzai’s political allies are warlords who control the drug trade in their respective regions.  They use the revenues from that trade to pay the militias that keep them in power in their fiefdoms and give them national political clout.  Some of them backed the Taliban when that faction was in power, switching sides only when the United States launched her military offensive in Afghanistan in October 2001.  There is a serious risk that antidrug measures might cause them to change their allegiance yet again.  Even the Washington Times, which strongly favors the War on Drugs, conceded that “a number of heavily armed Tajik tribal leaders that have not been hostile to U.S. forces could lash out if their drug interests are directly and aggressively challenged.”  In addition to the need to placate cooperative warlords, the U.S.-led coalition secretly relies on opium-poppy growers as informants on movements of Taliban remnants and Al Qaeda units.  Disrupting the opium crop might alienate those crucial sources of information.

According to the United Nations, there are more than 350,000 Afghan families involved in opium-poppy cultivation.  Even measured on a nuclear-family basis, that translates into roughly 2.3 million people—about ten percent of Afghanistan’s population.  Given the role of extended families and clans in Afghan society, the number of people affected is much greater than that.  Indeed, it is likely that at least 30 percent of the population is involved directly or indirectly in the drug trade.  For many of those people, opium-poppy crops and other aspects of drug commerce are the difference between modest prosperity and destitution.  They will not look kindly on efforts to destroy their livelihood.

Afghan government officials have tried to make their American patrons understand the extreme sensitivity of pursuing antidrug efforts directed at poppy farmers.  “To take away the livelihood of farmers could be dangerous in some parts of Afghanistan,” warned the country’s counternarcotics minister.  That danger is especially acute with regard to the ethnic Pashtun farmers in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the core of Karzai’s political constituency.  As one Western diplomat in Afghanistan told Reuters, “If he bulldozes in and destroys crops, if he arrests and punishes farmers, they’re definitely going to think that the Taliban have [a] point when they say the government is bad.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. government is putting increased pressure on Karzai to crack down on the drug trade.  The Afghan regime is responding cautiously, trying to convince Washington that it is serious about dealing with the problem without launching an antidrug campaign that might alienate large segments of the population.  It has tried to achieve that balance by focusing on high-profile raids against drug-processing labs—mostly those that are not controlled by warlords friendly to the government in Kabul.  For example, on the eve of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit in March 2005, Afghan counternarcotics squads destroyed several drug laboratories and confiscated more than two tons of opium in raids in the eastern province of Nangarhar.  The timing of the raids was probably designed to make a favorable impression on Rice.  “This successful operation shows that the government of Afghanistan is serious about ridding our country of drugs,” Gen. Sayed Kamal Sadat, the head of the counternarcotics police, emphasized in a statement to the press.

Although Afghan officials have been receptive to U.S. prodding to pursue interdiction initiatives and have been enthusiastic about the prospect of developmental aid for crop substitution and alternative development projects, they have been less responsive to another U.S. goal: crop eradication.  The Karzai government has especially resisted the aerial spraying of poppy fields—a strategy that Washington has successfully pushed allied governments in Colombia and other South American countries to adopt.

Yet even the limited measures that Kabul has taken against the drug trade appear to be a factor in the increased public support for the Taliban, especially in southern Afghanistan.  Since the government launched a campaign in March 2006 to eradicate some poppy fields manually (which is far less efficient than aerial spraying) in the southern Afghan province of Helmand (the center of the drug trade), the level of violence there has spiked.  Drug traffickers have formed alliances with Taliban and Al Qaeda units to sabotage the eradication program and undermine Kabul’s overall authority.  U.S., British, and Canadian troops in the province have come under repeated attack.  Roadside bombs have blown up military vehicles, and both Afghan government offices and the local U.S. military base have been subjected to bombings.

There is no question that the drug war is a major complication in Washington’s broader strategy of defeating the insurgency.  This is a case in which U.S. officials need to establish priorities, because it will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve both objectives.

Developments in Afghanistan over the past year suggest that the victory over Al Qaeda and the Taliban that seemed imminent in 2002 is slipping away.  Insurgent units mount a growing number of mortar, rocket, car-bomb, and suicide attacks on U.S., NATO, and Afghan government targets.  Moreover, they seem to be increasingly sophisticated and lethal in their attacks.  There are portions of the country, especially in the south, where U.S. forces rarely venture except in sizable, robust units.  In those hostile areas, the writ of the Kabul government (or, as is more often the case, the writ of friendly warlords loyal to Karzai) is no longer taken seriously.

In short, the security environment in Afghanistan is beginning to resemble that of Iraq.  The United States may well have missed a crucial window of opportunity in late 2002 and early 2003 to administer a crushing blow to the Al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance.  If the Bush administration had not diverted crucial military resources, especially Special Forces personnel, from the Afghan theater to Iraq, that definitive victory might have been secured.  Unfortunately, we will never know for certain.  What we do know is that we now face a revitalized, resilient, and increasingly dangerous adversary.

Moreover, it is not clear that the policy options available to Washington with regard to Iraq are available with regard to Afghanistan.  Iraq was a needless diversion in the war against radical Islamic terrorists.  For all of his evil qualities, Saddam Hussein was a conventional, secular tyrant who loathed the radicals and was determined to keep them out of his country.  To the extent that Iraq has become a magnet for Islamic extremists, it is the result of an ill-advised U.S. invasion and occupation that destabilized the country.  Even so, most Iraqis dislike the foreign fighters and would likely kill or expel them once the unpopular U.S. occupation ends.  Iraq was not and is not crucial to the security of the United States.  We can and should withdraw our forces as quickly as possible.

The situation in Afghanistan is different.  The enemy we face there is the organization that attacked us on September 11 and the Taliban ally that gave that organization a safe haven.  If we withdraw precipitously, there is a very real danger that Al Qaeda and the Taliban could regain power and again constitute a mortal peril to the United States.  American forces cannot leave Afghanistan until the enemy units are defeated utterly or at least weakened to the point that they pose only a minor threat to America’s security.  That means that vigorous military operations must continue in Afghanistan—and in the border areas of Pakistan in which insurgent units often take cover.

Washington needs to make some difficult choices to achieve victory.  One requirement is to de-emphasize counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan.  It is clear that vigorously pursuing that goal antagonizes major portions of the population and plays into the hands of the insurgents.  Unless a specific antitrafficking initiative has a direct bearing on denying funding to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, antidrug objectives need to be put on the back burner.

U.S. leaders also may need to consider an option that is likely to be unpopular with the American people.  Defeating the Afghan insurgents may require a modest increase in the number of U.S. troops over the short term.  At the moment, guerrilla fighters have too many safe havens in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.  They are using those sanctuaries to prepare for and mount attacks elsewhere in the country.  If more American forces are needed to regain the military initiative that was lost in late 2002 and early 2003, it is a step that should be taken.

Unfortunately, because of the Bush administration’s obsession with going to war against Iraq, an opportunity to score a decisive, low-cost victory in Afghanistan may have been squandered.  In the coming months, and perhaps years, that victory will have to be secured at greater cost in terms of both blood and treasure.  It is yet another U.S.-policy failure that should have been avoided.