What the Iraq Study Group said about America's 'other war'

The report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, got short shrift when President Bush announced his "New Way Forward" for Iraq.

Key recommendations of the 10- member bipartisan panel – from the withdrawal of US combat troops by early 2008 to a diplomatic initiative to talk to Iran and Syria – were either watered down or dismissed outright.

Hopefully, the study group's views on America's "other war" in Afghanistan will fare better. Little noted at the time the study group released its report in December were three observations on the connection between American involvement in Iraq and a successful outcome for the US mission in Afghanistan. The outgoing US commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, predicts more fighting from a resurgent Taliban this spring and summer. So it is especially important that the Bush administration and Congress pay attention to the ISG's observations.

Observation No. 1: "The huge focus of U.S. political, military and economic support on Iraq has necessarily diverted attention from Afghanistan."

The study group acknowledged what the Bush administration has consistently refused to concede: namely, that efforts to secure and rebuild Afghanistan have been undermanned and underfunded because of the Iraq war. In the words of Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska: "The oxygen has been sucked out of everything because of Iraq."

Today there are nearly seven times more US military personnel serving in Iraq than in Afghanistan – 140,000 compared with just over 20,000. The United States has spent roughly $400 billion on the Iraq war, and costs are running about $8 billion per month. In the past five years, the US has provided a total of just $12.5 billion in economic and military aid to Afghanistan.

Observation No. 2: "Increased deployments to Iraq would also necessarily hamper our ability to provide adequate resources for our efforts in Afghanistan...."

The study group rightly noted that "America's military capacity is stretched thin: we do not have the troops or equipment to make a substantial, sustained increase in our troop presence."

Choices must be made, and, in the opinion of the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, an increase in troop strength in Iraq is the wrong choice: "If we're surging troops anywhere, it should be in Afghanistan."

Observation No. 3: "[T]he longer that U.S. political and military resources are tied down in Iraq, the more the chances for American failure in Afghanistan increase."

Among the negative consequences foreseen by the ISG of a prolonged American military involvement in Iraq is the possibility of a return to pre-9/11, "square one" conditions in Afghanistan: "If the Taliban were to control more of Afghanistan, it could provide al Qaeda the political space to conduct terrorist operations. This development would ... have national security implications for the United States and other countries around the world."

In response to these concerns, and to underscore the connection between US involvement in the two countries, the Baker-Hamilton report included this recommendation: "It is critical for the United States to provide additional political, economic and military support for Afghanistan, including resources that might become available as combat forces are moved from Iraq."

As an immediate step in this regard, the panel also recommended that the United States respond positively to the recent request of NATO's commanding general for more troops in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates should act on this. That would reinforce the message he took this week on his first visit to NATO headquarters: "Success in Afghanistan is our top priority."

In the first sentence of the ISG report, James Baker and Lee Hamilton remark: "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq." Nor is there for Afghanistan. But as the co-chairs also point out, "[T]here are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests." So it is with Afghanistan.

Working on a bipartisan basis, the Bush administration and the new Democratic majority in Congress should come up with a "New Way Forward" for the war in Afghanistan. This plan would include a long-term security commitment and a doubling of economic and counternarcotics assistance. Afghanistan deserves to receive the attention, priority, and resources it needs to succeed.

Karl F. Inderfurth served as assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001 and is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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