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Could Afghanistan be next Iraq?
by Debra J. Saunders

San Francisco Chronicle


The simple equation in politics today -- at least according to many Democrats -- is that the war in Iraq is a bad war and the war in Afghanistan is a good war. If a congressional timetable forces a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, however, will Afghanistan go the way of Iraq?

My fear has been that a pull out from Iraq will further imperil Afghanistan. Having succeeded, jihadists who have gone to Iraq to martyr themselves, instead would go to Afghanistan.

Also, if U.S. troops precipitously withdrew from Iraq, there would be a vacancy for the "bad war" slot; anti-war activists in North America and Europe would push for their countries to withdraw their troops from the NATO coalition in Afghanistan. In short order, they could succeed in undermining the effort.

Afghan Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad has seen his country suffer from roadside bombs and suicide bombers, which he noted are a "foreign phenomenon in Afghan culture" inspired by terrorists in Iraq. The diplomat visited The Chronicle last week, which gave me the opportunity to ask him what he thought would happen if U.S. troops left Iraq as per the wishes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Jawad had a rosy response. U.S. support for Afghanistan is strong and bipartisan, he answered. He does not think an withdrawal in Iraq would affect his country and that "support for Afghanistan will be stronger."

In a follow-up e-mail, Jawad explained that, "Terrorists are opportunistic and constantly trade one battleground for another, moving from Chechnya to Uzbekistan to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iraq." If terrorists do "find their way to Afghanistan, with additional resources becoming available, better training and equipment and a robust and unified international front consisting of the United States and NATO, the Afghan government will be able to counter them."

Bob Ayers of Chatham House, a London-based foreign-affairs think tank, gave a different answer as to what is likely to happen in Afghanistan if U.S. troops pull out of Iraq a la Pelosi: "We will see an ever-increasing level of radicalization, coupled with a return to more localized government based on tribal loyalties with a commensurate decreasing hold on the country by the central government."

And: "There would likely be a period of violence directed against the central government, but given the relative weakness of the central government, it is doubtful that such attacks could be resisted and stable government maintained for a protracted period of time."

Sounds like Iraq to me.

As for my belief that anti-war factions would start chipping away at popular support for the war, Jawad answered, "The U.S. government and new Congress support is robust and bi-partisan and long term."

I hope, if Congress does set a hard timetable to withdraw from Iraq, that Jawad is right. Clearly, he wants what is best for his country.

As an American, however, I don't see how the same arguments for pulling troops out of Iraq won't apply to the 25,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Sure, Iraq war critics like to point out that the United States had a casus belli -- Osama bin Laden -- for entering Afghanistan. But we don't know that bin Laden is still in Afghanistan.

As the left likes to dwell on President Bush's failures, the failure to get bin Laden lends itself to defeatism.

Then there is the left's conceit that only liberals really care about the toll on U.S. troops. According to the Pentagon, as of April 14, the death toll of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was 315 since October 2001. If fighting should escalate, how long will it take before the media start reporting on benchmarks? As in: 500 dead, and what can we show for it?

Canada has sacrificed as well -- losing 54 troops in Afghanistan since 2002. On Thursday, Liberals in Canada's Parliament introduced a motion calling for Canadian troops to be out of the NATO military mission by February 2009. Italian discontent about troops in Afghanistan forced Prime Minister Romano Prodi to step down temporarily in February. Polls show Germans want to get out, too -- even though the German government has kept its NATO troops out of harm's way.

Look at the headlines from Afghanistan.

"Afghan civilian death toll up in 2006/More than 1,000 people were killed, rights group says." That's from January.

"Afghan town falls to Taliban after NATO troops leave." February.

"Marine unit ordered to leave Afghanistan / They're accused of killing civilians" -- that was in March.

And this month: "Iranian-made arms seized in Afghanistan."

While Pelosi has called Afghanistan "the real war on terror," the nation is mired in internal strife, beset by jihadists and its internal problems undermine attempts to create an infrastructure needed to make Afghans prosperous.

Jawad sees long-term international will. If he were President Bush, folks would call that a "rosy scenario."

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