The steady stream of bad news about Afghanistan this week served to highlight two inescapable truths regarding the conflict against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. First, Barack Obama is right that the ongoing commitment of American forces in Iraq is limiting the United States in its pursuit of Al Qaeda along the Pakistan frontier. Second, the Bush Doctrine - with its first tenet of "no safe havens" for terrorists - is still dead.
In Washington, President Bush acknowledged that June, which saw the highest U.S. casualties of the Afghan war, was a "tough month." Bush, who is reported to have recently ordered U.S. intelligence assets and Special Forces to make a final push to capture Osama Bin Laden, then promised more soldiers and Marines for the fight. As Time rightly noted:
"We're going to increase troops by 2009," Bush said, without offering details about exactly when or how many.
The President would have done well to first consult with Admiral Michael Mullen, his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On the very day that 2,200 U.S Marines learned their tours in Afghanistan will be extended by 30 days, Mullen admitted to reporters at the Pentagon that the United States could deploy more forces there only by drawing down from Iraq:
"I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq. Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there."
Unfortunately, that "reduced requirement" in Iraq doesn't appear likely to happen any time soon.As the AP reported last week, the Pentagon is preparing to rotate 30,000 troops in a move that maintain U.S. force levels in Iraq at 15 combat brigades through 2009. While General Petraeus may yet recommend further force reductions, American troop levels at 142,000 are currently slated to remain above pre-surge levels through next year.
Failing the commitment of additional forces by NATO members, the U.S. is going to have to rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to choosing between the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his joint Senate testimony with General Petraeus in April, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker acknowledged to Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) that the Afghan-Pakistan border region was a higher priority than Iraq for the United States in its global fight against Al Qaeda.
Crocker's trade-off is precisely the one advocated by Barack Obama throughout the 2008 campaign. As he has insisted repeatedly, the Bush administration let Al Qaeda off the mat in 2002 and with its solitary focus on Iraq, has taken its eyes off the prize. As Obama put it just two weeks ago:
"The people who were responsible for murdering 3,000 Americans on 9/11 have not been brought to justice. They are Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and their sponsors – the Taliban. They were in Afghanistan. And yet George Bush and John McCain decided in 2002 that we should take our eye off of Afghanistan so that we could invade and occupy a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11…
…We had al Qaeda and the Taliban on the run back in 2002. But then we diverted military, intelligence, financial, and diplomatic resources to Iraq. And yet Senator McCain has said as recently as this April that, 'Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq.' I think that just shows a dangerous misjudgment of the facts, and a stubborn determination to ignore the need to finish the fight in Afghanistan."
As it turns out, Obama is right, and George W. Bush and John McCain are wrong, on both counts. As Admiral Mullen readily admitted, overstretched American forces in Iraq are simply unavailable for the campaign against Bin Laden. And as a devastating account in the New York Times this week revealed, the Bush administration's diversion of assets to Iraq and its confused policy towards the Musharraf government enabled Al Qaeda to establish a safe haven in Pakistan.
Dating back to the moments after the September 11 attacks, "no safe havens" emerged as one of the three pillars of the Bush Doctrine. (The other two – preemptive war and democracy promotion – rose and fell with the invasion of Iraq and the chaos in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.) In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, a determined President Bush declared his "no safe havens" principle even as the World Trade Center towers still smoldered in lower Manhattan:
"We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
But seven years later, an Al Qaeda safe haven in the Pakistani tribal regions is precisely what the United States now encounters. As President Bush himself confessed in the wake of a July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate:
"One of the most troubling [points in the NIE] is its assessment that al Qaeda has managed to establish a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan."
Little has changed since. As the New York Times detailed Monday, the new Bush policy of authorizing unilateral strikes against Al Qaeda leaders and the deployment of U.S. Special Forces into Pakistan remains stymied by disagreements within the administration and with the new government in Islamabad. (Ironically, John McCain attacked Barack Obama for the same aggressive posture towards Al Qaeda in Pakistan that President Bush belatedly adopted.) Despite the new-found willingness of the U.S. to act alone within Pakistan, Bush's past dependence on Musharraf and Musharraf's truce with tribal leaders sympathetic to Bin Laden and the Taliban had left Al Qaeda firmly entrenched:
"It is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with Al Qaeda having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack from the region and broadcast its messages to militants across the world."
For Barack Obama's part, he's still right when it comes to America's unfinished business with – and the White House's diversion of resources from – Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. As for President Bush and John McCain, they're still wrong. And to paraphrase Chevy Chase from the old Saturday Night Live news sketches, the Bush Doctrine is still dead.