If nothing else, the deaths Sunday of nine U.S.
soldiers at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan close to the Pakistan border
are likely to bring home to the U.S. electorate what top national security
officials have been saying for much of the past year that the central
front in Washington's "global war on terrorism" has moved eastward
about 1,100 mi. from Iraq.
That realization could have a major impact on the U.S. presidential elections,
despite the fact that the economy has replaced the Iraq War as the issue that
voters are most concerned about.
While Republican Sen. John McCain, like the White House itself, has insisted
that victory in Iraq must be priority number one for U.S. foreign policy, his
presumptive Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, and his top advisers have
repeatedly warned that the situation in Afghanistan and the frontier regions
of Pakistan required much more attention and resources than President George
W. Bush has been willing to give it.
Indeed, in a column coincidentally published by the New York Times
Monday, Obama called for a "new strategy" in Afghanistan, including
the deployment there of "at least two additional combat brigades
and more non-military assistance to accomplish the mission there." At
a campaign appearance Sunday, he called Afghanistan and the border areas "the
real center for terrorist activity that we have to deal with and deal with
The nine U.S. soldiers died when some 200 Taliban insurgents, reportedly from
Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, penetrated a recently built outpost in Kunar
province in a coordinated assault. Fifteen other U.S. troops and four Afghan
army soldiers were also wounded in the raid, which was eventually repelled
after air support was called in. As many as 40 of the attackers were killed,
according to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in
The U.S. death toll was the largest since 16 troops were killed when a military
helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in Kunar three years ago and, as noted
by the Los Angeles Times, "accelerated what had already been a
rapidly rising fatality count among coalition troops in Afghanistan."
In May and June alone, some 69 U.S. and NATO soldiers were killed in Afghanistan,
exceeding the death toll of U.S.-led coalition troops killed in Iraq during
the same period.
Sunday's attack coincided with the visit by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, to Pakistan his fourth so far this year
to underline growing U.S. unhappiness, and even exasperation, with Islamabad's
alleged failure to prevent Taliban forces, both Afghan and Pakistani, from
infiltrating into Afghanistan.
That failure is due primarily to the effective takeover during the past several
years of much of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of
the Northwest Frontier Province by Pakistan's own Taliban. It and its allies
have, in turn, provided a safe haven for both Afghanistan's Taliban and al-Qaeda,
which, according to the U.S. intelligence community, has reconstituted much
of its training and planning capabilities, including its capacity to mount
a direct attack on the U.S. "homeland."
Indeed, it was Mullen who warned in March that, "If I were going to pick
the next attack to hit the United States, it would come out of the FATA,"
a warning that was echoed the following month by a devastating critique by
Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), of
what it said was the Bush administration's failure to develop a comprehensive
strategy for dealing with the growing threat developing in the region.
Both Mullen and his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have made little
secret of their impatience to send some 10,000 more U.S. troops the
same number urged by Obama to add to the some 34,000 already deployed
there. But with the White House unwilling to risk the progress it has made
in curbing the violence in Iraq and U.S. ground forces already overstretched,
they say Afghanistan will have to wait until more troops are withdrawn from
Ironically, their hopes appear to rest primarily with the current Iraq commander,
Gen. David Petraeus, who was just confirmed by the Senate last week as the
new head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), giving him responsibility for Southwest
Asia, as well as Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.
Petraeus, who has enjoyed extraordinary access to the White House and Bush
himself, will take over Centcom at the beginning of September, after he completes
a review of the situation in Iraq to determine whether he thinks it will be
possible to reduce troop levels below the 140,000 that is to be reached by
the end of this month.
Until recently, Petraeus had reportedly advised against any further withdrawals
through the end of the year. But, with his broader Centcom responsibilities
looming, and the continuing deterioration in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some
insiders have suggested that he has become more flexible.
If so, McCain, whose chief advantage over Obama is the perception that he
is stronger on national security and the "war on terror," may look
as if he had underestimated the threat to the east.
Indeed, in a press release issued Monday, the McCain campaign, citing statements
by Petraeus in April and, ironically, by Osama bin Laden in 2004, reiterated
that Iraq remains "the central front in the war on terrorism." Neither
the release nor a teleconference by his foreign policy spokesmen mentioned
Sunday's attack or the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan other than asserting
that it was "an important front in the war on terror."
Obama, whose scheduled trip next week to both Iraq and Afghanistan will almost
certainly dominate news coverage back home and thus provide him with a golden
opportunity to expound his views, may look prescient by September when Petraeus
completes his assessment.
(Inter Press Service)