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Sun, Oct. 20

Afghanistan still a war we could lose

On Nov. 21, 2001, with the war in Afghanistan reaching a critical stage and American forces apparently closing in on Osama bin Laden, Gen. Tommy Franks got a request from his superiors that did not fill him with joy. Despite the other demands on his time, they wanted him to get to work on another task: planning a war in Iraq.

Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, reacted as though he'd been asked to wear a pink tutu. As Bob Woodward recounts in his book "Plan of Attack," the general was "incredulous. They were in the midst of one war, Afghanistan, and now they wanted detailed planning for another, Iraq? '[Expletive], what the [expletive] are they talking about?'" he bellowed.

The request came just about a week before bin Laden reportedly made his escape from the mountains of Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan. Yet Franks, who was infuriated back then, is now supporting President Bush's re-election and solemnly insists that "neither attention nor manpower was diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq."

Sure. Running a war in Afghanistan is a part-time job. And I'm Hilary Duff.

Franks' claims are in keeping with an administration that never admits a mistake. It also converges with the president's efforts to portray our mission in Afghanistan as a shining success that will soon be duplicated in Iraq. But the truth is, plenty of things have gone wrong in Afghanistan. And the modest achievements compiled there will be much harder to attain in Iraq.

Franks says bin Laden may not even have been in Tora Bora. He also rejects John Kerry's claim that the United States "outsourced" the hunt for the al-Qaida leadership – though he does admit, "We did rely heavily on Afghans."

No kidding. Our first regular ground troops didn't arrive in Afghanistan until Nov. 25 – long after the Taliban fell and al-Qaida headed for the hills. So we relied very heavily on Northern Alliance fighters. If that's not outsourcing, maybe I need a new dictionary.

Despite Franks' assertions, the evidence indicates bin Laden was there. An investigation this year by the Christian Science Monitor, based on "detailed interviews with Arabs and Afghans in eastern Afghanistan," reported that between Nov. 28 and Nov. 30 of 2001, "the world's most-wanted man escaped the world's most powerful military machine, walking – with four of his loyalists – in the direction of Pakistan." This just in: We're still looking for him.

As for whether we diverted resources from this fight, other people remember things differently. In his book "Against All Enemies," former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke said the buildup to the Iraq invasion inevitably meant the U.S. military "shifted its focus to Iraq."

The military pulled Arabic-speaking Special Forces soldiers, he noted, out of Afghanistan, and likewise redirected intelligence. "Of the combined U.S. forces fighting the 'war on terrorism' in the Afghan and Iraqi theaters, only about 5 percent were in Afghanistan," wrote Clarke.

Even though the Sept. 11 attacks were the work of enemies in Afghanistan, Bush quickly turned his attention to Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan went from Priority No. 1 to ancient history.

Over the past three years, it's true, we have helped establish a central government that recently held a presidential election. But President Hamid Karzai is really just the mayor of Kabul, rarely daring to venture outside the capital for fear of being gunned down. Most of Afghanistan is under the control of old-fashioned warlords. What we may get is a democracy where the people choose the government, but thugs run the country.

Opium dominates the economy. Hussain Haqqani, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says more than 60 percent of Afghanistan's national income comes from heroin – raising the possibility that the country will become, in his words, "a South Asian Colombia."

The election did offer the heartening spectacle of a long-oppressed people participating in their first democratic presidential election. But turning out voters in Afghanistan doesn't put us on the road to democracy in Iraq.

One reason things have gone better in Afghanistan is that the U.S. never took on the role of occupier, which means we didn't provoke a widespread insurgency. In Iraq, by contrast, we've had a military presence big enough to breed intense resentment in the populace – but not big enough to contain the violence. And the government we installed carries the taint of its association with us.

Our policies in Afghanistan have failed to establish security, build a functioning economy or catch the world's bloodiest terrorist. Rather than a stunning triumph, it's merely been something short of a disaster. Which is more than you can say for Iraq.

(E-mail Steve Chapman through the Creators Syndicate web page at

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