A shift in the Central Front

January 19, 2007

Up until a few months ago, Chancellor Bush regarded Iraq as “the central front in the War on Terror.” With the arrival of the Splurge, the Augmentation, the New Fork Wayward, or whatever they’re calling it this news cycle, it became clear that he understands the Front has shifted.

Now that it’s clear the war is lost, the Central Front has become the battle to assign the blame for the loss to someone, anyone, but Bush. Ideally, to assemble a Dolchstoss narrative: The dang war was all but won until the wimpy Democrats and liberals stabbed America in the back.

The original Dolchstoss, of course, was Hitler’s explanation for why Germany lost WW I. It worked for him like a charm. The Republicans copied the strategy after Vietnam; and it worked like a charm for them, too. At least a third of the country still believes that narrative.

In order for the Dolchstoss narrative to take hold, though, two things are essential. Not too many Republicans can call for the war to end – a difficult line to hold when most of them understand how harshly the electorate will make them pay if we’re still massively bogged down in November ’08. And the war must be dragged out until the end of Bush’s term. That’s the real purpose of the Splurge: to stall a few months until the next bit of life support for the comatose war can be concocted.

While all these silly and deadly games are played out, though, two of the most prominent liberal hawks have finally begun to state out loud the long unspoken truth. Namely, the Central Front in the War on Terror is now, and always has been, Afghanistan. Ghastly as the consequences of the Iraq loss will be (and make no mistake, they will be vicious both for Iraq and America), they pale in significance next to the consequences of a loss in Afghanistan.

And Afghanistan is not at all a lost cause. Yet. We remain relatively popular with the general populace, which despises the Taliban and hopes for our protection from them. But the situation is deteriorating, even in the winter, a period when Mullah Omar’s legions have usually hibernated. Schoolteachers are regularly assassinated. And after a few months without major reinforcements, our failure to protect ordinary Afghanis could become so marked that the country tips.

Should Afghanistan fall to the Taliban, Pakistan is the next domino. The Islamist regime that would replace Musharraf would be infinitely more dangerous than the clerics in Iran. Unlike Iran,

  • It would have no interest in cooperating with the U.S. in the struggle against terrorism. (The ayatollahs in Tehran were swift to denounce the 9/11 attack, gave us a lot of good intelligence in the ensuing months, until the “axis of evil” speech chilled relations.)
  • It would already have nuclear weapons – quit a few of them, along with working missiles.
  • It would be Sunni, in fact Wahabbist, a natural ally rather than a sworn enemy of Al Qaeda’s brand of Islamism.

Iran has been pragmatic and conservative in its dealings with other nations. It has initiated no wars, and vividly remembers the horrors of the war Saddam forced it to fight. It would be jealous of any nuclear weapons it eventually obtained, careful not to let them slip out of its control into jihadist hands, and is stable enough to enforce such a policy. A Talibanized Pakistan would labor under none of those constraints, and could easily pass suitcase bombs along to Al Qaeda.

Yet Bush is pulling troops out of Afghanistan to bolster his attempt to throw a string of sevens in an already lost Baghdad crap game. He is happy to lose the more important of the two wars, simply to avoid blame for the less important one he has already lost.

Earlier this week, Senator Clinton and Evan Bayh returned from their fact finding tour of the Middle East. The letter they wrote to Defense Secretary Gates afterward didn’t even mention Iraq. Instead, it baldly stated the crucial need for more troops in Afghanistan.

This is not only the desperately needed right approach for the sake of protecting the U.S. from real peril; it is also the Democrats’ ticket to seizing the mantle of the party which is strong on security. Rather than highlighting withdrawal from a lost battle, it highlights advance in a battle that is very winnable. It underscores, in terms that should be clear even to the bloodthirsty right, why the Splurge is folly.

And yesterday on Hardball, Senator Biden (of whom I am not usually a great fan) struck the same note with great clarity:

MATTHEWS: One of your potential rivals for the Democratic nomination for the president is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Senator Clinton has said we need more troops to go to Afghanistan, although she agrees with you on the need to cap the troop number in Iraq. Do you agree we need more troops in Afghanistan?

BIDEN: Yes. When the president announced his surge, I made the case that he should be surging in Afghanistan, not in Iraq. Chris, I know you know a lot about this. Imagine if we fail in Afghanistan.

What that will mean is Musharraf will cut even a closer deal with al Qaeda and with the Taliban, and if he doesn‘t, he puts himself in the position of being overthrown more than he is now. That is a radicalized country. It has nuclear weapons and it will be a disaster.


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