Reselling the Wars

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, November 7, 2005

America's ambassadors to Iraq and Afghanistan were both in Washington during the past 10 days. They peddled plans for badly needed corrections of U.S. policy -- and they listened to the furious debate over Scooter Libby, Valerie Plame and the handling of flawed intelligence three years ago. The disconnect they encountered between the challenging realities of two ongoing wars and the otherworldly discussion in Washington could hardly have been greater.

Baghdad envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Kabul-based Ronald Neumann did not coordinate their home visits or their messages. But they had drawn similar conclusions -- in essence, that the Bush administration's effort to win quickly and cheaply in Afghanistan and then Iraq has boomeranged. Now a new military and political strategy is in place in both theaters that calls for making the long-term investments and fighting the battles that administration strategists -- above all, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- disastrously tried to dodge.

The problem is, that requires selling Washington, from the White House budget office to the media and Congress, on more money and more patience for wars generally regarded as nearly finished or already lost. And Washington is consumed with discussing the insubstantial visit a retired ambassador made to an obscure African country nearly four years ago.

Start with Neumann, a seasoned State Department pro whose father also served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. His visit was a quiet one; he didn't do much talking for the record. But his message was blunt: While there has been some success in Afghanistan, including the recent parliamentary elections, nothing is finished. There is still much to do, and a lot more American money will be needed. It's going to take years, and it's going to be bumpy.

Neumann's problem, in a way, is that Afghanistan looks great compared with Iraq. Yet the elected government of Hamid Karzai still doesn't control the country outside of the capital. Reconstruction remains slow, stalled by bottlenecks in roads and electricity. Drug traffickers control a large part of the rural economy. Meanwhile, training of Afghan police and army forces is proceeding at a snail's pace. Even in Kabul, there is a desperate shortage of competent and uncorrupted officials to staff the government.

Why has more not been accomplished in four years? Because the first-term Bush administration believed reconstruction could be left to others -- allies and contractors -- or limited to bare-bones measures. Neumann is the face of a more hard-nosed second-term team that understands the necessity of a long-term U.S. commitment. He told congressmen that an additional $700 million in reconstruction aid is needed for Afghanistan next year, above the $622 million request for 2006 -- and that sums of that magnitude would be needed for three more years. Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee were receptive, but Afghanistan must compete with Katrina, and with Iraq.

In Iraq, Khalilzad, who brokered the political process that is Afghanistan's signal success, now tries to repeat his feat. Almost orphaned by a president who limits his public discussion of Iraq to brave democrats and evil terrorists, the ambassador has worked with enormous energy to channel the complex and increasingly violent struggle for power among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds into elections and negotiations. The mistakes of the past 2 1/2 years have made his job much harder: Iraqis are far more polarized along ethnic lines than they were in 2003, and the insurgency is deeply entrenched, thanks to the Pentagon's slowness in taking it seriously.

The ambassador argues that U.S. policy is finally on track. "We do have the beginning of adjustments that I think puts us on the right path," he told Gwen Ifill of PBS in one of his few on-the-record interviews. In addition to his own diplomacy, which has persuaded Sunni parties to compete in upcoming elections and Shiite and Kurdish parties to agree to post-election negotiations, there is, at last, a concerted counterinsurgency campaign underway, aimed at clearing areas of militants and then holding them. Khalilzad believes Baghdad should now be systematically secured, starting with the airport and then moving into the city. But the process will be slow and hard: Just pacifying the capital could take a year.

How to buy the patience for a such an effort, which will surely cost many more American lives, and billions more dollars, in a Washington where debate over Iraq has become unhinged? Khalilzad seems to believe that only the beginning of troop withdrawals will buy the necessary time. In his PBS appearance, he predicted that "significant reductions" would be possible "in the coming year."

In Afghanistan, too, plans for troop withdrawals have been drawn up: 4,000 of 20,000 troops could be brought home next year. A pullback of forces, of course, doesn't really fit with a strategy that otherwise calls for a recommitment of American energy and resources. But for the pragmatists who now quietly strive to give Iraq and Afghanistan a chance for success, it is the price for past mistakes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company