The Necessary Three-Front War
It is a central argument of the Bush administration that the outcome in Iraq is essential to the broader war on terrorism -- which is plainly true. When it comes to Sunni radicalism, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are a single struggle. Al-Qaeda has latched on to local grievances, tribal conflicts and general chaos in all three nations to extend its influence.
But this argument, used to justify U.S. efforts in Iraq, cuts another way as well. Is America taking all three related insurgencies with sufficient seriousness?
Iraq, while consuming greater sacrifice, is now producing the most encouraging results. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is reeling. U.S. Special Forces in Mosul -- a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad -- are conducting about eight to 12 missions against al-Qaeda each night. In Baghdad, the surge strategy of securing civilians has dramatically reduced sectarian violence. And in Basra -- located in the Shiite south -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has finally shown some fight against radical militias.
Iraq's Basra campaign began last month as an uncoordinated mess. Locally recruited Iraqi forces were unreliable, mainly because the British, in their hasty disengagement, had left them without embedded supervision.
But American commanders deployed coordinating cells within Iraqi units and increased the number of Predator flights and Special Forces advisers, quickly stabilizing the situation. What began as a tactical failure for Maliki became a strategic success. Iraq's prime minister has gained in political stature and regional respect by taking on his coreligionists.
The next stages in Iraq are tricky. A solely military solution to the problem of the Shiite militias is not possible. To clear Sadr City block by block -- an area with 2 million people, most of them loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr -- would require divisions that do not exist. So the strategy is to kill or capture members of the "special groups" -- the Shiite equivalent of al-Qaeda -- while engaging members of Sadr's movement who want to join the political process.
Iraq's future -- and the future of American involvement in that country -- now rests with the Shiites. If many turn to politics, the nation's path will be shorter and easier. If many choose conflict, it will be tougher and longer. But the gains against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the other great destabilizer, cannot be denied.
The picture is murkier in Afghanistan, the second front in the war on terrorism. The recent NATO summit in Bucharest made incremental progress toward increasing the size and coherence of the allied effort -- so incremental it was hardly noticeable. The French pledged an additional battalion, but NATO contributions are likely to remain flat over the long term. The command structure in Afghanistan remains scrambled. And no one claims that current efforts in southern Afghanistan against the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies are sufficient.
At the summit, the Bush administration signaled that it is working on a plan, including additional troops, to increase America's role in the south in 2009. The goal is to apply the successful counterinsurgency approach the United States has already applied in Afghanistan's east. But it will take a considerable act of political will for the next president to expand our combat commitment in Afghanistan.
The third front in the war on terrorism may turn out to be the most difficult. Two-thirds of ethnic Pashtuns -- a tribal group that shelters al-Qaeda and perhaps Osama bin Laden himself -- live in Pakistan. And by every measure of seriousness and resources, efforts to fight terrorists in that country fall below the low bar of Afghanistan.
It has taken about three years for America to adjust its forces and strategies to effectively fight a counterinsurgency war. But the Pakistani government -- distracted by political disorder and still fixated on a conventional conflict with India -- has barely begun this transformation. So America fights in Iraq and Afghanistan while the tribal regions of Pakistan collect the most dangerous, ambitious terrorists in the world. Eventually, this patience with Pakistan will need to end.
Some Democrats make an illegitimate argument: that we need to abandon Iraq in order to win in Afghanistan. On the contrary, a loss in Iraq would make every front in the war on terror more difficult by providing terrorists a base of operations and boosting the morale and recruitment of every radical group on Earth.
But there is a legitimate issue here as well. A decent outcome in Iraq would be considerably devalued if the other fronts in the war were stalled.