Facing the reality of America's lost war (no, not that one)

The Baltimore Sun

If we have not already lost this war, surely we are barreling headlong toward defeat.

Americans, of course, would have preferred that things turned out differently. We supported the invasion because something needed to be done. Initially, President Bush's decision to send in our troops was very popular. And, as is his wont, Mr. Bush continues to avoid any defeatist talk, reinforcing his belief that anything other than unvarnished optimism wouldn't be presidential.

At a White House press conference this year, in fact, the president stated unambiguously that America's goal should be "to help the people of that country to defeat the terrorists and establish a stable, moderate and democratic state that respects the rights of its citizens, governs its territory effectively, and is a reliable ally in this war against extremists and terrorists."

But that's just not happening, and Mr. Bush simply refuses to come to terms with realities that prevent the goals from succeeding. These realities cannot be wished or ignored away.

For starters, we know that violence and bloodshed are daily features of the lives of our troops and the people whose land we occupy. The fatality rates for American soldiers since January 2005 are twice what they were before that. Nonfatal injury rates have also skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, other injuries - of the type that have nothing to do with violence and everything to do with the suffering of daily tragedies, large and small - are undermining our ability to win the "hearts and minds" war. We exacerbate existing local tensions when we fail to meet civilians' basic needs; we turn potential friends into enemies. If electricity is unavailable for all but a few hours each day and clean water is scarce, who has the time or inclination to ponder concepts such as freedom and democracy?

Worse, many innocents are living on the run, refugees either inside their country or abroad. That's why there's so much violence in border areas, where arriving terrorists are spoiling for a fight and traumatized families heading in the opposite direction try to avoid further victimization. Naturally, al-Qaida continues to stir the pot.

As Peter Bergen reports in "War on Error," a recent, aptly titled New Republic piece, lethal violence is ramping up. "In 2006, IED attacks doubled, assaults on international forces tripled, and suicide bombings quintupled," he writes. "And 2007 is shaping up to be even worse, with suicide bombings up 69 percent from last year." The bloodthirsty operatives of al-Qaida, warns Mr. Bergen, are growing stronger and bolder.

Even an assessment published last week by Lisa Curtis and James Phillips of the conservative Heritage Foundation concluded, with regret, that U.S. leadership "has waned, leading to decentralization and fragmentation of the international reconstruction and stabilization process. In addition, poor governance and corruption in the Karzai government have fueled popular discontent, which the Taliban has exploited."

Whoa - Hamid Karzai? The Taliban? Sorry, but you didn't think the laundry list of problems above related just to the war in Iraq, did you?

The sad, embarrassing fact is that six years after the United States and its coalition allies arrived in Afghanistan, that country remains chaotic and unstable. This despite the fact that one of the main reasons we went there in the first place was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks; he remains at large.

As Mr. Bergen notes, Afghanistan is half again the size of Iraq and more populous, and yet we spend a pittance there compared with the tens of billions we dump monthly into Iraq. Would this resource imbalance have been different if the former were sitting atop huge oil reserves?

Afghanistan is America's lost war - lost in the sense of failure but also in the sense of being forgotten. Even if by some miracle the situation in Iraq turned around 180 degrees during President Bush's remaining 15 months, our self-described "war president" would still leave office having lost one far-more-winnable war.

Is there any reason to think the much tougher war we still do talk about will turn out better?

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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