Battle testing U.S. will for war

It also might deter anti-terror efforts in Iraq, elsewhere

March 07, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The largest land battle in Afghanistan - and the deadliest one for U.S. forces - is raging at a time when many Americans believed the war was finally drawing to a close.

And the grinding pace of the operation raises new questions about the scope of the United States' current and future commitment in the country, as well as the worth of its Afghan allies, say lawmakers and policy analysts.

Moreover, they say, the continuing fight in the mountains south of Gardez could well slow America's war on terrorism, particularly any plans to mount a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

With the Taliban regime vanquished three months ago and the remaining pockets of al-Qaida scattered, there was a sense that Afghanistan was largely pacified. The debate had turned to international peacekeepers and aid to the interim government of Hamid Karzai as the United States set its sights on terrorists in the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia.

Now, with vivid televised pictures of Americans under fire, flag-draped coffins arriving by cargo plane and U.S. reinforcements surging to the front, there is a growing sense that more needs to be done in Afghanistan.

"I think Afghanistan is going to take a little bit longer than the public at large thought a couple of months ago," said Mackubin Thomas Owens, a retired Marine colonel and a professor at the Naval War College.

But he noted that the Pentagon has consistently said it will take months to root out the remaining pockets of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

"I don't think it surprised anybody in the military," he said.

Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution and a member of former President Bill Clinton's National Security Council staff, said the fierce battle in Paktia province involving more than 2,000 U.S., Afghan and coalition troops shows "the security climate is still highly uncertain."

"I think we're going to be doing this for many months," he predicted. "You realize Afghanistan needs more attention. We're going to be there until summer, if not later."

Daalder also said that any military campaign in Iraq, which some administration officials and analysts have referred to as Phase Two of the war on terrorism, will be sidetracked by the fighting in the rugged and bitterly cold mountains that border the Shah-e-Kot valley.

"I think it puts the debate on hold about the wider war on terrorism," he said. "As long as we're engaged in a war in Afghanistan, we're not going to have time to plan for Iraq."

`Work left to be done'

That view is shared by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, who on Fox News Sunday said the United States must focus on completing the job in Afghanistan before moving on to Iraq and other challenges.

"We haven't finished Phase One. We haven't found [terrorist mastermind Osama] bin Laden. We haven't found [supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed] Omar. We haven't stabilized the countryside. We're still having major disruptions," Daschle said as the Gardez battle intensified. "So clearly there's a lot of work left to be done in Afghanistan. We can't leave that job half done."

Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, appearing on ABC's This Week, said the battle shows that the job in Afghanistan "is obviously getting more complicated."

"I think that everybody would like to see Saddam Hussein gone, but again, I think we should concentrate on Afghanistan," she said.

The Bush administration is divided on whether and when to take on Hussein, with some Pentagon officials pressing for military action sooner rather than later. The State Department would rather try to send international inspectors into the country to search for suspected weapons of mass destruction. Hussein ejected the last team of inspectors in 1998 and has not agreed to let them back in.

Military action could be taken if Iraq bars the inspectors or if thorough searches are blocked, officials at State have said.

Some who advocate a military solution in Iraq dismiss the notion that the American mission in Afghanistan, even if it were to expand, could delay planning to overthrow Hussein.

"Are we going to be [in Afghanistan] longer? Yes. Is it going to keep us from doing other things? I don't think so," said Frank Gaffney Jr., a Pentagon official in the Reagan administration and a staunch advocate of toppling Hussein.

Gaffney was encouraged by Bush's State of the Union address in January that identified Iraq as part of an "axis of evil," but he said the administration must follow up on its rhetoric with action, such as arming Iraqi opposition groups. The administration has been reluctant to do so.

"Time is wasting here," said Gaffney. "I think it's a mistake to tell Saddam you're going after him and not do anything for a while."

Don Snider, a retired Army colonel and professor of political science at West Point, said the United States "has the sufficient global power to fight in more than one place."

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