ATLANTA -- Not only is there no path to victory in Iraq, as the Iraq Study Group has made clear, but there is also very little chance of preventing disaster. As the U.S. military withdraws - and it must - the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites will become more savage still, neighboring states will find themselves flooded with refugees, and Iraq will probably become the failed state that our policy was intended to prevent.
But the United States need not leave behind two failed states. We can still save Afghanistan; that's where we should concentrate our diplomacy and manpower. If we don't, that nation will continue to deteriorate until it is once again a caldron of violence and corruption, a haven for jihadists and narco-terrorists.
The ISG report made that point explicitly: "The longer that U.S. political and military resources are tied down in Iraq, the more the chances for American failure in Afghanistan increase."
Routing the Taliban was the righteous war that grew out of Sept. 11. The jihadist-warrior cult had offered safe harbor to Osama bin Laden, who planned the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush administration had no choice but to mount an invasion of Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, neither the neoconservatives nor the traditional conservatives had much real interest in the remote, obscure country. They didn't think the use of U.S. military might on a primitive nation would inspire awe among other Islamists; they had no patience for nation-building; they weren't passionate about planting democracy there.
So before bin Laden was captured, before the Taliban were decimated, before the remote mountainous regions of Afghanistan were secure, civilian leadership at the Pentagon ordered the military to turn its attention and personnel to Iraq. Special forces operatives who might have located bin Laden were pulled out; troops and material were redirected. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai was elected, the White House declared victory and pulled back.
There are now about 21,000 U.S. troops and nearly as many troops from other NATO countries in Afghanistan. However, they have met stiff resistance from a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida, which still have the run of the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though the Bush administration has declared Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf an ally in the war on terror, he has proved unable or unwilling to clamp down on insurgents.
Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the Taliban and al-Qaida were waging a "bloody insurgency" in the east and south of the country. He noted that al-Qaida forces are using techniques in Afghanistan perfected in Iraq, including roadside explosives and suicide bombers. Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, told the committee that violent attacks this year had nearly doubled over 2005.
With no real law in effect, Afghan farmers reaped a record opium harvest this year, producing about 92 percent of the world's supply. Drug activity feeds not just jihadists movements but also violent narco-traffickers.
Despite its problems, Afghanistan can still benefit from U.S. military and diplomatic might. As the Pentagon pulls troops out of Iraq, it can beef up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. (If we contribute more heavily, we might be able to persuade our NATO allies to do the same.) The insurgency can be quelled, if not eradicated.
And as stability takes root, nongovernment aid groups and charitable institutions will pour in, offering health care and educational and economic assistance. It may take decades to stamp out poppy cultivation, but it's worth a more serious effort than we've given it so far.
President Bush could still see a stable, pro-Western nation rise from the anger and anguish of 9/11. It just won't be Iraq.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.