Amidst the fury and tumult of the debate over the Iraq War, the "forgotten" war in Afghanistan is often overlooked. Without the diversion of Iraq, the American people might be more focused on winning the Afghan War which will soon be dragging into its seventh year. During that time we have seen a steady rise in the ranks of the Taliban and now we have seriously bad news about opium production.
Opium production has soared to "frightening record levels" in Afghanistan, which now has more land producing drugs than Columbia, Bolivia and Peru combined, the United Nations said on Monday.
Afghanistan is locked in a vicious circle where drug money feeds both the Taliban insurgency and official corruption which in turn weaken the government's hold of large parts of the country and allows more opium to be produced.
The area of Afghan land where opium poppies are grown rose by 17 percent to 193,000 hectares in 2007 from 165,000 last year and this year's harvest was 8,200 tonnes, up from 6,100 tonnes in 2006, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.
Afghanistan produced 93 percent of the world's opium in 2007, up from 92 percent last year, the annual UNODC report said.
Opium production is heaviest in the southern provinces that border Pakistan (surprise, surprise), where the Taliban and Al Qaeda presence is the strongest, and it provides a major source of financing for Taliban operations.
Failure in Afghanistan would clearly be much worse for America than failure in Iraq. Afghanistan provides a much more fertile ground for the brand of Sunni fundamentalism that gave rise to the Taliban and provided a base for Al Qaeda than Iraq does. Only 20% of Iraq's population is Sunni and they have tended towards secularism while 50% of Afghanistan's population are deeply conservative Sunnis of the Pashtun ethnic group who are philosophically sympathetic to the Wahabbi brand of Sunni fundamentalism gave rise to Al Qaeda. In addition, Afghanistan's Pashtuns have close relations across the border in northwest Pakistan where Al Qaeda has reconstituted its bases of operations and where Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are most likely hiding.
The disruption Al Qaeda operations can only be accomplished in this area of the world; it will not be accomplished in Iraq because there frankly aren't that many Al Qaeda there (and they are not core Al Qaeda either). While conducting operations in Pakistan is politically and diplomatically difficult we have far fewer obstacles to operations in Afghanistan. A decisive move into the southern provinces with a large force that could uproot the opium crops in the area would be a serious blow to the Taliban. Of course, we would need many more forces than we currently have in Afghanistan, and we would also be wise to abandon our efforts to fight the war from 20,000 feet up. Aerial bombing, no matter how accurate, will inevitably cause civilian casualties that end up turning the population against us.
As with Iraq, there have never been enough troops on the ground to guarantee victory in Afghanistan. This is truly unfortunate given that the American people are firmly behind the war and would have eagerly supported sending more troops to defeat the terrorists who were directly responsible for the mass murder of 3,000 of our fellow countrymen.
Unfortunately, the debate over the war in Iraq has drowned out any serious discussion about the war in Afghanistan. As with Iraq, the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and the White House have proven to be incapable of achieving a decisive victory. Consequently, it is up to Congress to open up the debate and push the administration to change policy so that we can get the war in Afghanistan back on the right track.
The first step towards accomplishing that is to destroy Afghanistan's opium fields and cut off the lifeline of the Taliban. Then, we need to establish a stronger presence in the southern provinces instead of leaving the job to the Canadians and the British. We also need to sharply curtail the use of high-altitude bombing and significantly enhance our nation-building and counter-insurgency efforts in the area.
Ideally, we would get out of Iraq and send Petraeus to Afghanistan to finish the job that is vitally important to defeating Al Qaeda in the part of the world where it is the strongest. Now that we've capitulated to Iraq's Sunnis (who never really wanted to fight us anyway), I have little doubt that they will eventually eradicate the Saudi jihadists and Al Qaeda wannabes who've been entering Iraq to spread violence and mayhem. Iraq's Sunnis have proven that they are not receptive at all to Al Qaeda's brand of Islamic fundamentalism. They only tolerated their presence since the US was waging war on the Sunnis and they needed some help in that effort. Since the American-Sunni fight is now over the Sunnis no longer need Al Qaeda.
We need to return to fighting the war on terror where it all began on September 11.
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