The argument about whether the ‘surge’ in Iraq worked is yesterday’s news. The issue going forward is whether we should accept the President’s post-surge policy that includes an endless, very expensive occupation of Iraq which undermines our needs in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Our number one national security priority must be to stop al-Qaida and their allies. They were able to hit us on September 11, 2001 and in previous attacks – including the U.S.S. Cole bombing and attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa – largely because they had a safe haven in Afghanistan. We smashed the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan when we invaded in 2001, but as our assets and attention shifted to Iraq, they were able to regroup in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The enemy that struck us on 9/11 once again has established a base of operations to plan and prepare for future attacks.
Iraq and Afghanistan have comparable populations and territories. The Iraqi population largely turned on al-Qaida. In Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida have a potential safe haven with at least grudging local support. But consider the contrast: In Iraq, we have roughly 164,000 troops, including the bulk of our special operations assets, and we spend around $15 billion a month. In Afghanistan, we have only 25,000 troops and spend less than $2 billion per month.
This imbalance means that we cannot pursue al-Qaida and the Taliban as aggressively as we need to. It means that when armed thugs tell locals in Afghanistan that they will be tortured and killed if they cooperate with Americans or the Afghan government, we don’t have enough troops to protect them. Our commitment to Afghanistan is essential if we hope to stop international terrorism, and we are failing in that commitment because we are so heavily invested in Iraq.
The debate on whether the surge worked is no longer constructive. When you invest 164,000 troops and more than $160 billion a year anywhere in the world, you better be able to show some progress. But the real issue is whether the President’s policy of unending, exhaustive occupation of Iraq is worth the cost to our fight against al-Qaida around the world. It isn’t.