WASHINGTON - If nothing else, the deaths on Sunday of nine United States
soldiers at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan close to the Pakistan
border are likely to bring home to the US electorate what top national security
officials have been saying for much of the past year - that the central front
in Washington's "war on terror" has moved eastwards about 1,800 kilometers from
That realization could have a major impact on the US presidential elections,
despite the fact that the economy has replaced the Iraq War as the issue about
which voters are most concerned.
While Republican Senator John McCain, like the White House itself, has insisted
that victory in Iraq must be priority number one for US foreign policy, his
presumptive Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, and his top advisers have
repeatedly warned that
the situation in Afghanistan and the frontier regions of Pakistan required much
more attention and resources than President George W Bush has been willing to
Indeed, in a column coincidentally published by the New York Times on Monday,
Obama called for a "new strategy" in Afghanistan, including the deployment
there of "at least two additional combat brigades ... and more non-military
assistance to accomplish the mission there". At a campaign appearance on
Sunday, he called Afghanistan and the border areas "the real center for
terrorist activity that we have to deal with and deal with aggressively".
The nine US soldiers died when about 200 Taliban insurgents, reportedly from
Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, penetrated a recently built outpost in Kunar
province in a coordinated assault. Fifteen other US troops and four Afghan army
soldiers were also wounded in the raid, which was eventually repelled after air
support was called in. As many as 40 of the attackers were killed, according to
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led (NATO) International Security
Assistance Force in Kabul.
The US death toll was the largest since 16 troops were killed when a military
helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in Kunar three years ago and, as noted
by the Los Angeles Times, "accelerated what had already been a rapidly rising
fatality count among coalition troops in Afghanistan".
In May and June alone, about 69 US and NATO soldiers were killed in
Afghanistan, exceeding the death toll of US-led coalition troops killed in Iraq
during the same period.
Sunday's attack coincided with the visit by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, to Pakistan - his fourth so far this year - to
underline growing US unhappiness, and even exasperation, with Islamabad's
alleged failure to prevent Taliban forces, both Afghan and Pakistani, from
infiltrating into Afghanistan.
That failure is due primarily to the effective takeover during the past several
years of much of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of
the North-West Frontier Province by Pakistan's own Taliban. It and its allies
have, in turn, provided a safe haven for both Afghanistan's Taliban and
al-Qaeda, which, according to the US intelligence community, has reconstituted
much of its training and planning capabilities, including its capacity to mount
a direct attack on the US "homeland".
Indeed, it was Mullen who warned in March, "If I were going to pick the next
attack to hit the United States, it would come out of the FATA," a warning that
was echoed the following month by a devastating critique by the US Congress'
investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, of what it said was
the Bush administration's failure to develop a comprehensive strategy for
dealing with the growing threat developing in the region.
Both Mullen and his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have made little
secret of their impatience to send some 10,000 more US troops - the same number
urged by Obama - to add to the 34,000 already deployed there. But, with the
White House unwilling to risk the progress it has made in curbing the violence
in Iraq and US ground forces already over-stretched, they say Afghanistan will
have to wait until more troops are withdrawn from Iraq.
Ironically, their hopes appear to rest primarily with the current Iraq
commander, General David Petraeus, who was confirmed by the senate last week as
the new head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), giving him responsibility for
Southwest Asia, as well as Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.
Petraeus, who has enjoyed extraordinary access to the White House and Bush
himself, will take over CENTCOM at the beginning of September, after he
completes a review of the situation in Iraq to determine whether he thinks it
will be possible to reduce troop levels below the 140,000 that is to be reached
by the end of this month.
Until recently, Petraeus had reportedly advised against any further withdrawals
through the end of the year. But, with his broader CENTCOM responsibilities
looming, and the continuing deterioration in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some
insiders have suggested that he has become more flexible.
If so, McCain, whose chief advantage over Obama is the perception that he is
stronger on national security and the "war on terror", may look as if he had
underestimated the threat to the east.
Indeed, in a press release issued on Monday, the McCain campaign, citing
statements by Petraeus in April and, ironically, by Osama bin Laden in 2004,
reiterated that Iraq remains "the central front in the war on terrorism".
Neither the release nor a teleconference by his foreign policy spokesmen
mentioned Sunday's attack or the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan other
than asserting that it was "an important front in the war on terror".
Obama, whose scheduled trip next week to both Iraq and Afghanistan will almost
certainly dominate news coverage in the US and thus provide him with a golden
opportunity to expound his views, may look prescient by September when Petraeus
completes his assessment.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the
neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.