Commentary: Sins of omission and sins of commission haunt Bush in Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 2, 2008 

WORLD NEWS USAFGHAN-WAR 4 FT

The stony, rocky mountains of Afghanistan.

TOM PENNINGTON — Tom Pennington / MCT

In the real world, there are consequences. For every action there’s a reaction, and often even inaction triggers a reaction.

The unfolding disaster in Pakistan in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is in part a reaction to a series of inactions and actions by the Bush administration during the last six years.

Bush and Company took their eyes off the ball and became preoccupied with the sideshow of their own creation in Iraq as things went sideways and backward in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then they outsourced much of the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda to Pakistani Pres. Pervez Musharraf.

After the attacks on America on 9/11, President Bush quite rightly took aim at al Qaeda and the Taliban government in Afghanistan that was sheltering the terrorist group responsible for those attacks.

A relatively small group of U.S. special operators rented enough tribal leaders and their armies and, backed by American air power, were able to topple the Taliban government and put al Qaeda on the run. A force of only 7,000 U.S. Army and Marine troops went in to chase the bad guys.

So far, so good, or so it seemed. But the administration declared victory prematurely — a bad habit it would repeat elsewhere — and turned many of its resources and most of its attention to invading Iraq while Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership escaped into Pakistan.

Benign neglect is a dangerous policy in the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistani border, where the bleached bones of invading armies litter the mountain passes and the inhospitable deserts. Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of the British Indian Army, had this to say on the subject:

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up your remains,

Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,

And go to your God like a soldier.”

Job One was Afghanistan, but it was left undone, too unimportant a backwater for the foreign policy amateurs, neo-conservative ideologues and military dilettantes advising the president. A preemptive invasion of Iraq and the toppling of a hated dictator in the heart of the Middle East — a cheap, easy and quick cakewalk — was what we needed.

Never mind that we'd chased a bunch of fanatical terrorists into a part of Pakistan that no central government has ever conquered or controlled. We'd just throw $10 billion to Pakistan's military dictator and get him to take care of our problem, as if he didn’t have enough problems of his own dealing with Islamist fanatics.

Now both Afghanistan and Pakistan are coming unraveled, and are likely to become two more disasters added to the growing list of “things to do” in the disaster department that President George W. Bush will hand to his unlucky successor in the White House a year from now.

Afghanistan is a mess. We installed a weak central government whose writ doesn’t run much beyond the city limits of Kabul and starved it of the aid needed to repair a nation ravaged by three decades of war and civil war. The Soviet Union sent 100,000 troops to wage unlimited and barbaric war and was defeated. By contrast, we have 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and we've browbeaten our reluctant NATO allies into sending another 50,000, many of whom are under orders from home not to take risks or get anyone killed.

The Taliban guerrillas, operating from safe havens in Pakistan’s rugged frontier province, are on the march. They’ve learned from the war in Iraq, and their IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombers are taking a deadly toll. More American troops were killed in Afghanistan in 2007 than in any year since 2002.

In Pakistan, the radical madrassas are churning out recruits for the Taliban and al Qaeda faster than the allies and the Afghan army can kill them, and every time we've pushed Gen. Musharraf to send his soldiers in to clean out the sanctuaries, most of them have been killed or captured.

The administration's solution: Force Musharraf to take off his uniform and enter into an unholy alliance of sorts with the long-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose time in power was marked mainly by an explosion of corruption remarkable even in a country where corruption is endemic.

It’s no surprise that she was killed. She was buried next to her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, another smooth talking, Western-educated darling of the foreigners, who was hanged by a previous military dictator.

All this might be of little interest if only Pakistan didn’t have a cellar full of nuclear warheads. Real nuclear weapons, unlike the imaginary nuclear weapons program our leaders brandished as a reason to invade Iraq or the one they trotted out to turn up the heat on Iran — until the intelligence community pulled the rug out from under that crusade.

All of it is so complicated it must make George W. Bush’s head hurt.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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