Commentary: Back to the future in the war on terror

The events of this week served to underline the fact that the war on terrorism was always really about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that President George W. Bush's splendid little adventure in Iraq was always a sideshow, even though it siphoned off the biggest chunk of manpower and resources.

The president and his would-be Republican successor, Sen. John McCain, had barely completed even one Iraq victory lap singing hosannas to the surge when they were obliged to begin thinking and talking about how they're going to shore up a failing policy in Afghanistan.

They'd do well, as would McCain's opposite number, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, to give some serious thought to what's happening, or not happening, as the case may be, in neighboring Pakistan.

Completing the trifecta of perfect storms, Obama dropped by Baghdad for a chat with Iraqi and American military and civilian leaders. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki promptly invited U.S. forces in his country to leave, sounding quite comfortable with Obama's plan to remove the last American combat troops within 16 months of his taking office on January 20, 2009.

American military leaders have made it quite clear that any build-up of American troops in Afghanistan will be dependent on the removal of an equivalent number of troops from Iraq — on virtually a one-for-one basis.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are pushing hard for reinforcements to fight a resurgent Taliban guerrilla force in southern Afghanistan. American casualties in Afghanistan are climbing swiftly even as they've been dropping in Iraq.

The administration's hopes that our NATO allies would sharply increase the number of their troops in Afghanistan and devote more of them to fighting the bigger, bolder and more dangerous Taliban forces have gone a glimmering.

Instead, we're treated to the sight of American troops patrolling through endless fields of opium poppies that seemingly are the only cash crop in Afghanistan, and being careful not to step on the plants.

The poppy crop has given Afghanistan the dubious honor of having again become the world's biggest exporter of opium and its deadly derivative, heroin. We have neither the manpower nor the money to do much about that except to ignore it on pain of widening the rebellion and swelling the ranks of the Taliban if we resume opium eradication efforts.

Obama says he'd send two new combat brigades (approximately 3,000 troops in each brigade) to Afghanistan. McCain tried to trump that by suggesting that he'd send three brigades. President Bush in recent months has dispatched a single Marine brigade to bring the total number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to around 30,000.

The president and his merry band were huddling to chew over the few and unpalatable (to them) options: Announce an Afghanistan surge of two to four more combat brigades accompanied by the withdrawal of a similar number of brigades from Iraq, perhaps by not replacing departing units as they leave.

But if you believe, as the administration and McCain seem to, that the surge "worked" and Iraqi forces are ready to take over, why stop there? (My colleague Nancy Youssef's recent experience embedded with an Iraqi unit raises some questions about the latter proposition.)

There's an invitation on the table to negotiate a timetable for an American withdrawal from Iraq. Why not seize it with whoops and cheers and put in place a timetable that would withdraw U.S. combat troops at the rate of one brigade per month until all that remains are small groups of U.S. advisers and trainers with the Iraqi Army and police, and a small ready reaction force to protect them and the huge new American Embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone?

How many more American soldiers are needed to secure Afghanistan? How many additional billions of dollars are needed to repair and build roads and infrastructure? How much to shore up the sagging fortunes of the Afghan central government, whose writ and reach barely extends beyond the city limits of Kabul?

The answer, in all cases, is a lot. A lot of American troops and a wad of American money — and don't count on NATO to pick up any of the slack. Even that may not be enough, of course, so long as neighboring Pakistan remains a safe haven, training and recruiting ground for Islamic militants.

An outgoing American commander said it was his opinion that a total force of more than 400,000 troops — Afghan Army, U.S. forces and NATO troops — would be needed to secure Afghanistan. American and NATO forces total around 50,000. The Afghan Army and national police numbered fewer than 100,000 at the end of 2007.

The late and unlamented Soviet Union sent more than 200,000 soldiers into Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Although they treated all of the country as a free fire zone and forced millions of refugees across the border into Pakistan, in the end the Soviet Army was defeated and retreated.

It's way past time to begin withdrawing from Iraq and begin reinforcing Afghanistan and find some other way of dealing with Pakistan besides throwing money into the air in Islamabad and hoping that a few million dollars land in the right places.

You've done a heckuva job there, George. Pat yourself on the back, and give Dick a hug while you're at it.