Is defeat now an option?

Posted: Jun 27, 2006 12:01 AM

"There is an awful feeling that everything is lurching downward," the Western diplomat told The Washington Post.

"Nearly five years on, there is no rule of law. ... The Afghans know it is all a charade, and they see us as not only complicit, but actively involved. You cannot fight a terror war and build a weak state at the same time, and it was a terrible mistake to think we could." What that disconsolate diplomat is saying is that America is losing the Afghan war.

According to the Post report, President Hamid Karzai is losing the confidence of his people and our European allies. The Taliban dominates the southeast of the country at night and is fighting in the largest units it has deployed since the fall of the regime in 2001. Anti-Americanism is spreading. A fatal accident, involving a U.S. military vehicle, caused anti-American riots across the capital.

NATO forces, who are to take over from the Americans in the embattled provinces, are likely to begin taking causalities as soon as they arrive. Meanwhile, the narcotics traffickers are bolder than ever.

In Iraq, the good news -- Zarqawi's death, completion of the Cabinet -- is old news. Sen. Richard Lugar describes present conditions as grim: "Given current events in Baghdad ... quite apart from Anbar province, the violence is horrific."

Lugar was reacting to reports that the U.S. commander, Gen. George Casey, has presented a plan to the Pentagon to substantially reduce U.S. troop levels by year's end and cut U.S. combat brigades in Iraq from today's 14, to five or six by the end of 2007.

But, as there is no sign the insurgency is defeated, and daily evidence it is stronger than ever, how do we propose to draw down U.S. forces from the 127,000 there, without risking disaster?

The new Baghdad government is also proposing an amnesty to the insurgents, though not al-Qaida or the Saddamites. But if this means a free pass into politics for insurgents who have killed U.S. soldiers, America will react with rage -- and demand an even earlier withdrawal.

Neither in Afghanistan or Iraq does there seem to be either a strategic plan to defeat the enemy and build an enduring democracy, or adequate U.S. and allied forces to ensure such a victory.

The question then could not be more critical. If victory in Iraq and Afghanistan is the Bush goal, why does he not tell the nation of the sacrifices victory clearly requires -- an indefinite commitment of far more U.S. troops than we have yet sent into either conflict?

If Bush is not willing to lay it out, or to pay that price, and the Casey plan is the Bush plan, the president and the country had best brace themselves for the possibility of defeat on one or both fronts before the end of the Bush term. For that is where we are headed.

It needs to be stated coldly. The Casey plan, for a drawdown of over half of all U.S. combat brigades in Iraq in 18 months, risks an insurgent triumph, chaos and civil war, ethnic cleansing and a Baghdad that is turned into a hellish no man's land.

A decision not to ramp up U.S. military forces in Afghanistan risks defeat there, as well. For no NATO force we send can match U.S. forces in combat effectiveness, and the Taliban resistance has grown to present levels -- the most impressive in five years -- in the teeth of attacks by U.S. forces now giving way to Europeans.

A U.S. defeat in either country would result in a bloodbath for those who sided with the Americans. It happened in Vietnam and Cambodia. If we lose these wars, it will happen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Perhaps the above is too pessimistic. But if Americans, with the finest fighting forces on earth, have not been able to defeat the Iraqi insurgency, what makes us believe Iraqis trained by Americans will succeed where we failed? And if the Taliban, after five years of U.S. air strikes and Special Forces search-and-destroy missions, are stronger than ever, who thinks that NATO units that have never seen combat can take them down? President Bush needs to face the truth, and tell us the truth

We may be at a crossroads in both Iran and Afghanistan, where he has three choices: Ratchet up the U.S. troop investment to stave off defeat. Endure in what appears to be another "no-win war." Cut America's losses and get out, risking strategic disaster.

The Democratic Party, having voted to begin redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq, has taken its stand: end U.S. involvement, now or soon. If Bush, too, has decided to depart, America had best prepare for the strategic consequences abroad and the political consequences at home of another lost war for the United States.