With most of the media’s coverage of the war against terror focusing largely on Iraq since 2003, the ongoing military conflict in Afghanistan has gone largely unreported by the national press. As a result, the war in Afghanistan has been all but forgotten by many Americans. In fact, some have come to refer to the Afghanistan conflict as the “forgotten war.”
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Capitol Hill to discuss the issues facing the Pentagon this year. In the process, he reminded our country that the war in Afghanistan has not been forgotten, nor will it soon be over. During testimony before one of the committees on which I serve, the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary Gates outlined the serious challenges remaining in Afghanistan. His comments served as a somber reminder to all Americans that the road ahead in Afghanistan is not an easy one, and that the challenges posed there may take years to overcome.
NEW MILITARY FOCUS
In his testimony, Secretary Gates left little doubt that the conflict in Afghanistan is now our greatest military challenge. Vast security improvements in Iraq have led extremists to return their attention to Afghanistan, making the country an increasingly crucial front in the war against al Qaeda and radical Islam.
Considering its geographic location, failure in Afghanistan would have serious implications for our national security. Should the Afghan government collapse and the country fall back into the hands of the Taliban or other extremists, terrorists would not only have a safe haven to operate from, they would also have control of a country with dangerous proximity to an unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Realizing the serious implications of failure in Afghanistan, Secretary Gates outlined the plan to send another 10,000 to 12,000 troops to the country by late spring or mid-summer of this year. These troops would be in addition to the 36,000 troops we already have in Afghanistan. As our military continues to draw down from Iraq, more of our troops will be headed to Afghanistan, with military commanders calling for a total of 60,000 American troops.
In discussing the challenges in Afghanistan, Secretary Gates described a complex set of problems that have helped the Taliban resurgence, the least of which is the country’s high level of poverty. With unemployment at 40 percent, Afghanistan’s annual gross domestic product per capita is estimated at a mere $800, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. In contrast, the Iraqi GDP per capita is estimated at $4,000.
These economic conditions, which Secretary Gates referred to as a “crushing poverty,” have lead to an increased level of corruption amongst Afghan government and security forces, as well as a flourishing opium trade as poor farmers scrap traditional food crops in favor of the more profitable drug. According to the Heritage Foundation, Afghanistan’s opium crop provides millions of dollars for the Taliban to finance “day fighters” – unemployed young men who will fight for $20 per day.
These challenges, along with a resilient insurgency and imperfect coordination between other nations and international organizations involved in the effort, amount to a difficult path forward in Afghanistan.
The challenges in Afghanistan are much different than those we face in Iraq, meaning our goals should be more realistically defined. As Secretary Gates correctly stated, America’s national security interests will be well served by an Afghanistan that does not provide a safe haven for terrorists. This goal will require a multi-year military and, more importantly, economic effort. It will be a difficult undertaking, but with our national security at risk, America cannot afford to let Afghanistan fall back into terrorist control.