JOHN KERRY/Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2006
As we marked the fifth anniversary of the worst attack on American soil, there was enormous discussion of the lessons of 9/11. But after the bagpipes stopped, and news coverage turned to other issues, perhaps the first lesson of that day seemed quickly forgotten: We cannot allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist stronghold and a staging ground for attacks on America.
If Washington seems to have forgotten Afghanistan, it is clear the Taliban and al Qaeda have not. Less than five years after American troops masterfully toppled the Taliban, the disastrous diversion in Iraq has allowed these radicals the chance to rise again. Time is running out to reverse an unfolding disaster in the war we were right to fight after 9/11.
Funded largely by a flourishing opium trade, a resurgent Taliban effectively controls entire swathes of southern Afghanistan. Roadside bomb attacks have more than doubled this year, and suicide attacks have more than tripled. Britain's commander in Afghanistan recently said that "the intensity and ferocity of the fighting is far greater than in Iraq on a daily basis."
Al Qaeda is again taking advantage: The recent plot to blow up U.S.-bound jets was reportedly masterminded by an al Qaeda affiliate operating from Afghanistan. The same killers who attacked us on 9/11 are still plotting against America -- and they're still holed up in Afghanistan. President Karzai put it simply: "The same enemies that blew up themselves in . . . the twin towers in America are still around." And while President Bush frequently quotes Ayman al-Zawahiri, he hasn't mentioned that on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 al Qaeda's No. 2 described the situation in Afghanistan as "very good."
When did denying al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan cease to be an urgent American priority? Somehow, we ended up with seven times more troops in Iraq -- which even the administration now admits had nothing to do with 9/11 -- than in Afghanistan, where the killers still roam free. Even as the president claimed we are on the offensive against terrorists, Gen. James Jones, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, made an urgent plea for more troops to fight the Taliban. President Karzai has also appealed for more troops and support, and on my trip to Afghanistan this year, he stressed to me the importance of a robust American troop presence. And on Sept. 11 this year, U.S. Col. Michael Harrison noted "more troops would be welcome" in the hunt for bin Laden and his henchmen.
Quite simply, we must change course -- starting with the immediate deployment of at least 5,000 additional U.S. troops. That includes more special forces to defeat the Taliban, more civil affairs troops to bolster the promising Provisional Reconstruction Teams, more infantry to prevent Taliban infiltration from Pakistan, and more clandestine intelligence units to hunt al Qaeda on both sides of the border. That also means more predator drones to provide real-time intelligence, more helicopters and transport aircraft to allow rapid deployment, and more heavy combat equipment to overpower enemy forces.
We must also redouble our reconstruction efforts. The Taliban's resurgence comes as no surprise when 40% of the population is unemployed and 90% lack regular electricity. As Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry recently said, "wherever the road ends, that's where the Taliban starts." That's why our generals are asking for more reconstruction funds to win over the local population. Yet this administration has appropriated nearly four times more in reconstruction funds for Iraq than Afghanistan -- and actually cut Afghan aid by 30% this year. We need to substantially increase development aid and take advantage of the improved security provided by additional troops to ensure that reconstruction efforts reach the remote villages where the Taliban finds support. We must ensure that the elected government in Kabul, helped by the U.S. -- not the Taliban, helped by al Qaeda -- rebuilds Afghanistan.
This is especially important to counter the opium trade, which increased 50% last year and now funds insurgents, warlords and terrorists world-wide. We must provide alternative livelihoods for opium farmers and spur the judicial reforms necessary to prevent drug lords from acting with impunity. We cannot -- and should not -- do this alone. Asked which of the 26 countries in the alliance were dragging their feet in Afghanistan, Gen. Jones replied, "All of them." Where allies have pledged troops and assistance, they must follow through. But we must lead by example. That's how you win hearts and minds, and show the world the true face of America -- and that's how you win the war on terror.
Finally, we must use economic leverage to ensure the Taliban no longer finds sanctuary and recruits in Pakistan. Last year we gave Pakistan only $300 million in economic support, about what we spend in a day in Iraq. We need to give more, in development funds earmarked for specific projects that help undermine radicals, and demand more in return from the Musharraf government. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. The U.S. must not cut and run from the real front line in the war on terror. We must recommit to victory in Afghanistan.
Mr. Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, was the 2004 Democratic nominee for president.