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Grand illusion
Media General News Service


June 29, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The cruel history of the Iraq war is that each moment of optimism and success by allied forces is quickly dwarfed by the enormity of the challenge in the region.

Trouble knocked almost the moment that word leaked that substantial withdrawals were being planned next year. Two close U.S. allies in the region, Afghanistan and Pakistan, suddenly looked to be in substantial trouble in their war against terrorists, and American commanders warned that U.S. forces would be stuck in western Iraq for a very long time because of the ferocity of the fighting there.

So it goes in this war. A shock and awe victory is followed by roadside bombs and a vicious insurgency of unexpected duration. The capture of Saddam Hussein is followed by a bloody Sunni-Shiite religious conflict, with allied forces caught in between.

This month, Iraqi al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed and it turned the administration's mood overnight from despondency to ebullience. President Bush flew to Baghdad and, on his return, majorities in Congress draped him with garlands of defeated antiwar amendments.

Supporters declared Iraq the central battleground in the war against the Islamic "jihadists" who had brought terror and the 9/11 catastrophe to Western civilization.

But reality quickly returned. NATO may now be on the verge of botching its first out-of-area assignment - in Afghanistan. The U.S.-backed president of that war-ravaged, divided country, Hamid Karzai, is in danger of falling.

Karzai, although popular in the West, is losing his grip on power and may be forced from office because of corruption and a growing insurgency, The Washington Post reported from Kabul.

The inability of the United States and its NATO allies in over three years to organize an effective counter-insurgency program or to do something to provide an alternative crop for opium farmers has been one of the least publicized failures of the war against terrorism. But an organization created 57 years ago to stop communist expansionism in Europe was probably a poor choice to fight a narco-terrorist war in the first place.

Equally worrisome is Pakistan. There are said to be 80,000 Pakistan troops involved in the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda forces hidden out in the rugged, mountainous border with Afghanistan. Yet a fraction of that number of U.S. forces on the Afghan side of the border is doing most of the fighting against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Pakistan more and more has gone on the defensive and become a safe haven for the terrorists, This week, six Pakistan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack on a military checkpoint in North Waziristan in an area that is believed the hiding place for Osama bin Laden.

It appears that U.S. troops in Afghanistan, who were supposed to have been relieved by NATO troops from Britain, the Netherlands and Canada this year, will be stuck there for quite a while longer.

And despite the optimistic reports out of Iraq, commanders in western Iraq are quoted as saying withdrawal won't be possible in vast, unstable stretches of that country, such as Anbar province.

Mission creep could turn Americans against this war.

When the Bush administration said it was invading because Saddam Hussein possessed dangerous weapons of mass destruction, there was overwhelming support.

Later on, that turned out not to be true. The mission shifted to regime change and the election of a new democratic government in Iraq, protected by U.S. troops. Although there was little legal justification for an invasion, the public warmed to the idea.

Now that a new government is in place, the president and his supporters in Congress speak more often of a broader and more extensive cause - the fight against the imposition of an Islamic "caliphate" that threatens Western civilization and the state of Israel. This mission could keep American forces anchored in Iraq and Afghanistan for many more years.

Whether that kind of mission will be supported by voters, taxpayers and the moral center of the American public remains to be seen.

A Washington Post/ABC poll this week showed that, even though Bush's approval has begun to creep upward, 47 percent now want some kind of deadline to get out of Iraq.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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