Thursday, April 15, 2004

At a crossroad

During the Second Punic War, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal had run roughshod over the Romans. He had won two major battles at Lake Trasimene and Cannae, slaughtering over 100,000 Roman soldiers. He controlled most of the countryside of the Italian peninsula. And yet he was losing the war. He couldn't enter Rome or any major city. The Roman navy had blockaded his supply lines. He stood on the brink of conquering the Roman Empire. But in the end, he failed. As one of his commanders, Maharbal, said: "You know how to win a victory, but not how to use it."

George W. Bush has won two major victories over terrorism and destabilizing governments in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda is a weakened force. Afghanistan is no longer a base for their training camps or leaders. Iraq has been purged of a homicidal dictatorship, and democratic elections are months away. And yet, are we actually closer to victory in these two lands? Or do we face the potential of letting victory slip through our fingers, as Hannibal did in Italy?

The recent violence in Fallujah and Najaf, though local in nature, points to a belief amongst ex-Baathists and Saddam supporters that they believe they can get the US to leave Iraq by making the casualty count too high for the American public. And although the US has responded in attacks that have to casualty count in our favor by 10-1, this has borne a few seedlings of bitter fruit. The senior drunken senator from Massachusetts said Iraq is "Bush's Vietnam." As BS as that statement is, there is nothing that could demoralize our troops more and give hope to the enemy than raising the spectre of that conflict.

The problem is that, in response to these attacks, the Bush Administration is not sending in more troops. They aren't creating new divisions in the Army to help pacify this region and allow other troops to rotate out. They are instead keeping 20,000 troops past their rotation date. This is not good policy. Keeping these troops on the front lines is dangerous, both to themselves and to others. You rotate troops to keep your personnel fresh and alert, and to keep morale high. This move by Rumsfeld and Bush accomplishes none of these things.

And in Afghanistan, we are still no closer to capturing bin Laden. He and his lieutenants continue to evade us. The internal government of Afghanistan is still unstable. Regional warlords, including some who supported to Taliban, still rule pockets of Afghanistan. In part, this is because we got into another conflict without wrapping up the more important one first.

Make no mistake, Iraq needed to be dealt with. But only AFTER we had finished with Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. We could have used those 110,000 troops and billions of dollars to seal off the Pakistani-Afghan border and go on massive sweeps into the Hindu Kush, where bin Laden is most likely hiding. We could have used that money to solidify the Afghani government, buy off some warlords, isolate others, build a new Afghani army and improve the local infrastructure. Then, with that victory behind us, we could focus our full attention on Iraq.

Instead, we are fighting two conflicts at half-strength or less. And the maddening part is that the Bush Administration refuses to acknowledge that fact. They pretend that this is akin to the invasion of Grenada. How can they not send in more troops? Do we need all those troops in Germany right now? This is lazy arrogance from the Administration, something that is all too common in their day-to-day business.

We stand at an important crossroad. We are on the verge of pacifying two nations in the most volatile region of the world. But can Bush do it? Or will his willful arrogance let the opportunity slip through his fingers? He has won his victory. The question is, does he know how to use it?

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