While President Bush and Congress argue over Iraq, experts warn that Afghanistan could slip back into chaos.
U.S. commanders are bracing for a spring offensive by Taliban insurgents that'll test the staying power of the fragile U.S.-backed Afghan government.
In a sign of the administration's concern, President Bush will deliver a speech Thursday highlighting plans for a dramatic increase in military and economic aid, but skeptics fear that the renewed focus on Afghanistan may be too little and too late.
350 (AP Photo/xxxxx)
"We have our finger in the dike because our resources and attention were turned toward Iraq," said Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., a former Navy admiral who served in both conflicts. "This is the real front in the war on terrorism. It's a daunting task, more daunting than it had to be because we let the opportunity almost slip away."
Administration officials and U.S. military commanders agree that Afghanistan is grappling with potentially crippling challenges. Five years after U.S. troops ousted the Taliban regime and its al-Qaida allies in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks, Afghanistan is still embroiled in war, terrorism, drug trafficking and instability.
The government of President Hamid Karzai has a shaky hold on power; the Taliban and al-Qaida continue to launch attacks from their haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border; and opium production has increased dramatically. Attacks by Islamic extremists spiked last year, making 2006 the deadliest year since the U.S. invasion.
"A point could be reached at which the government of Afghanistan becomes irrelevant to its people, and the goal of establishing a democratic, moderate, self-sustaining state could be lost forever," Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Government officials and outside experts agree that the biggest threat isn't a Taliban military takeover, it's the possibility that the Karzai government could collapse and leave a void for Islamic extremists.
"The Taliban are not going to roll on a tank column into Kabul. They are weak militarily. But the government is very weak politically. Even some small symbolic victories by the Taliban could lead to a political crisis," said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University.
The crucial test could come this spring as the thaw opens snow-packed mountain passes. This year, U.S. officials want to meet the annual Taliban offensive with their own, to shore up Karzai's government.
Bush has asked Congress for $6.7 billion in emergency funding to help train Afghan security forces and rebuild the country, the first installment in a $10.6 billion package for Afghanistan over the next two years.
Until now, U.S. aid to Afghanistan has averaged less than $3 billion a year.
The Pentagon also plans to add about 3,200 more troops by delaying the planned departure of units that had been scheduled to come home. Administration officials are also pressuring NATO allies and Pakistan to do more to help protect the fledgling Afghan government.
The United States has about 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, with about 16,000 assigned to a multinational NATO force. U.S. allies have contributed about 20,000 troops, but many of them are under restrictions that prevent combat operations.
The president will promote his plans Thursday to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
"We're taking a comprehensive approach. It's a question of building the security, but also building the government and building the economy," said Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for the region.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources