One, Two, Many Afghanistans

As the United States waded ever deeper into Indochina in the 1960s, the Argentine revolutionary, Che Guevara, called for "one, two, many Vietnams" to bog down the superpower in hopeless conflicts all over the Third World.

While Guevara's contribution to the effort (his futile attempt to launch an insurgency in Bolivia) was quickly put down at the cost of his own life, his dream may quickly become a reality almost 40 years later as a result of President George W. Bush's "war against terrorism."

The Bush administration is committing U.S. military forces and advisers to global hotspots with which it has virtually no history or experience at a dizzying pace. Even perennially deferential Democrats have begun to ask questions.

"I think there is expansion without at least a clear direction," noted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, in quiet understatement.

"If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that's going to keep us going beyond Doomsday," exclaimed, somewhat less politely, Senator Robert Byrd during testimony by the arch-interventionist Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz Wednesday.

"How long can we stand this kind of pressure on our Treasury?" Byrd asked, pointing to the 48-billion-dollar increase the administration wants in military spending next year.

While the financial costs of Washington's new commitments are still being tallied, the costs in U.S. lives -- not to mention Afghans -- are already adding up. Just when most Americans thought the war in Afghanistan had already ended, eight U.S. soldiers were killed this week in the early stages of a major battle that continues to rage in the frozen heights near Gardez along the Pakistani border.

Ten other U.S. servicemen were killed last month in a helicopter crash in the southern Philippines even as the first batch of at least 150 Special Operations Forces (SOF) troops arrived in Philippines to help its army subdue a small Muslim insurgency whose ties to Al Qaeda are uncertain at best. In the meantime, the Pentagon confirmed plans to send another 100 to 200 military advisers to the faction-ridden former Soviet state of Georgia and several hundred more to Yemen to help those governments root out what is being termed "terrorism" on their territory.

Word of those new deployments came just days after Washington's chief envoy to Afghanistan announced that some of the 4,000 U.S. troops and military advisers in the country charged with hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants soon might be sent, instead, to areas where increased tensions between rival warlords have boiled over into fighting.

Even as he spoke, a U.S. general with a contingent of advisers arrived in Kabul to begin a two-year process of building, training, and equipping a multi-ethnic national army of at least 30,000 soldiers.

At the same time, the administration reaffirmed its request for 98 million dollars to train, equip, and provide surveillance for new battalions in Colombia to protect an 800-kilometre oil pipeline owned by California-based Occidental Petroleum Company despite the collapse of a three-year peace process between insurgents and the government.

Washington, which already has 250 military personnel in the country, promised to increase and expedite aid and intelligence to Bogota in anticipation of an intensified civil war there.

For good measure, the administration also announced it would consider taking direct action to help free any U.S. citizen held hostage overseas, expanding a previously policy that required such reviews only when U.S. officials were kidnapped or abducted.

Meanwhile, renewed speculation over U.S. intentions toward Iraq rose sharply here this week amid preparations for Vice President Dick Cheney's upcoming tour of U.S. allies in the Middle East, the Gulf, and Turkey.

In order to persuade the region's nervous leaders of the seriousness and long-term nature of Washington's commitment, the betting here is that Cheney will pledge as many as 250,000 U.S. ground troops, as well as its formidable firepower, to ousting President Saddam Hussein and preventing civil war or the break-up of Iraq in the aftermath.

"I only just learned five months ago that there were Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Pashtuns in Afghanistan," one Congressional aide who works on foreign policy issues told IPS.

"I hadn't given a moment's thought to Georgia in the past year, and now I find out that we're sending 200 military advisers to some place called the Pankisi Gorge, right on the border with Chechnya!"

All of this came within a breathless ten days during which the administration's global military commitments seemed to increase by the hour.

They came on top of several months of an intense military campaign in Afghanistan during which Washington established access to military bases throughout Central Asia and even began building what appears intended as a permanent base of its own near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

"We need a debate in this country, because there's a real possibility (that) we're really overplaying our hands," Ivo Daalder, an analyst at the Brookings Institution and formerly with the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, told the Los Angeles Times this week.

The precipitous manner in which all of these new commitments have been made appears to violate virtually every tenet of the basic creed that Republicans have urged on presidents since the U.S. military misadventures Vietnam, Lebanon in the 1980s, and Somalia in 1992-93.

Legislation passed by the Republican-dominated Congress in the mid-1990s, and seemingly endorsed by Bush during his election campaign, called for presidents to deploy U.S. forces only when a vital national interest was at stake, the objectives were clear and achievable, and there was an identifiable "exit strategy" which would permit Washington to withdraw its forces at little cost in U.S. blood, treasure, or pride.

But in Bush's "war against terrorism," all of that accumulated wisdom appears to have been cast aside. As Byrd put it Wednesday, "we seem to be good at developing entrance strategies, not so good at developing exit strategies."

Even Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, who, as much as any single military man, has been identified with the argument that clear and achievable aims and exit strategies are the indispensable pre-conditions for deploying U.S. military forces abroad, seems to have surrendered his long-held views to the current war.

Asked to define victory in the war, Powell told Congress last month that "it can be identified by reaching a state where people are no longer afraid of terrorist activities, where they can go about their lives not concerned about the kinds of things that happened on the 11th of September or the kinds of car bombings that take place in Jerusalem or the kinds of terrorism that (are) meted out by (left-wing guerrillas) in Colombia."

"It will take us a long time to reach that state," he noted.

Jim Lobe writes on international affairs for Inter Press Service, Oneworld.net, and Foreign Policy in Focus.

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