Ever since President Bush's State of the Union "axis of evil" speech in January, administration hawks have seemed more keen on marching on Baghdad than on finishing the job in Afghanistan.
They clearly feel that the U.S. has shown the world its might, that Afghanistan has proved no Vietnam-like quagmire at all, but rather a pushover for American technology in the air and Afghan proxies on the ground. To the hard-liners on Bush's team, and their cheering section in the conservative press, it's "One down, three (or more) to go."
Except, of course, the war in Afghanistan turns out to be far from finished, as Bush officials themselves point out in more sober moments. Both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain on the loose or unaccounted for; unknown numbers of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters escaped the assault on the Tora Bora caves; Afghanistan's new, U.S.-backed provisional government has only the most tenuous hold on the country beyond the capital; warlords of uncertain loyalty and dubious human rights records are reasserting their regional power.
If there were any doubts that Afghanistan remained a volatile keg of unfinished business, they were erased by the fierce battle that erupted this weekend in the nation's eastern mountains. There, by the Pakistan border, in an area called the Shah-e-Kot valley, some significant force of al-Qaida and Taliban troops had regrouped. The U.S. has committed its largest ground force of the war to an assault on this enemy concentration and suffered its heaviest casualties -- eight combat deaths -- to date.
Though no one in the Bush administration seems willing to admit past error, it's obvious that this operation -- code-named Anaconda, after the snake that encircles and crushes its prey -- was designed with the lessons of Tora Bora in mind. In that December campaign, U.S. forces kept to the skies and left the ground fighting to Afghan allies, and much of the enemy apparently managed to escape. This time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals are sending a tougher message of "surrender or die," and they are delivering it via American troops on the ground.
The battle is only days old, and it would be premature and unwise to resurrect the Vietnam comparison (even if Gen. Tommy Franks did by accident say "Vietnam" when he meant "Afghanistan" during a Monday briefing). But it's certainly not premature to point out that the new fighting in Afghanistan should bump the "On to Baghdad" bandwagon into the slow lane. Finishing up the war in Afghanistan won't happen overnight. And it will take time and money (more money than the Bush administration has so far been willing to commit) to make sure the nation gets off to a better restart today than it got the last time a President Bush was in office and Afghans were trying some nation-building after a civil war.
Our generals seem to understand this; they, more than anyone, know that nobody ever fights a two- or three-front war if they have any choice in the matter. But the Bush team's hawkish wing (which increasingly seems like the entire administration) and its ideological allies are acting positively irked at this new distraction from what has long been their chief goal -- "getting" Saddam and thereby redeeming the failure of George Bush I. These hawks -- including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former CIA director James Woolsey and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol -- have been so eager to get moving against Iraq that they've been willing to ignore the fact that the war in Afghanistan hasn't exactly been wrapped up. They're our very own axis of impatience.
At its extreme, as represented by the frothers over at the National Review, this perspective becomes almost caricatured in its demand that the U.S. immediately take action to rid the world of all "evil," everywhere, now. In a National Review column titled "Iran and the Axis of Evil: Why We Can't Lose Any More Ground," Michael Ledeen complains about the Bush White House's "sheepish silence" about repression in Iran since Bush first identified that nation as an Evil Axite.
Ledeen's argument goes like this: Bush said Iran was evil but now he's not doing anything about it, and that makes him look weak -- or, as Andrew Sullivan approvingly wrote, "the state of the union speech is in danger of sounding hollow if we don't back it up with real action on Iran." "Faster, please," demands Ledeen. "We're losing ground."
What a gambit! First, conservative ideologues get their colleagues on the White House speechwriting team to insert the "axis of evil" phrase into the president's speech, and to list three countries that each boast a variety of sins but that don't share any particular axis at all. Then, when Bush gets distracted by little things like pitched battles in Afghanistan, they turn around and say, "Mr. President, you'd better move fast against the Trio of Evil or you'll lose credibility!" It's a rhetorical squeeze play -- the right's very own Operation Anaconda.