For all of the challenges in Iraq right now, we cannot lose track of the fact that it is but one piece of a much larger, more complicated struggle.  We must also understand both our limited ability to force a given outcome in Iraqi efforts to forge a post-Saddam government, and the reality that many parts of that power struggle do not relate directly to our own larger struggle against al-Qaida and groups that support their violent totalitarian ideology.

Al-Qaida and related groups remain the chief threat to our national security.  They operate in Iraq, but also in dozens of other countries in the world, especially along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  We should pursue al-Qaida in Iraq, but doing so does not require such a massive occupation force, nor does it require us to choose sides in that nation’s power struggle, particularly when some of the sides we have chosen maintain such close ties with Iran or otherwise have goals and objectives contrary to U.S. interests.  Our insistence on doing so puts our national defense strategy badly out of balance at a time when we desperately need resources devoted to Iraq to pursue terrorists across the globe.

Our efforts in Afghanistan starkly illustrate the cost of our over-commitment in Iraq.  Afghanistan is geographically larger than Iraq and more populous.  It sits between a belligerent Iran and a precarious Pakistan.  Terrorist attacks were up sharply last year and continue to buffet the young government.  Al-Qaida and their Taliban allies utilize a safe haven on the border with Pakistan, and recent, painful experience taught us the perils of conceding ground to these groups that can be used as a headquarters and launch pad for attacks against our interests.  And yet, we have roughly six times the troops in Iraq as in Afghanistan.  We have spent a dismal 31 cents in Afghanistan and all other Operation Enduring Freedom countries combined for every dollar spent in Iraq for diplomatic and foreign aid purposes. 

I just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan that reinforced my conviction that this region of the world is the central front in our war against al-Qaida, and we have under-resourced in large part because of our Iraq occupation.  Our military and civilian leaders both tell me we need more troops and more money for development and aid assistance in Afghanistan.  In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen told us bluntly: "In Afghanistan, we do what we can; in Iraq, we do what we must."

Given these and other costs – the degradation of our military readiness and the continued toll in lives and funds, for example – we cannot afford to let our Iraq occupation continue to drain needed resources from pivotal fronts in our fight against the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks.

The United States must be realistic about our ability to force a given outcome in Iraq.  That realism should lead us to more tightly focus our mission on pursuing and disrupting al-Qaida.  A clearer focus will allow us to responsibly redeploy our troops, which will in turn allow us to properly balance the demands of other fronts in our battle against global terrorist networks.