Monday, March 02, 2009

Another Border, Another Battle

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates yesterday reiterated the administration’s commitment to see the current war through to its end.
Appearing on NBCs Face the Nation, Gates was most explicit in describing what the additional U.S. troops were prepared to do to assist indigenous security forces: training, intelligence, equipment, and other resources that might prove useful in trying to regain and hold the people’s loyalty to the central government.

Unfortunately, this may not be enough. The estimated death toll in 2007 from drug-related violence was 3,200; this nearly doubled to 6,290 in 2008, and with just two moths gone in 2009 and another 1,000 already dead, this year will most likely prove to be more bloody than the last. But the good news is that the country’s president has stepped up to the plate and is tackling these challenges.

There are today at least three countries to which the above description could be applied. Afghanistan comes to mind first, primarily because the U.S. presence there is about to increase by 17,000 troops with the possibility of an additional 13,000 after that. But Washington is learning that Hamid Karzai may not be “rolled” as easily in the future as he has been perceived to have been in the past.

Karzai’s motives are transparently political; with elections scheduled for late August, he must rid himself of the reputation of being Washington’s man in Kabul rather than the Afghan people’s representative to the world. His latest move has been to try to push forward the date for the presidential ballot from August to April. One suspects that he is anxious to get through this test before the additional 17,000 troops start arriving and begin dropping more bombs that kill more noncombatants. He may also remember Saigon 1963 when “uncooperative” rulers were deposed and killed in a bloody coup d’état.

The second country that matches the state of affairs described in the opening paragraphs is Colombia. Here the main drug is cocaine; here also is a multi-prong political insurgency dominated by two groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). In the 1990s, army-supported right-wing death squads complicated the scene by attacking suspected FARC and ELN cadres living among the people. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, with monetary backing from the United States under Plan Colombia, has been successful in weakening the ties between the drug cartels and the insurgents, which renders both groups more susceptible to government inducements – and to heavy-handed encounters. On the other hand, the government has had greater success in locating and freeing hostages that have been held by the insurgents for years.

The third country – and the one to which Secretary Gates was referring – is Mexico. According to press reports, the drug cartels have moved operations close to the U.S.-Mexican border and are vying with each other for control of the border towns – and not just south of the border. Mexican President Felipe Calderone has moved 2,000 Mexican army troops to the border communities to reinforce Mexican police who are outnumbered and out-gunned by the cartels.

Secretary Gates also referred to operations on the north side of the border in which U.S. law enforcement officials arrested 750 people who are alleged to be working for the cartels.

This is where I begin to be concerned about Northern Command and the possible use of the permanently assigned Brigade Combat Team. With Mexico using its army in what is effectively ground combat with the cartels, the temptation to do the same in the U.S. is apt to grow.

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