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Fri., Jan. 8, 2010

Trudy Rubin: New realities limit U.S. options

Over the holidays, I worked on a disturbing project. It reminded me that American power abroad is shrinking, even as threats to our security grow. It involved my Iraqi driver, Salam, who went missing months ago. I recently learned that he was in jail and have been trying to get him out.

Salam had been a tipster for U.S. forces regarding the whereabouts of Shiite militiamen who had murdered Sunnis and terrorized his neighborhood in 2007. When U.S. troops turned over security responsibility to Iraqis, the families of some of those thugs used bribes or personal government connections to seek revenge. Thus Salam wound up in jail, and our military can no longer help him get out.

My friend’s plight reminds me that our global options have shrunk after nine years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. For signs of whether we’ve grasped the new realities, here’s what to watch in 2010.

First, Iraq. The United States is scheduled to pull all combat troops out of the country by August 2010, and the remaining troops by 2011. Although violence is way down, car bombs are once again blowing up Iraqi civilians. The political situation is dismal, and corruption is endemic.

Most disturbing, just about every Iraqi friend I speak with by phone expects there will be another military coup after the Americans leave, because Iraqis are so fed up with corruption and political strife.

In 2010, we will see whether the new Iraqi political elite can wake up in time, or whether the country will slip back toward nasty, autocratic rule and barely civil relations with the United States.

Next, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where a U.S. troop surge is under way. I thought the surge was worth a try, to reverse the perception that the Taliban was winning. Only then might it become possible to persuade some Taliban commanders to switch sides and pave the way for a negotiated political solution in Afghanistan.

But developments in recent weeks underline how tough 2010 will be in the region. The double-agent suicide bomber who just killed seven CIA personnel at a base near the Pakistan border showed how sophisticated al-Qaida and its Taliban associates have become. The fact that so many CIA experts gathered in one place and permitted an informant to enter without being searched is disturbing. This sad episode feeds the image of a Taliban that can run circles around us.

There is talk of CIA revenge, meaning more Predator drone strikes at Taliban militants who hide across the border in Pakistan. But U.S. security personnel must stay focused and keep cool heads. Predator strikes are vital, but they have serious political repercussions in Pakistan, where the public opposes them. Any escalation of drone attacks must be carefully calculated, especially now that the CIA has lost critical expertise.

Regaining momentum against the Taliban will be hard enough without political calls for rash action. And it won’t help to turn the psychological tide in Afghanistan this year if some administration officials insist on publicly hyping a July 2011 exit date – giving the Taliban the sense that they need only wait us out.

Then there’s Yemen, the scene of the next potential conflict. “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen could be our next war. That’s the danger we face.” That’s what Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said he was told by a U.S. government official in Sana, Yemen.

But we’d better be wary of making Yemen our next war. The sagest advice I’ve heard from those who know Yemen is that we should continue quietly helping to train Yemenis to go after al-Qaida, as we’ve been doing for the past year. We should do this without making such a stir that we rouse Yemen’s tribes to support the militants because they oppose American intervention.

As Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, told the Toronto Star: “If we go in and make this our war, … it is suddenly going to become a war against us, and we will lose it.”

We overreached in Iraq and are struggling in Afghanistan. The last thing we need, at a time of unprecedented military and economic stress, is a third war. 2010 will be a year to reassess our reach and match it to our resources – before we dig any more holes or betray any more people who believed in us, like my friend Salam.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is

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