WASHINGTON, April 24 (UPI) -- When U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrives in Afghanistan Friday, he will likely find himself having to defend his steadfast opposition to involving American troops in peacekeeping there.
It is something he has had to do with increasing frequency. To many observers, it seems the worst kind of hypocrisy and shortsightedness: the United States is willing to bomb Afghanistan to rid it of the Taliban and its al Qaida guests but is not willing to do the more complicated work of rebuilding a nation shredded by 20 years of civil war, foreign occupation and religious repression, and three years of drought.
They point to the danger that -- with the interim government in Kabul lacking a national army -- a security vacuum is emerging, the precondition for renewed fighting between the country's fractious warlords.
But defense officials say Rumsfeld's refusal to rush U.S. troops into the security vacuum is a conscious choice for the way ahead in Afghanistan and not simply a maneuver to avoid dulling American combat boots with the mud of peacekeeping.
And vacuum may be too strong a word, defense officials demur -- maybe "strategic void" or "creative tension" is a better descriptor.
No matter how it is said, it is drawing fire.
Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, carried a request for more peacekeepers to United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair in January, saying as many as 70,000 could be needed. There are now just 5,000 in the International Security Assistance Force and they are limited to Kabul.
ISAF is currently led by the British, who plan to had over command to Turkey. But when this will happen is unclear. Originally scheduled for March, the handover has been postponed several times by Turkey, most recently because of concerns about communications technology. They are now unlikely to take charge before July. Though the mandate of the force technically expires in June, it is likely to be renewed.
Humanitarian aid groups are also clamoring for more peacekeepers and for them to be deployed throughout the country. The stability they engender makes it possible for food and medical care to be delivered to populations hard hit by war and drought.
"I just returned from Afghanistan. Although conditions vary throughout the country, there is a growing concern about lack of security in parts of the country and a strong feeling that an expanded ISAF would help stabilize conditions. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars to liberate Afghanistan. An investment in continued security would be a small, but important, contribution to Afghanistan's stability now," wrote Refugees International president Kenneth Bacon in an April 18 letter to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bacon was Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration.
Even the Wall Street Journal -- not known as a forum for peaceniks -- published an editorial this week criticizing the Pentagon attitude toward peacekeeping: "We don't do these ankle biters; we've got to fight real wars," mocked features editor Max Boot, noting President Bush pledged to launch a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan but declined to add U.S. soldiers to the small, Kabul-based international peacekeeping force of 5,000.
"The administration attitude, shared by many at the Pentagon, seems to be, Peacekeeping? That's a job for Scandinavians and Canadians," Boot complained.
But Rumsfeld believes that a large and long-lasting peacekeeping force will only delay the work that has to be done by the factions in Afghanistan to build real stability, according to aides. Only by allowing a "creatively tense" political void to exist will the sides have the impetus to come together as one.
The strategy "is not without its risks," admitted one defense official Tuesday.
That's why dozens of American Special Forces soldiers remain embedded with the various well-armed militias sprinkled around the country -- to serve as an "early warning" force if the strategic void threatens to collapse into chaos.
"We have someone with almost every group," a military official told United Press International.
As further insurance, about 6,000 U.S. combat troops remain in Afghanistan hunting remnants of al Qaida and the Taliban. Those troops also serve as a quick reaction force to assist ISAF if fighting breaks out with Afghan factions.
Rumsfeld's reluctance is easily blamed on American arrogance -- that peacekeeping is beneath combat-ready U.S. forces and is better suited to European troops who don't have the weaponry or sophisticated communications capabilities to keep up with Americans in war.
It is a perception for which the Bush administration must take a full measure of responsibility: shedding peacekeeping duties was a central if unscripted theme of the last presidential election.
As then-Bush campaign adviser Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with the New York Times in October 2000, "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten," a reference to Bosnia and Kosovo, where U.S. soldiers comprise 15 percent of the total peacekeeping force.
"The U.S. is the only power that can handle a showdown in the Gulf, mount the kind of force that is necessary to protect Saudi Arabia, and deter a crisis in the Taiwan Strait," she said. "And extended peacekeeping detracts from our readiness for these kind of global missions."
Rumsfeld himself scoured Pentagon non-combat deployments to try to find some to jettison last year. With Europe blowing back loud and quickly after Rice's interview, Rumsfeld has so far only talked of pulling out only of the United Nations Sinai peacekeeping mission, in place since 1979 to monitor the peace between Israel and Egypt.
Rumsfeld, therefore, has had to spend the better part of his last two press briefings -- lasting a combined 105 minutes -- clarifying his views toward ISAF.
Yes, he supports the peacekeeping mission. No, he will not assign U.S. troops to the task, as they have other jobs to do in Afghanistan. No, he would not oppose the expansion of ISAF if other countries would be willing to provide manpower and cover the costs for it.
"We're already taking part in the peacekeeping force by providing logistics, intelligence, quick-reaction force support. I mean, that is big!" he exclaimed.
Lost in the exchange, according to his aides, was Rumsfeld's central point: that stability in Afghanistan will only come when the various militias and ethnic groups decide "enough is enough."
"Probably ultimately, the best way that it will be achieved is by the decisions of the interim government, the successor government, and the various armies that exist in different locations around that country. At some point, there has to be a political process that knits them together and is sufficiently balanced that they all nod and agree and say, 'Yes, security's important, and yes, we would like to do it this way,'" Rumsfeld said Monday.
They will not have the opportunity to come to that conclusion if a large foreign peacekeeping force is in place "pouring oil over the water," a defense official said.
"The theory behind expanding ISAF is that it creates stability. But if you do that, when everyone thinks everything in Afghanistan is OK, actually nothing has been resolved. Then they pull out and they recreate the vacuum," the official said.
It would be worse to create a power void than it is to allow the situation to exist now, the official argues. Right now, everyone is "on a high" because the Taliban has been kicked out of power. After a period of externally imposed peace, they may just be rested and ready to begin fighting again.
"The only way they will have any long term stability is if they do it themselves," another official said.
"You have to have an environment where you can work through the tensions and not just bury them," a third official told United Press International.
The expansion of the peace force would also diminish the impetus to build an internal Afghan security force -- one of Rumsfeld's main goals -- defense officials argue.
"There is no observable need for a security force and less impetus for a police force" if peacekeepers are present, a military official said.
Rumsfeld asserts he is putting his money where his mouth is: "I would characterize what we have done and are doing as stepping up to the plate plus. We have spent billions and billions of dollars. We have put American lives at risk. We have fashioned a coalition to help in that process. We have liberated the Afghan people from a repressive Taliban regime. And we have moved the al Qaida out of their terrorist training camps and they are no longer using that."
Moreover, the Defense Department has earmarked about $30 million to train an Afghan national army and border patrol to stabilize the country. The first of 1,800 soldiers working for the central government rather than individual warlords or tribes will begin their 10-week training program next month. Afghanistan ultimately expects a 60,000-man security force.
Rumsfeld told reporters earlier this month that U.S. soldiers and Marines, including quick reaction forces, would remain in Afghanistan until the army is trained and ready to work -- in a year or more.
"I want to do what people there want to do. The last thing you're going to hear from this podium is someone thinking they know how Afghanistan ought to organize itself. They're going to have to figure it out. They're going to have to grab a hold of that thing and do something," he said.
Rumsfeld rarely misses an opportunity to point out that some of those clamoring for more peacekeepers are not offering troops or money for the task.
"That issue is one that is being discussed for the most part by people who don't have forces," he said Monday. "We are not the only country on the face of the earth."