by Victor Davis Hanson
Most Americans in 2003 thought that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were complementary theaters in the wider war on radical Islamic terrorism and the authoritarian Middle East regimes that aided and abetted it. The anti-Iraq War left agreed that the two fronts were connected — but in an antithetical, rather than a symbiotic, way. For them, the illegitimate, unilateral war in Iraq came at the expense of the lawful multilateral struggle in Afghanistan. Yet a brief review of the two wars not only suggests that such a view is mistaken, but also that it is disingenuous — especially the trope of damning the American effort in Iraq by claiming that, in addition to its other moral and strategic deficits, it caused us to “take our eye off” Afghanistan.
It is worth remembering that when the United States invaded Afghanistan on October 6, 2001, many on the left forecast immediate doom. The craggy peaks of the Hindu Kush were too high. The weather was too icy. With Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination by al Qaeda, the Northern Alliance would surely not fight effectively. The same fate that had defeated both past British and Russian imperial occupiers lay in wait for us. New York Times writer R. W. Apple summed up such liberal unease — shortly before the rout of the Taliban — when he declared the first weeks of war in Afghanistan had already produced a hopeless Vietnam-like debacle.
But Afghanistan proved to be the quagmire that wasn’t. The unexpectedly sudden defeat of the Taliban, coupled with the rapid establishment of an elected Karzai government, quieted anti-war opposition for a time — even as fleeing Islamic terrorists began regrouping with near impunity across the border in Pakistan. In the autumn of 2002, about a year after the Taliban’s fall, success in Afghanistan was an attractive argument for more action, not more caution. Surprised by the quick victory of American arms in Afghanistan — but continually worried about being seen as soft on national security amid growing public support for ending the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein — a majority of Democratic congressmen and senators voted in October 2002, weeks before the midterm elections, to authorize a second war in Iraq. Few on the left wished to go on record opposing another successful military operation. Indeed, given the success of the recent war against the Taliban, most envisioned an even easier time against the once-beaten and weakened Saddam Hussein.
At first, such hawkishness about the war against Saddam seemed a smart political move. After the three-week spectacular victory, more than 70 percent of Americans in April 2003 supported the so-far successful Iraqi war. President Bush’s own approval ratings soared — along with those of the politicians in Congress who had supported him. By mid-2004, however, the Iraqi insurrection gained critical mass. Terrorists began to kill hundreds of American soldiers. Shiite-Sunni infighting soured Americans on an apparently ungrateful and hopelessly savage Iraq, as what had once seemed a cakewalk turned into a bloody stalemate. The public began to turn on the messy American occupation, and especially its foremost proponent, President George W. Bush.
In response, a number of prominent Democratic senators — Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Diane Feinstein, John Kerry, and Harry Reid — who had once given ringing speeches about invading Iraq, now about-faced. They abruptly claimed that they had earlier only reluctantly authorized, not advocated, a war — one that had been illegitimately hyped to them through doctored and misleading intelligence.
As the 2006 elections neared, and Bush’s dismal approval ratings continued to reflect public unhappiness with the course of the war, most liberal congressional supporters of the Iraq War had finished their reversions to type, and reinvented themselves as principled and longstanding critics of the conflict. It was not surprising that they should do so, as U.S. losses mounted and many erstwhile pro-war pundits now assured the nation that the war was lost. Anti-war had always remained their default option. Few remembered that both the House and Senate had once authorized the invasion of Iraq on twenty-three writs that ranged from violations of United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zones, inspections, and 1991 armistice accords, to oil-for-food skullduggery and genocide against the Iraqi people. Even fewer cared that, while WMD arsenals had not been found, the other original congressional premises for removing Saddam were still as valid at election time in 2006 as when they had been ratified in 2002.
A quandary arose: how could liberal Democrats both retain their national security credentials and yet at the same time cater to growing public disillusionment with Iraq? In response to that dilemma, a useful new narrative about the American occupation in Afghanistan emerged. As the exiled Taliban regrouped and began waging attacks from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and the United States took greater losses in Iraq, Afghanistan slowly transmogrified into the “good” but now neglected war. Indeed, Afghanistan was to be contrasted with Iraq, increasingly dismissed as the unnecessary and “bad” conflict, where we were pinned down and diminished by Bush’s strategic incoherence, Cheney’s shilling for Halliburton, and the neoconservatives’ stealthily catering to Israel’s anti-Arab agendas. Newscasters grimly announced daily American fatalities in Iraq, but rarely in Afghanistan, whose violence remained on the back pages.
Where, liberal critics lamented, was the Iraqi version of the Afghan statesman Hamid Karzai or the legitimate NATO and United Nations presence in Iraq? And why — in the most disingenuous chapter of the new narrative crafted to prove liberal patriotic support for American military efforts abroad — were we in Iraq creating terrorists ex nihilo, when we could have ended them once and for all, had we gone all out and crushed a trapped Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001 in Afghanistan?
The liberal mantra now declared that the unilateral, preemptive conflict in Iraq was not only unnecessary and lost, but, worse still, had siphoned off critical resources from the politically correct multilateral and legally justified war against the Taliban, who had, after all, helped to cause the September 11 terrorist attacks. Anti-war liberal Democrats had discovered the magic bullet: they could retain their national security credentials and avoid appearing soft on terrorism by lamenting that by being bogged down in Iraq we had become too complacent in Afghanistan. Or, as then presidential candidate Barack Obama framed the issue in a debate with John McCain, “We took our eye off Afghanistan. We took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11.” The Democrats strange and twisted journey from supporting the war effort in Iraq, to wanting it immediately ended, while wishing for more fighting in Afghanistan — a war some on the left had once declared impossible to win in October 2001 — was now complete.
Such an odyssey was again reflected in self-described anti-war and then senatorial candidate Barack Obama’s July 27, 2004, comment on Iraq: “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.” But later, on January 31, 2007, as a soon-to-be presidential candidate, and with news from the front now far worse and George Bush’s poll ratings diving, Obama scorned the surge, which he claimed had “not worked,” and pledged that all U.S. combat forces should be out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. He hammered that message throughout the summer and autumn of 2007: “The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year — now.”
Such a move would probably have led to an American defeat and Iraqi genocide, as the country would have been effectively trisected into a Kurdish breakaway republic at war with Turkey, an Iranian rump protectorate of Shiites to the south, and a radical Sunni client state of Saudi Arabia — all in perennial terrorist wars with one another, fueled by religious hatred and Iraqi oil.
But anti-war candidate Obama protected himself against charges that he was ignoring the danger posed by Islamic terrorists by making even bolder promises that he would send another 7,000 troops to Afghanistan and invade Pakistan, if need be, in hot pursuit of al Qaeda. It appeared that Obama, and others who supported his new bellicose calls, was not really against the idea of either surging troops or crossing national borders to hunt down insurgents per se; they were just opposed to doing all that in the politically incorrect Iraq theater, but for doing it in the properly sanctioned Afghanistan war. So President Bush was to be condemned not just for having been too warlike in Iraq, but now also for not being warlike enough in Afghanistan.
In fact, there are a number of historical and practical reasons to doubt both the sincerity and the logic of the new liberal calls for escalation in Afghanistan — especially since it uncharacteristically committed the left to a renewed and difficult struggle against the Taliban that they may soon likewise disown.
First, the coalition of the willing that invaded Iraq was larger, both in aggregate size and the number of nations involved, than the few allied troops that initially joined us in Afghanistan. The United Nations sanction to go into Afghanistan was similar to the logic of invading Iraq to force compliance with U.N. resolutions that had been ignored by Saddam Hussein, from the corrupt oil-for-food program to violations concerning U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zones and inspections of Saddam’s arsenals. U.S. allies like the British, Poles, and Australians who went to Iraq were also about the only serious fighters who showed up in Afghanistan, a war in which most NATO members, except for the Canadians, merely voted present without ever fully engaging the enemy on the battlefield. In the strict military sense, one might ask what did it matter that the Germans and Belgians, whose military protocols forbid real fighting against the Taliban, did not later join the United States to engage either the ex-Baathists or the jihadists in Iraq?
Second, the perpetrators of 9/11 were radical Muslim Arab terrorists. Although the Taliban harbored those who had planned the attacks, no Afghan had traveled to the United States to kill Americans. Saddam Hussein, while not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, nevertheless had been in a de facto war with the United States Air Force for twelve years in the no-fly zones over Iraq. He had also sheltered an array of terrorists, both secular killers from the 1980s such as Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas, and those with ties to radical Islamists and al Qaeda, like Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who arrived in Iraq in summer 2002, and the al-Qaeda–affiliated Ansar al-Islam (“Partisans of Islam”) terrorists who were given apparent refuge by Saddam.
If the war on terror were to be truly global and waged primarily against both radical Muslim terrorists from the Arab Middle East who had a long history of killing Americans, and anti-American dictators who had given them sanctuary and support, then an argument could be made that Iraq was as much a legitimate target as Afghanistan. There was also the additional humanitarian consideration that the regime of Saddam Hussein had killed far more innocents than had the Taliban, started far more foreign wars, and had a far longer record of prior military conflict with the United States.
Third, while many in the anti-war movement made a facile distinction of Afghanistan as the necessary and correct war, and Iraq as the incorrect and unnecessary fight, the enemy saw few such differences. In a series of communiqués, both of al Qaeda’s self-appointed leaders, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, soon boasted that Iraq had become the central front in their global war against the United States. Bin Laden, for example, in 2004 warned:
The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate. The whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries; the Islamic nation, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation. The nation today has a very rare opportunity to come out of the subservience and enslavement to the West and to smash the chains with which the Crusaders have fettered it.
A year later, Zawahiri, in his now infamous letter to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, wrote:
I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting battle in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam’s history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.
Apparently, al Qaeda thought killing a few thousand American soldiers in Iraq and causing the United States to flee in panic might weaken our resistance in Afghanistan and indeed cause us to lose the war elsewhere. The only mystery is why we, in turn, did not accept the reverse principle — that killing several thousand terrorists in Iraq and creating a constitutional state there harmed the cause of kindred jihadists worldwide, and especially those like Zawahiri and bin Laden in hiding along the Afghanistan border.
In short, almost no one—certainly not anti-war American liberals who had become almost as obsessed with “Bush’s war” in Iraq as they claimed Bush himself was — asked whether the enemy was incorrect in thinking Iraq had become the central battleground between the West and its enemies. Were international jihadists not foregoing travel to Afghanistan instead to fight and die in Iraq? Was the global prestige of al Qaeda not on trial in Iraq? And were ripples from the American presence in Iraq — whether the promise to surrender WMD arsenals offered us spontaneously by Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi (December 2003), the house arrest of Pakistan nuclear proliferator Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (February 2004), or the exit of Syria from Lebanon (April 2005) — not likely fallout from the American removal of the Hussein regime?
Nor did many critics of the Iraq War ponder another nagging question: if nuclear Pakistan, our reluctant ally, were to be considered off limits for large American ground forces in tracking down Osama bin Laden and attacking al-Qaeda jihadists in areas such as Waziristan, where else were Western forces to fight and defeat global radical Islamists if not in the free-fire zone of Iraq?
In addition, as radical Islamic insurgents began losing fighters in Iraq, various Pew Global Attitudes polls of Middle East popular sentiment revealed a drastic decline in approval ratings for the tactic of suicide bombing (a fall ranging in 2007 from 25 to 40 points in various Middle East countries). Those findings mirrored earlier declines in the popularity of Osama bin Laden himself, whose approval ratings by 2005 were below 50 percent in almost every country in the Middle East. Similarly, few in September 2001 had believed that the United States homeland would have remained free from another major terrorist attack emanating from the Middle East for the next seven years — an unforeseen development, but one at least in part likely attributable to the terrible losses suffered by radical Islamists in Iraq. It would not be too much to conclude, therefore, that rather than creating enemies there, we have been engaging enemies that already existed and fighting them on a battlefield of our choice rather than theirs.
Fourth, when had the United States ever shied away from fighting two wars at once? We fought Japan, Germany, and Italy simultaneously, even though there was no evidence that Germany or Italy was responsible, or even knew in advance, of the Pearl Harbor attacks, or that there was ever much military cooperation between the racist German Nazi regime and the Japanese racial and cultural imperialists. The United States blocked the Red Army from entering Western Europe as it fought over two million North Korean and Chinese communist ground troops on the Korean peninsula. In fact, our forefathers not only assumed that a mobilized America could wage multifarious global wars, but also learned that victory in one theater could enhance efforts even in a far distant other. Therefore, given such knowledge of U.S. military history, why would anyone think the effort in Iraq necessarily came at the expense of Afghanistan, rather than symbiotically enhancing our efforts there, by killing transient jihadists and gaining valuable insight into the art of counterinsurgency warfare?
Fifth, liberal braggadocio about leaving Iraq to regroup assets for an escalation in Afghanistan was also predicated on a misreading of the relative difficulty of the two theaters. By 2005, when the new hard line narrative on Afghanistan had gained credence among liberal politicians, anti-Iraq War critics assumed Iraq was lost, but that the NATO effort in Afghanistan, in contrast, was simply stalled and in need of a transference of manpower and materiel from Iraq. But both assumptions to varying degrees were flawed.
Iraq — with secular traditions, plentiful oil, rich, level farmland, a far better educated populace, and an accessible port — was always the less difficult challenge in fostering postbellum constitutional government. The difficulty in Afghanistan, moreover, was not necessarily the result of a shortage of U.S. troops due to the focus on Iraq. Instead the challenge was the nearly insolvable problem of bringing modern government to medieval warring factions, encouraging economic development among a largely illiterate population, which had traditionally earned cash by supplying most of the world’s raw heroin and by doing so supported the growth of anti-Western warlords, and stopping cross-border Taliban incursions by violating the sovereignty of an unstable, authoritarian, Islamic, and nuclear “allied” Pakistan. These were complex problems more likely helped than hindered by the expertise and tactics learned in the war in Iraq.
Indeed, the liberal braggadocio on Afghanistan — wholly untethered to any real, concrete tactical plans or responsibility for its possible consequences — has amounted to a kind of empty self-dramatization. Senator Obama may have on occasion boasted about invading Pakistan — “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will” — but in fact, the United States already is hitting targets in Pakistan, albeit not to loud public boasts about such risky actions. Our ability to shoot missiles at terrorist enclaves in Pakistan from Predator drones — operations that violate Pakistani airspace — is, in fact, predicated on our own promises of discretion.
Sixth, such liberal chest-pounding about Afghanistan was also predicated on the assumption that the war there would remain static. Iraq was irretrievably lost, the liberals believed, but Afghanistan was more or less deadlocked and therefore capable of being positively affected by a little strategic tinkering. But once conditions on the ground in Anbar Province radically changed, and the “bad” Iraq quieted while the “good” Afghanistan began to heat up, anti-war critics began to get a sense of the dilemma they now faced — having to escalate, as promised, the Afghan war and win it rather quickly once their largely rhetorical demand for a transference of the manpower and financial resources improperly diverted to the misadventure in Iraq had been met.
This political dilemma again was not new. Liberal Democrats in the summer and autumn of 2002 had sounded tough and aggressive about the looming Iraq war, as long as the perception of quick and easy victory was likely, and someone else (Commander-in-Chief George Bush) took the major responsibility for the conduct of the war should it become difficult and unpopular. Something similar was happening now with Afghanistan.
“Taking our eye off the ball,” and supposedly ignoring Afghanistan, were rather inexpensive ways of voicing partisan attacks on George Bush’s Iraq War. But now the Iraq War has been largely won (the number of U.S. soldiers who died in actual combat operations in Iraq in October 2008 was seven; more than forty Americans were murdered in Chicago each month on average in 2008). And after January 20, 2009, Commander-in-Chief Obama will have the responsibility for the costs and difficulties of the Afghan war he had been apparently eager to take on during the campaign against Senator John McCain. Consequently, we may well see president-elect Obama’s once promised hawkishness dissipate. After all, many liberal hawks figured that they could issue their war cries without ever being forced to hold the reins of governance with commensurate responsibility, or, by that the time they were given responsibility, the Afghan war would be over.
Vowing to do what it takes in the good war by leaving Iraq — infusing more troops into Afghanistan, and occasionally invading Pakistan — was for candidate Obama always a rhetorical stance that proved both his anti-Iraq Warbona fides and his larger credibility on matters of national security. But President Obama and his mercurial supporters in Congress will soon face a rather embarrassing dilemma. Without the responsibilities of a commander-in-chief, he once demanded we should leave Iraq when leaving would have lost that war. But now, as commander- in-chief he will soon learn that a few thousand more troops will not guarantee lasting victory over the Taliban. And changing strategy from stealthy attacks by aerial drones in Pakistan to open ground incursions across the border risks widening rather than solving the conflict.
“Taking our eye off the ball” was always a dubious campaign talking point. Afghanistan was not the only “ball” in the global war against terror; we never took our eye off it; and we were always binocular. What we may well see instead is that those who wished more of an American commitment to Afghanistan as cover for their opposition to Iraq will now desert President Obama, as anti-war critics take their eye off a receding Iraq and focus it instead on an increasingly violent Afghanistan — especially given the sensational terrorist acts associated with the near-rogue state of Pakistan. In that case, President Obama may well have to revert to his earlier manifestation of candidate Obama, who campaigned on the notion that a surge of military forces into an apparent quagmire was little more than an unsophisticated act of desperation — in a complex landscape that required American forces to exit and to allow indigenous tribal folks to sort out their own affairs.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson