by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
Two-Front Wars — Theirs and Ours
Something is not quite right about the conventional wisdom about the Afghanistan war. For nearly eight years, yearly casualties in Afghanistan sometimes were less than a month’s losses in the dire days in Iraq (e.g., 98 Americans killed in 2006 in Afghanistan, 112 killed in Iraq during December 2006). And while many argue that we took our eye off the ball, to quote the president, by going into Iraq to fight the optional war and shorting the essential one, it remains true that while Iraq was hottest, Afghanistan was weirdly sometimes quietest.
One might suggest of course that the Taliban and their Arab terrorist allies were quietly and stealthily laying low, regrouping, gathering support, and then blew back onto the scene in a fury in late 2008 and 2009, but that would still be at a post-surge time in Iraq when we were already deploying more Marines to Afghanistan.
Just as likely are two other developments never mentioned:
1) Just as Iraq was our second theater in the war on terror, so it was for al Qaeda and generic jihadists as well. They diverted thousands into Anbar Province and Baghdad proper rather than into Afghanistan; and while for a period they gained traction, ultimately they lost thousands in combat or through defection. That fact may have weakened their efforts in Afghanistan rather than strengthened them; and after their material and psychological defeat in Iraq they have returned their attention to the single front in Afghanistan. In other words, they took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan and focused on Iraq, but lost both materially and psychologically, and now, like us, are refocusing on the single front.
2) We were far more able to inflict casualties (given the terrain, geopolitics, and nature of the fighting) in Iraq than in Afghanistan, and that resulted in both more damage to terrorism in general, and a greater sense of deterrence than was true of the fighting alone in Afghanistan/Pakistan. When bin Laden and Zawahiri announced that Iraq was the major front in the terrorist war on the U.S., they raised the stakes, and were in essence inviting terrorists to go there rather than to Waziristan. Note we hear no more from either one of them about winning in Iraq, the central front in Iraq, the need to join jihad in Iraq, etc. Now, it is all Afghanistan again.
Polls in the Middle East are now quite different from the radical Islam’s glory days following 9/11 when al Qaeda and bin Laden were iconic; the latter’s ratings have nosedived along with the tactic of suicide bombing. Rather than seeing the spike in violence in Afghanistan as a sign of a lost theater, it may well be that the Islamists are now increasingly unpopular, down to one front, and waging their all on a last big effort to demoralize us. Both in conventional wars and in insurgencies (as we saw in 2007 in Iraq) sometimes the fiercest fighting is near the end rather than the beginning of the war, as a final offensive is seen as a last gambit. All this means that we should meet the challenge, support the president, and deal with the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies as we did in 2007 to the terrorists in Iraq, despite the wide differences in culture and conditions on the ground in the respective countries.
If there really is such a thing as a global war on radical Islamic terrorism, and bin Laden is to be taken at his word that both Afghanistan and Iraq have at times been alternately central fronts in that war, then it would be a tragedy that after fighting a two-front war, and winning one, we, rather than the losing enemy, would become demoralized by our success, and they emboldened by their defeat.
I think soon the president will be entering the murky zone in Afghanistan that George W. Bush went through in 2006 in Iraq. A once seemingly successful war was stalled. The public had turned against the effort. Political opponents who once voiced “let me at ’em” enthusiasm about the war had long ago bailed. “Wise men” frowned, cleared their throat and declared Iraq lost in op-ed opinions. The base was jittery and saw the war was losing Republicans influence and power. And then Bush did the lonely and good thing by placing his all with Petraeus, the surge, and keeping our commitment to those brave Iraqis who had risked their lives for the common goal of consensual government.
Obama now finds himself with those same bad and worse choices. The good war he once championed as a candidate on the stump has turned bad among his supporters. No one is talking about finally having our eye back on the ball. He has so polarized conservatives that it is apparently hard for him to reach out to them for support on the war, though on the war they are not the vocal opponents that the Left proved to be with Bush. Pundits now talk of the preferable “more rubble/less trouble” punitive route of bombs, Predators, and incursions rather than the messy, unpopular, 8-year effort at saving Afghanistan from al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Islamic medievalism in order to prevent a repeat of 9/11. Most agree that surging in Afghanistan, as was true in Iraq, could spike casualties rather than reduce them for several months to come. Moveon.org could also take out another New York Times-subsidized ad about the purported perfidy of General McChrystal, who might still be grilled on Capitol Hill with sneers that his testimony requires a suspension of disbelief. And so on.
It is a lot harder to be alone in the White House to make the tough, lonely decision than it is to caricature it without the responsibility of governance.
Yes or No on Afghanistan
Although Afghanistan was always the more challenging theater than Iraq — landlocked, opium, no ports, few resources, difficult terrain, nearby nuclear Iran, high rates of illiteracy — Obama has at least as good chances of success as did George Bush with the 2007–8 with surge in Iraq. He enjoys higher ratings. The Republican opposition will support him in a way the Democrats did not Bush. There is not a furious anti-war movement in the fashion of the “General Betray Us” sort. We have gained invaluable experience in counter-insurgency, and General Petraeus remains in theater command. We can build on victory in Iraq that greatly demoralized al Qaeda and in time may, in counter-intuitive fashion, prove to be a great drawback to Iran. For all the escalating violence, Afghanistan is still relatively quiet in comparison to the dark days in Iraq — our fatalities over the eight-year war there total less than those Americans lost in Iraq in 2007 alone. The decision is critical since it, rightly or wrongly, transcends even Afghanistan, but touches on everything from the recently exposed terrorist plots in Colorado and New York to nuclear proliferation in the Mideast.
The president’s challenge is largely political — he must endure anger from his base and will not have a majority of the public with him, at least initially. So far Obama has bucked the polls in pushing several issues, but never when simultaneously at odds with his core supporters. It would help if General Jones and Secretary Clinton, and not just the president and his regional czars, would get out more, and began making the case for stabilizing Afghanistan — if indeed they believe in such a mission that would require additional troops.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson