The Magazine

Not A Diversion

From the April 12 / April 19, 2004 issue: The war in Iraq has advanced the campaign against bin Ladenism.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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"I DON'T FAULT George Bush for doing too much in the war on terror, as some do. I believe that he's done too little and done some things that he didn't have to. When the focus of the war on terror was appropriately in Afghanistan and on breaking al Qaeda, President Bush shifted his focus to Iraq and to Saddam Hussein. He pushed away our allies at a time when we needed them the most. He hasn't pursued a strategy to win the hearts and minds of people around the world, and win the war of ideas against the radical ideology of Osama bin Laden."

So spoke Senator John Kerry on March 15. This could, of course, have been Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief, or Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisers who often do tandem "realist" critiques. Or it could have been Al Franken, the liberal comedian-turned-less-witty-broadcaster, or Patrick Buchanan, the standard-bearer of conservative blue-collar America. From the far left to the far right, a common theme has developed among those who opposed the Iraq war: The campaign against Saddam Hussein diverted us from the battle against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and beyond. Indeed, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has made, to quote Clarke, "America less secure and strengthen[ed] the broader radical Islamic-terrorist movement."

Of course, this view did not occur to all of the above before March 2003--if John Kerry actually believed back then that the war would imperil America's national security, then his vote for it was inexcusably reckless (Howard Dean's logic was at least impeccable). But retrospective clairvoyance, fortified by a good sense for the jugular, has won the day. If you can collapse the central pillar of the Bush war presidency, the odds are good that you can win in November. Politics aside, do these folks have a point? There are always unintended, adverse consequences to any military action. Could those from the Iraq war be the very ones that Clarke, the "realists," and the antiwar Democrats envision?

Not likely. Point by point, their case actually inverts the reality, often the history, of what has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the Muslim Middle East. Let us start with the war in Afghanistan, before we get diverted by President Bush's preemptive campaign against Saddam Hussein.

THERE ARE CERTAINLY LEGITIMATE CRITICISMS of the way the administration fought the war in Afghanistan. This magazine made a few, with which the White House took issue. It shouldn't be that hard to see now--it really wasn't that hard to see then--that the Pentagon moved too slowly south, that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's fascination with "new-age" warfare, where very small deployments of special forces, reinforced with awesome air power and what the British used to call "tribal levies," slowed the campaign at critical points. The real issue was never whether the United States was going to get bogged down in an Afghan quagmire, as did the Soviets in the 1980s and the British (briefly) in 1842. Victory for America, once President Bush made the decision to invade and destroy the Taliban state, was never in doubt. The issue was whether we would rapidly fracture Taliban power in Kandahar and possibly catch al Qaeda in disarray. The military brass chose not to throw much manpower at southeastern Afghanistan, the area bin Laden knew best, and to which, it strongly appears, he withdrew. Doing so surely would have cost many U.S. soldiers their lives, but it probably would have increased the odds of catching Osama bin Laden, his number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, and their inner circle and families. It is impossible to say, however, by how much the odds would have improved. With the possible exception of the deep jungles of the Amazon, the southeastern border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the worst area imaginable to play a lethal version of hide and seek. You could pour tens of thousands of troops into that terrain and only marginally improve the chances of finding your target.

Which brings us to Iraq. The tactics used in Afghanistan were not predicated on an ensuing war in Mesopotamia. Rightly or wrongly, Rumsfeld likes "new-age" warfare, regardless of the locale. There simply is no serious argument that the actions of the first campaign were diminished by the planning, logistics, and execution of the second a year later.