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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.

There is a pretty good case to be made that in 2001-02 the Bush administration didn't seriously pressure Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to understand the urgent need to move aggressively against the unpatrolled tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. But again, that had nothing to do with Iraq, and everything to do with internal Pakistani politics. And America's second Gulf War certainly did not discourage Musharraf from becoming more aggressive against domestic and foreign holy warriors in 2003-04. It beggars the imagination to believe that al Qaeda's foreign holy warriors and their Pakistani sympathizers want to kill Musharraf for the war in Iraq more than they want to kill him for the war in Afghanistan and his current efforts to extinguish them and their Pakistani base of operations.

It is certainly true, as Clarke and others have charged, that the Bush administration should have done, and still should do, a lot more in reconstructing Afghanistan and in aiding those who want to reform, and eventually end, the warlord system that prevails outside of the capital, Kabul. The holy-warrior camps in Afghanistan that General Musharraf and his predecessors developed for the battle against India in Kashmir--the camps that starting in 1996 came under the control of bin Laden--could come back, particularly if there were a change of heart in Islamabad. If the Bush administration allowed this to develop--and this scenario remains hypothetical--then it would deserve to be damned for shortsightedness and gross negligence. But in the Pentagon, at the State Department, and in the National Security Council, they are well aware of the dangers. It is very hard to see this administration, any administration after 9/11, not doing the minimum necessary to keep Afghanistan from experiencing a Taliban renaissance where jihadist camps could operate.

Let's be honest: It was perfectly clear that the Bush administration was not going to invest massively in Afghanistan way before the White House made the decision to fight in Iraq (it strongly appears that former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill actually doesn't know anybody at Defense, for if he did, he would know, as we did, that the decision to fight in Iraq was neither quick nor easy nor foreordained). As Olivier Roy, the renowned French scholar of Afghanistan and Islamic militancy, has pointed out, the average Afghan certainly wanted us to play the khan, the overlord who takes care of the family. But this runs against the American grain, be it liberal or conservative. Wipe the Iraq war from history, and it remains hard to imagine Secretary Rumsfeld, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or President Al Gore if he were in power, putting tens of thousands of troops and tens of billions of dollars into a country that is, in virtually every way, nondeveloped. It is easy, and maybe wise, to throw large amounts of money and manpower at a developed or even developing country after it's been blown to bits by years of war and civil strife. It is much more difficult, and far less wise, to invest too quickly and too massively in a place like Afghanistan.

Baseline point: The Americans aren't going to run away from Afghanistan--odds are we will be in that country for far longer than we will be, in any force, in Iraq. With a little luck, a bit more money and manpower, and a willingness to play hardball with Pakistan in case it returns to its former ways, Afghanistan will muddle through. Certainly, we won't want to use it as an ideal case study at a Harvard seminar on American-led postwar reconstruction in the third world. But it will do. And by the time we leave, it will be perfectly clear to both Democrats and Republicans that neither the time nor the money the United States spent in Afghanistan had much to do at all with George Bush's decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

NEXT CRITICISM: What about our allies, the ones critical to our war on terror, whom we've angered and dissed? Have we not, as General Scowcroft predicted in August 2002 and as Senator Kerry regularly reminds us from the stump, just shot to hell the international system? As Scowcroft wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war [against bin Laden] without enthusiastic international cooperation, especially on intelligence." According to the Washington Post, Rand Beers, who was President Bush's senior director for counterterrorism, resigned just before the Iraq war because he thought the president's decision to invade had, among other things, "created fissures in the United States' counterterrorism alliances."

Okay, name an important intelligence service in the Middle East that doesn't have a stronger liaison relationship with the United States today than it had on, say, the day after Kandahar fell? Though the Central Intelligence Agency likes to think of itself as an airtight shop, we all know, given what's happened since the end of the Iraq war, that unhappy employees who don't get the foreign policies they prefer leak. And the senior grades of the Clandestine Service in particular love to leak, especially via their retired friends, when they are upset. Can anybody recall, even in the vaguest way, a planted story about anti-al Qaeda operations getting aborted because an Arab service didn't want to touch us?

Anybody hear about the French DST (internal security) or the DGSE (foreign intelligence) turning off a spigot of information about Islamic extremists? According to a senior French intelligence officer, the first and principal exchange point for the United States and continental European security services is Paris. Does this sound like the French elite (which really would like to see George Bush get demolished in Iraq and John Kerry elected) has a problem with intelligence cooperation? Anybody heard of any problems with the Spanish, who just got scorched, so the theory goes, because of their alliance with us in Iraq? How about the Russians, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, or Chinese?

A pretty good argument could be made that we would be better off if the CIA didn't have such friendly relationships with its counterparts in Tashkent, Cairo, Islamabad, or Algiers; that the short-term gain from these relationships, though undoubtedly vital at times of great urgency, fundamentally compromises us in the long-term and ultimately more important task of opening up these societies so that domestically generated Islamic extremism doesn't attack us. In any case, our intelligence and security liaison relationships have never been better. For our Middle Eastern "allies" in particular, it's as if they'd died and gone to heaven. The CIA, often more accurately addressed as Sugar Daddy, has never before come calling with so many gifts. Egypt's president-for-life Hosni Mubarak, who would strongly prefer that the United States not create a functioning democracy in Iraq, knows that his intelligence-liaison relationship with the United States is an ace in the hole. That fraternal tie will certainly stay warm as long as Mubarak thinks there's a chance that President Bush might be serious about transforming the dictatorial politics of the Middle East.

NEXT CRITICISM: George Bush's war in Iraq has inflamed Islamic opinion, radicalized more Muslim youth, and created a new legion of anti-American holy warriors. This is probably the most damning, if the most ethereal, of the charges against President Bush. Odds are, this will be the charge that Senator Kerry and his minions hurl most often at the president (the possible exception being the gravamen that George W. has neglected homeland defense).

Now, the first thing that ought to be said is that we really don't know how many jihadists got born during the first Bush presidency and the eight years of Bill Clinton. Al Qaeda slowly evolved from the Maktab al-Khadamat ("The Office of Services"), an organization started during the Soviet-Afghan War to transport Muslims, primarily Arabs, to Pakistan to join the battle against the Red Army. We really don't know how many Muslims went. If one tracks down the figures for the Maktab, all one can say for sure is that the sources on the numbers are all Pakistani and that Pakistani sources are notoriously unreliable. We have no firm idea how many of the Muslims who did go actually ever crossed into Afghanistan and fought, or how many of them stayed in Pakistan, living lives often more comfortable than those they'd had at home. (This was particularly true when it came to having wives. The cult of the Afghan woman--and there were hundreds of thousands of Afghan women in distress in Pakistan during the war--was very popular among the "jihadists.") And it is difficult to say precisely when al Qaeda became an independent, self-conscious organization developing anti-American holy warriors. This may have happened as early as 1989, or it could have been only two or three years later that a real organization developed with a clear raison d'être and a full-time staff.

The afterword of Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon's The Age of Sacred Terror, which is easily the best book about the rise of bin Ladenism and the Clinton administration's response to it, tells us the following: "U.S. officials have spoken of 'tens of thousands' of individuals who were trained in the camps of Afghanistan, and Germany's intelligence chief put the number at seventy thousand, though many were trained as soldiers to fight alongside the Taliban, not as terrorists. Still the number of operatives at large is probably multiples greater than that on any other terrorist group in memory."

Benjamin and Simon were once the director and senior director for counterterrorism in the Clinton administration's National Security Council, and they, too, are highly critical of the Bush administration. I strongly suspect the numbers above are grossly exaggerated. When I visited Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Tajik leader of the Northern Alliance, in the fall of 1999, he told me that he was then facing around 700 Arab Afghans. This figure fluctuated a bit, perhaps, but the Taliban never deployed more than 1,000 Arab Afghans against him.

But, for the sake of argument, let's accept the numbers suggested by Benjamin and Simon. In other words, during the eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency, when the United States studiously avoided invading Iraq, the number of Islamic holy warriors fully formed in the Afghan training camps skyrocketed. Let us recall these were the glory years of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, when the president often worked night and day to bring conciliation and settlement to the two sides. These were the years, too, when the Americans went to the rescue of the Bosnian Muslims. And these were the times when President Clinton tried to make nice-nice with President Mohammad Khatami of Iran (of course, Sunni Muslim holy warriors might not care for this too much; but since bin Laden knew he hadn't blown up the American barracks at Khobar Towers in 1996, and since his contacts inside the Saudi royal family were pretty good, he might have drawn the right conclusion when the Clinton administration didn't retaliate against the real perpetrator of the Khobar bombing, the regime in Tehran--to wit, Clinton wasn't tough).

So, during the best of years--or at least, according to Clarke and Kerry, vastly better years than what followed--al Qaeda grew from scratch to an umbrella organization, drawing into its apocalyptic designs holy warriors from the Middle East, America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Orient. These were the years when bin Laden promised the faithful that they, not the Americans, were the "stronger horse."

And now, according to the "realists" and antiwar Democrats, the Bush administration has made things worse. It's theoretically possible, of course. It's possible the Clinton years were less energizing to the enemy than the Bush years, when the Taliban were destroyed, bin Laden was put to chase, and al Qaeda as an organization was badly battered. It is possible that America's invasion and (temporary) occupation of Iraq will galvanize holy warriors as did the first Gulf War for an earlier generation. Professor Bernard Lewis's textual analysis showing that bin Laden used the first Gulf War as a clarion call for holy war is undeniable. (And was not the first Gulf War worth angering Islamic militants?)

But we should be enormously cautious in suggesting, as Bush's critics eagerly do, that apocalyptic holy warriors come into being primarily because of specific American actions. We know this is certainly not true for the deadliest of the Wahhabi jihadists--the highly Westernized ones reared or educated in Western Europe. These men are born from their troubled assimilation into Europe's secularized societies. And killer Sunni fundamentalism predates the first Gulf War by decades. Its evolution is attached to no specific Western event--certainly not to the creation of Israel, which in fundamentalist literature is just one more proof, a particularly painful proof since Jews are among the weakest of people in Islamic history, that civilization has gone to hell. But the primary culprits for this fall are not Europeans or Americans--"Christendom," to the fundamentalists. Christendom has been there, in one shape or another, since the beginning of the Islamic era. The real villains, according to the first few generations of fundamentalists, are the Muslims who ape Western ways. The new breed of Muslim activists, the killer elite of bin Laden's deracinated young men who know not love of country or father, have elevated the old disgust at the despotic Westernizing rulers of the Middle East--the men many "realists" still see as our friends--into a global hatred of the West and its cutting edge, the United States. These young men were coming for us, regardless of whether the Bush administration invaded Iraq. Or whether the Clinton administration quarantined and bombed Iraq for eight years. They live to kill. The most devout live to die. It is not surprising at all that Americans, particularly those who work in Washington, who are mostly good secular sorts, view so mundanely the causes of holy war.

On the biggest of issues, Benjamin and Simon are definitely right: "Democratization, however hazardous and unpredictable the process may be, is the key to eliminating sacred terror over the long term." Which is why, of course, the war in Iraq--the attempt to build a democracy on the ruins of the Middle East's most despicable regime--has been worth the blood and treasure. There were many reasons to go to war; as Robert Kagan and William Kristol recently pointed out in these pages, President Clinton and his national security adviser Sandy Berger did a very convincing job of enumerating them in their finest speeches. But a compelling reason, even if it is not one that many in the Bush administration fully understand, was bin Ladenism itself and the need to strike boldly to give us, and Muslims in the Middle East, a way out.

We should be skeptical of those voices who tell us that success in Iraq won't have serious repercussions for the rest of the Middle East (the same voices that are usually quick to point out the adverse effects of failure). The trial of Saddam Hussein, in whom many Muslims of the Middle East will see the image of their own rulers, will make gripping television, even on the anti-American Al Jazeera satellite channel. Iraq's coming great debates, for all the country's enormous problems and attendant violence, will echo through the region on television and radio. The Sunni Arabs of the region will watch Shiite Arabs, long cursed creatures, moving forward, however fitfully and slowly, toward more democracy than they themselves have ever imagined. The shame could be unbearably provocative. The now famous letter to al Qaeda from Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian holy warrior operating in Iraq, tells, we can hope, the future of the entire region. Jihadism cannot survive people power. When the common Muslim man is responsible for his own fate, human decency and civility will win out.

The liberal Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who writes often on the Arab world, recently provided the most honest description of what George W. Bush has wrought in the Middle East:

The most underreported and encouraging story in the Middle East in the past year has been the emergence in public of homegrown civic movements demanding political change. Two years ago they were nonexistent or in jail. Now they are out in the open even in the most politically backward places in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. They are made up not only of intellectuals but of businessmen, women, students, teachers, and journalists. Unlike their governments--and the old school of U.S. and European Arabists--they don't believe that change should be gradual, and they reject the dictators' claim that democracy would only empower Islamic extremists. It is the delay of change, they say, that is increasingly dangerous.

These people weren't created by George W. Bush. They are the homegrown answer to a decadent political order, and they ride a powerful historical current. But they will tell you frankly: The new U.S. democratization policy, far from being an unwanted imposition, has given them a voice, an audience and at least a partial shield against repression--three things they didn't have one year ago.

These words are the best retort to Richard Clarke and John Kerry. But we have no time to waste. Under any circumstances, building democracy in the Muslim Middle East will be slow. And bin Ladenism is a resilient, captivating disease. We should pray, however, that it will not take generations. It certainly won't happen at all if the Bush administration pulls back from its "forward strategy of freedom." Voluntary change in the Middle East is no change at all. But we are off to a good beginning. The war on terror had, thank God, a second act. We will all have to wait until after November to see if there will be a third. Everyone in the Middle East, but especially the holy warriors, will be watching.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.