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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."