The Wrong War, Again

After 9/11, President George W. Bush started the war in Afghanistan in order to go after al Qaeda, which was entrenched there under the protection of the Taliban government. Intelligently, US forces did little of the heavy lifting, relying on local Afghan fighters to do most of the fighting with US air support and intelligence. For the most part, it was a successful driving of al Qaeda underground. The fact that it drove the Taliban into hiding, was a bonus, but by no means the major reason for the action.

Emboldened by the success of the Afghan war, President Bush decided to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Oh sure, Iraq was working on nuclear weapons and Saddam was a horrible tyrant who did terrible things to his own people -- not to mention what he did to his enemies. But the war was a miscalculation and mistake. We didn't have the proxy fighters in Iraq that we had in Afghanistan, by putting our troops in major strategic locations, we made them sitting targets for terrorists.

Now, with a new President, Barack Obama, we have a new policy. President Obama correctly campaigned on the grounds that the Iraq war was a mistake. It was. He also campaigned on the basis that Afghanistan was a "good" war. He was correct. When in office, he immediately reduced troop levels in Iraq preparatory to pulling out and put most of these troops into action in Afghanistan. Yet another blunder.

How is it that Afghanistan was a "good" war and Iraq bad, yet moving troops from the bad to good theater is bad? It seemingly doesn't make sense. But the Afghanistan war was "good" because we drove out al Qaeda using very few of our own troops and did damage to the Taliban -- which while not our objective was a nice by-product. The surge into Afghanistan has moved many US troops to the frontlines and put them into the same position they were in in Iraq: They don't know who the enemy is until they are fired upon, while everyone else knows instantly who they are. No more are we relying on Afghan soldiers to do the heavy lifting. We're doing it. And we are singularly ill-equipped to do so.

General McChrystal probably had the better long-term strategy of forcing his soldiers not to fire unless they were sure of not hitting innocents. It's a good way to win the hearts and minds of the populace -- as long as you (1) are willing to take much larger casualties among your own troops and (2) plan on staying for the long haul until nation-building is complete. Unfortunately, President Obama had made it clear that we were leaving next year and while less clear, was no less certain he didn't want escalated casualties. McChrystal's replacement, General Petraeus, has already made it clear that his troops will have greater freedom. This is almost certainly the better short-term strategy, but it makes clear that the Afghan war was a failed war. By allowing larger numbers of civilian casualties, there is no way we are going to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by next year (2011) when we pull out. But realistically, while McChrystal's strategy had a greater chance for success if we were in it for the long haul, it wasn't going to be successful in anything like the time frame available politically from Washington.

But this guarantees the US that the Afghan War will be a failure from the standpoint of creating a viable indigenous government. There is no way that any government will be able to stand when we are gone. Afghanistan has never really been a country. It's an amalgamation of 30+ tribal units that has only infrequently been governed at all, and then only by ruthless and savage leaders. In all probability we will let the Taliban take over the country again, in return for not giving safe harbor to al Qaeda. And while this was our original objective, it certainly isn't our stated one now and that outcome will appear to be a US failure by the world at large.

Paradoxically, the war we left in Iraq was nearing the stage where it could have been won. We had won the support of most of the religious leaders. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is basically composed of just three forces: Sunni, Shia and Kurd. While none of the groups trusts the other, coalition governments among three somewhat equal groups is possible. Our troop presence had reduced terrorism to somewhat manageable levels and the populace, with little more encouragement, might have actually coalesced into a useful government. We were close, although admittedly, a small miscalculation could easily have wiped out hope of success. Given the deterioration in security in Iraq, the chance for success is plummeting.

So, the war we started successfully has turned out to be a failure because we enlarged our goals beyond realistic hope and the hopeless war we started with flawed analysis and grossly inadequate planning turned out to be winnable had we just stayed the course.

In the wake of our disastrous pull out from Somalia in 1993, if we are perceived to have lost both of these wars, we are going to have a lot more trouble with 9/11-style events. US troops and citizens will be at much greater peril in the world than they are now. If the militants feel they have beaten us three times, 2001 is going to be the "good old times."

June 30, 2010