Ending the Not-War War
Today the President promised to draw down our forces in Afghanistan by 10,000 this year and by a total of 33,000 the next. Those drawdowns would more than reverse the “surge” that he ordered his first year in office.
Political reactions were predictable. The left criticized the President for not sending all our troops home on the next boat. It did so notwithstanding the fact that Afghanistan has no seaport and that no boat ever made could transport more a few percent of our troops at a time. The right criticized the President for risking the “victory” that always seems just out of reach. It did so notwithstanding the fact that many of its own rank and file now want our troops home as much as the left does.
No one really thought much about what got us into this endless war.
That’s not surprising. As test results revealed recently, history is our worst subject. What Sarah or Rush said yesterday is more important to many of us than cataclysms that murdered millions or events that changed nations just a decade or two ago. Less than twenty-two years ago, for example, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight, ending the Cold War and a very real risk of human self-extinction. Yet most youth today, whether in the US or Russia, haven’t a care or a clue.
But to understand the President’s action today, you have to understand what came before. That’s basic.
When the hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers, a memo warning of just such an event had been sitting on the desks of President George “Dubya” Bush’s national security advisers for over two months. According to the Washington Post, “On June 30, a top-secret senior executive intelligence brief contained an article headlined ‘Bin Laden Threats Are Real.’” But the message apparently never got to the President or his attention.
Why? Because National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice simply didn’t believe it. She was by far the most erudite and well-informed member of the Cabinet, but she had spent her whole career, mostly in academia, studying the Soviet menace and its risk of species extinction. To her, the notion that a tiny band of Islamic radicals could present a serious threat to US national security was incredible. President Bush himself had said, in the Post’s words, that he “didn’t want to swat at flies.”
So the Bush White House was completely unprepared for the attacks of 9/11. When they came, it grossly overreacted in two ways.
First, like a child’s caricature of a West-Texas sheriff, Dubya announced the so-called “Bush doctrine.” If you harbor terrorists, he declared, we will treat you as our enemy. “Dead or alive,” he actually said.
Never mind that, even at that time, Al Qaeda was believed to have a presence in some sixty countries. Never mind that one of them, Pakistan, had and has nuclear weapons and was actually trying (in part) to help us. Never mind that fighting even some of them—let alone all of them—would have been far beyond our financial and even military capacity, unless we “fought” them by loosing all our strategic nuclear arsenal and destroying the world. Dubya announced the Bush doctrine, effectively declaring “war” not only on the people who planned and carried out 9/11, not only on terrorists everywhere, but also on every country in which they might be found.
That was probably the single most childish, stupid, worthless and counterproductive announcement of foreign policy in American history. But it sounded good to some of a public ignorant of history and reared on cowboy and “Rambo” movies.
The Taliban leaders of Afghanistan saw through the idle threat. They refused to deliver bin Laden, to whom they owed allegiance, money and Islamic hospitality. And so we sent troops into Afghanistan to get bin Laden and fight the Taliban because they wouldn’t turn him over. And we’ve been there ever since.
The second bit of gross overreaction came in Iraq. Historians will debate for centuries what precise combination of motives caused Dubya to start that “war of convenience.”
They will have a tough time comprehending the truth when they find it. They will have to enter the psychological sewer of Dubya's mind and withstand the smell of a putrid combination of West-Texas macho, Oedipal desires to best his father, a lust for revenge for Saddam’s attempt on his father’s life, and some childish credit for the neocons’ facile arguments that getting rid of Saddam would change the Middle East for the better overnight. An unanswerable question will persist in their minds: how the nation that styled itself the model of democracy and reason could ever let such a man become its “decider.”
But whatever the reasons, Dubya made war on Iraq. Then he and That Idiot Rumsfeld exhausted the short window of opportunity after a successful invasion by searching for weapons of mass destruction to justify the war retroactively. Their mismanagement enabled, if not incited, the Sunni and Al Qaeda insurgency, and the rest is recent history. After close to 4,500 American combat deaths, hundreds of thousands of Iraq deaths, and millions displaced to neighboring countries, including Syria, the civil war that we triggered seems to have been suppressed.
But Iraq’s future is still uncertain, and we have increasingly less and less say about it. In a Shiite-majority country, a neighboring Shiite theocracy, Iran, has increasingly more.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that our combat role there has ended and we are getting out.
Iraq, at least, was a real war. Its objective (the only one that turned out to be real and practical) was to depose Saddam. We did that. But after accomplishing that objective we had to stay to clean up the mess that achieving that objective and our own gross mismangagement made. We haven’t cleaned it up yet, but we have at least given Iraqis a fighting chance to do so on their own. And so, consistent with out gnat-like attention span, we are getting out.
But Afghanistan was never a real war, except insofar as Dubya’s moronic “Bush doctrine” made it so. We had and have no quarrel whatsoever with the Afghani people, despite their penchant for surviving on the opium trade. We had never raised a single complaint about the Taliban’s harsh government or its treatment of women before 9/11. Our purpose in going there was to get bin Laden and Zawahiri and shut down their terrorist bases and training camps. Our quarrel was (and is) with them, not the Afghans or their leaders.
Of course smart people here knew this. The President campaigned on getting our eyes back on the ball of bin Laden and his crew. Attorney General Holder called 9/11, quite properly, the “crime of the century,” not a war. Leave it to a good lawyer to use words precisely.
But Dubya, who could barely speak English with a teleprompter, had already declared a “War on Terror.”
Now you can’t make war on a noun. It’s just an abstraction. To fight a war, you have to have an enemy. Dubya never made clear precisely who our enemies were.
Were they bin Laden, Zawahiri and their foreign jihadis? Were they the Taliban? Were they Taliban sympathizers? Were they any Aghans who didn’t jump to our order to turn over their guests and salute while doing it? For the entire duration of this non-war war, the Bushies never made any of this clear. We were fighting a non-war war with shadows.
Of course President Obama and Attorney General Holder were and are smart enough to see all this. But they had three problems.
First, it’s bad form to overturn a prior president’s doctrines and policies, especially in the middle of hostilities. No matter how stupid and counterproductive those policies may be, it’s just not done. During the entire course of our losing war in Vietnam—which from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to our ignominious flight from Saigon lasted nearly ten years—not once did any American leader ever say honestly, “We made a mistake; this thing’s a loser, and we’re getting out.”
Sorry, folks, that’s just not done. You have to be more subtle than that. Our leaders and our government have face to save. (And we chide the Chinese for the same reason!)
And we can’t let people who’ve lost limbs, peace of mind or loved ones think their suffering was in vain. It wasn’t. As stupid as were the policies they were ordered to support, their sacrifice got us and Afghanistan to this point, from which a better future is possible. But getting to that future requires wiser policy.
The second problem was a bit more specific. Both the President and the Attorney General are African-Americans. They have a small problem of acceptance with a significant minority of Americans. So no matter how correct and wise they are, their contradicting the declarations of their immediate predecessor as president raised and raises certain political risks. The right wing’s defense of Duyba, which grew and grows more and more shrill as time reveals the depths of his disastrous stupidity, only exacerbated this problem.
Finally, and most important, there was no strategy. When you make war against a noun, strategy is irrelevant. But once our abused troops actually got to Afghanistan, they had to figure out whom they were fighting and what they were fighting for. For a while, during Dubya’s most insane utopian delusions, it seemed as if we were fighting to convert Afghanistan into Switzerland. Good luck.
Things changed for the better when Robert Gates replaced That Idiot Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. They got better still when President Obama required a lengthy and extensive review of goals, policy and strategy in late 2009. But even after that long review, it still wasn’t clear whether the Taliban were our enemy or someone else.
Now it is. Under the President’s tutelage and guidance, and no doubt with Secretary Gates’ able help, we began to comprehend two things. First and foremost, assassination works. If you’re facing a very small group of very bad guys hiding out in a vast nation, you don’t have to make war on the whole nation. You just locate the bad guys and take them out.
Second, you don’t have always to do that by “remote control,” with unmanned aerial vehicles. That tactic creates resentment on the ground and often far too much “collateral damage” (our current military euphemism for killing innocent civilians by mistake). You can commission and train, in secret, a whole brigade of specialized assassins and set them to work. That’s what the President did, and that’s who executed bin Laden.
As it turns out, taking him out was just the culmination of months of successful assassination work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The mission went so well because our modern ninjas had had plenty of practice.
So now, for the first time in a decade, we have a real strategy. Joe Biden suggested it long ago, and our sole tactical success (in assassination) has confirmed it. We’re not in a real war but a limited police action. We can use our drones and ninjas to take out Al Qaeda and the worst of its Taliban sympathizers. In so doing, give can ourselves a breather from terrorism and Afghanistan a fighting chance to evolve from the first millennium to the third.
“Why can’t we do this overnight?” the lefties want to know. Well, because it took us ten years to get to this sorry point, figure out who our enemies are, and develop a workable strategy.
Also, our blunders have changed Afghanistan beyond measure. In some ways we have changed it for the better. For example, we have encouraged educating girls, begun to train a professional army, and provided opportunities for non-opium commerce. But in some ways we have changed it for the worse. For example, we have installed Hamid Karzai and his corrupt crew, and we have done little to curtail the opium trade besides providing alternatives. Since all this is still a work in progress, we have a moral and practical obligation to make sure it all doesn’t fall apart as we leave. That takes time.
Just logistics alone take time. Even if we wanted all those 33,000 troops out ASAP, it would take more than two months to get them out, flying one 747 a day and leaving all their equipment behind. At that rate getting all our troops out would take over eight months, just for the transportation. As the president has said more than once, you don’t turn a huge ocean liner around on a dime.
When the President says “responsible” exit, he means two things. First, he means “practical and doable.” You don’t move armies and their modern infrastructure overnight. Second, he means “do no more harm than we’ve already done.” That means making sure people who’ve helped us and (through us) their country’s future don’t get butchered. It also means continuing to take out as many more of the baddest guys as we can while we leave.
At least we can feel relieved that we have a President who understands four things. First, you don’t make war on a noun; you have to decide whom you are fighting and act accordingly. Second, when you finally find a strategy that works, you stick with it. Third, you don’t remake cultures by military force; remaking cultures takes centuries, as evidenced by our own re-fighting the Civil War in almost every national election well into the twenty-first century. And fourth, no matter how stupid and disastrous it may have been, you can’t reverse a previous president’s globally announced policy without a lot of diplomacy, finesse, and delay.
The President is turning the ocean liner in the right direction, and we will get home soon.