Monday, September 22, 2008

The price of a missed opportunity

I'd like to take you back for a moment, to a time when American policy makers faced an enormous decision.

The time was during the spring of 2002. Following the September 11 attacks, the U.S. had assembled a truly international coalition (remember the world was on our side at that time) to go after al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan. In an extraordinarily brilliant operation we had driven al-Qaeda from their stronghold in Tora Bora and by working with local warlords had driven the Taliban into a small sliver of mountains and caves in southwest-central Afghanistan.

Though nothing is ever perfect, we won a smashing victory by January of 2002. The one blunder we made was in contracting local Afghan forces to go in and finish off bin Laden instead of doing it ourselves, and he apparently still had either the influence or the money to make his way through their lines. But bin Laden and al-Qaeda were effectively non-entities and the only real question was how long he could stay ahead of our dragnet. We had at that time the full cooperation of the Pakistani military as well. The warlords and other Afghans who had chafed under the rule of the Taliban were glad enough to be gone from it, and the future looked pretty bright.

But then George Bush decided to essentially leave things as they were in Afghanistan, leaving only enough forces there to carry on a war of attrition and he turned our attention to Iraq.

The first major American politician to speak out against the change was Al Gore. He made it clear in the summer of 2002 that we should finish the job in Afghanistan and that it was a mistake to take our eye off the ball. So Republicans accused Gore of playing politics with national security so he could run for President in 2004. Gore responded by making a statement that he would not seek the Presidency in 2004 and continued to press for finishing the job in Afghanistan. I think this is why Republicans so detest Al Gore, more so than pretty much any other Democratic politician (even Bill Clinton.) It is clear that this one area of disagreement would likely have defined where a Gore Presidency would have diverged from the events of the Bush Presidency, and every day that goes by with more bad news from Afghanistan makes it clear that Gore was onto something.

Since then we've seen a muscular re-emergence of the Taliban. The local warlords (who have dubious loyalty to begin with and can be easily bought) began to reconsider their allegiances (why stick with us when it was clear that we were no longer prioritizing them?) The U.S. and our Afghan allies have pretty much become restricted to the cities and military bases, and control only the countryside they are patrolling in, and when they leave it reverts to Taliban control (President Mohammed Karzai has been derisively referred to as 'the mayor of Kabul,' a poke at how far his authority extends.) I've said it before and I've said it again-- the situation we now find ourselves in in Afghanistan is exactly the situation the Soviet Union found itself in during the 1980's. To most Afghans, we have become the Soviet Union.

More ominously the Taliban have strengthened themselves in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. With the unpopular Musharraf dictatorship itself stirring up opposition to its rule (and by implication support for Islamicists) our best hope for a reliable ally in the war against terror was former Prime Minister Benizir Bhutto. But she was killed, and it is still unknown exactly who was responsible and whether the failure of Pakistan's intelligence service to protect her was by design or incompetence. After seven years of war the Pakistani military and intelligence service, always full of Islamist sympathizers, have lost patience with America and now are led by a weak civilian government that is a very very questionable ally. There is ample reason to suspect that bin Laden and the rest of the al-Qaeda leadership now resides on the Pakistani side of the border. We've conducted more and more raids into Pakistan. The Pakistanis say they want advance notice, but with their intel service rife with Taliban informants we might as well CC al-Qaeda directly if we plan to tell the Pakistanis what we are doing. This week things came to an ugly, ugly head. A massive truck bomb at the Marriott hotel killed scores of people. It is clearly the work of either al-Qaeda or the Taliban (does it even matter anymore which one?) The target was twofold: a clear message to the Pakistani government that they are in grave danger if they continue to work with the Americans at all (a message they appear to have gotten with their first action to kick out the FBI and announce they will run the investigation themselves) and to western interests in Pakistan directly-- obviously the Marriott is an American hotel chain and this one was a favorite of western diplomats and media members, some of whom are among the victims.

Most worrisome of all, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Right now there is no reason to believe that any Islamicists have access to their nuclear arsenal, but with the situation deteriorating as it is, can anyone be confident that they won't have such access soon? If the specter of a nuclear cloud over an American city courtesy of a weapon smuggled in by terrorists was used to scare people into supporting the Iraq war, perhaps by allowing al-Qaeda and the Taliban to recover in Afghanistan and then expand over the border and establish themselves so strongly in Pakistan the Bush administration has in fact brought that specter far closer to reality than you or I want to imagine.

Now let's concede for the moment that after five long years of war Iraq appears to be stabilized. It won't become a Jeffersonian democracy to be sure, but we have routed al-Qaeda in Iraq (recall that while Saddam Hussein didn't want any organization operating in Iraq that he didn't control, bin Laden sent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Baghdad in December 2002 when war was imminent officially to seek dental treatment but in fact to begin organizing al-Qaeda in Iraq.) The Sunnis and Shiites are not carrying out ethnic cleansing anymore. And we know for sure that Saddam's alleged WMD stockpile was a ruse designed to maintain his internal power and scare his blood enemy the Iranians.

But let's say Iraq is a success. Forget for a moment the five years of war there, or the trillion dollar pricetag or the 4,000 American soldiers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. There is just one question. is there ANYTHING AT ALL we gain from Iraq that makes it worth the price of letting our enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan escape the noose and grow back as they have? With Pakistan and its nukes now part of the equation, the answer is clearly no.

The best evidence that conservatives know they have screwed up is found in the stretching they go through to justify their ill-fated decision to shift focus. The last time I put up a post on the Afghan situation they kept alluding to the losses al-Qaeda and the Taliban have taken since we went to war on October 7, 2001. Point conceded (though they've never been as strong in Pakistan as they are today.) But that argument misses the point. By January 2002 they were driven back to near total defeat. That was when we took our foot off their neck instead of finishing the job. And as a result they are now a virulent cancer, and in a political climate there where our options are far worse than they were at the time. To claim that because they are weaker now than they were on September 11 so we need not worry is like claiming that because Russia is weaker now than the Soviet Union was during the height of the Cold War therefore there is nothing to fear from Putin. Obviously there is a lot to fear from Putin (the past couple of months should have made that clear) and there is a lot to fear from the Taliban and AQ.

Leaving the root of the weed in the ground instead of finishing it off will likely go down as the most consequential decision of the Bush Presidency, and I only hope that the next President will figure out a way to put together a plan that really does get rid of them once and for all.

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