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September 07, 2004


Hilzoy, I think you and I are in agreement on many issues, and I am in disagreement with George W. Bush on many issues, but on this issue I am probably closer to Mr. Bush than to you.

From my perspective, the idea of pacifying and providing order throughout Afghanistan is a fool's errand. Even the Soviets couldn't do it, and they were right there on the border, and they tried for a decade. Granted, they had certain problems we wouldn't have, but don't underestimate the power of a railroad line running right up to the border.

The size and geography of Afghanistan make it virtually uncontrollable. I don't think that Afghanistan as a nation has ever been firmly under anyone's control throughout history. Armies from the Mongol hordes to the the British Army to the Soviet Army have been broken and bled on those mountain passes. And in between, every mountain valley spoke for itself and governed itself.

You said: My sense, based on everything I've read, is that the Afghan people (unlike the people of, say, Fallujah) badly wanted this to happen.

My sense is different. My sense is that the people of Afghanistan, unless they live in Kabul, want it to rain a little more and they want another pig, and that's about it. They are not accustomed to having their affairs run by any central government, and as a consequence they are not much given to sparing a thought as to who is running that institution.

The only way I would have parted from what Bush has done is that I would have gotten out entirely and not left us tied to that godforsaken and unmanageable country. The only reason I would have gone in to start with was to bust up al Qaeda, which was a major presence there. That job was an important one, and it has been done. If al Qaeda reconstitutes in Afghanistan, we will go back in.

Now it is true that the Taliban was particularly odious insofar as political parties go. I am glad that we took the chance to help the Northern "Alliance" drive those creeps out of power, but despite some sloppy conflations that our media has done, the Taliban is not al Qaeda and vice versa; if the Taliban comes back into power it is not big deal unless they start doing business with AQ again.

It is true that Karzai seems like a good man; however, he does not seem to me like a man who will live a long and fruitful life. After we broke up the AQ camps, I would have wished him well, given him some money if he could demonstrate a wise plan for how to spend it, and said goodbye.

"They are not accustomed to having their affairs run by any central government, and as a consequence they are not much given to sparing a thought as to who is running that institution."

I had thought that the Taliban or warlord boot was pretty firm on the neck of the people even outside Kabul, and that a change would be welcome. Perhaps they'd be happy enough to be left alone, but has that been achieved?

hilzoy, I am one of the rare birds that opposed our invasion of Afghanistan (largely on prudential grounds). I find that it's actually gone much better than I expected and certainly as well as could be hoped regardless of the amount of resources used.

I believe that we have achieved such limited success as we have there precisely because we went in with a small footprint force. What's you explanation? Why didn't the British succeed? Why didn't the Russians?

Further, I believe that had we followed your blueprint we would be experiencing in Afghanistan now exactly what we're experiencing in Iraq now: constant very low level attrition, not much progress.

Finally, I don't see any way we could have apprehended Osama bin Laden without hot pursuit into Pakistan. And that could have been disastrous.

"I am one of the rare birds that opposed our invasion of Afghanistan (largely on prudential grounds)"

Assuming you agree that the Taliban were harboring, funding, and training Al Qaeda, what would have been your preferred response? A reprise of Clintonian long range missile strikes?

Dave: There are various ways in which we might have proceeded in Afghanistan that would have done what I suggested needed to be done. The baseline conditions, as I see them, are: (1) we should have gone in with enough troops that we never needed to rely on Afghan troops instead of our own in really important matters (like Tora Bora), and (2) when the fighting ended, we should have begun a serious effort to provide security and reconstruction. We could have met these criteria had we begun with a force that was large enough to make us self-sufficient, but not large enough to do full security, and added those forces later, when the fighting had stopped. It was not, in my view, necessary to bring in a huge number of forces all at once; whether that would or would not have been the best thing to do depends on considerations like logistics, which I really don't know enough about.

As to why we were welcomed while the Russians and British were not, as I understand it both were trying to conquer the country. We were not. Moreover, it was fairly clear that we were not -- much more so than in Iraq -- since anyone who had heard of 9/11 knew why we were there, and since there was no alternate story about why we were there involving e.g. oil. The British were trying to replace an indigenous leader. The Russians were trying to prop up a puppet government which was widely hated. We were trying to remove a government which was widely hated. Plus, we were after al Qaeda, and from everything I've read, al Qaeda was not too popular there either. (Arrogant foreigners who have bought the government rarely are.)

"As to why we were welcomed while the Russians and British were not, as I understand it both were trying to conquer the country. We were not."

But under you plan we would have been. Which changes things significantly.

Sebastian: no, we wouldn't have been trying to conquer the country; and no, we wouldn't necessarily have been perceived that way. Karzai was begging for help. People did not resent our presence. And, as I said, they also understood why we were there.

I would be interested to know why you think that undertaking a risky occupation of Iraq was more important than undertaking a risky occupation of Afghanistan. Offhand, I would have thought that there were two main WoT-related 'justifications' for going into Iraq. First, one might think that there was an immediate danger of Saddam giving WMD to al Qaeda; second, one might have thought that the transformation of the Middle East would ultimately undercut al Qaeda's appeal. The first requires that it be true both that Saddam had WMD and that he was cooperating with al Qaeda. Both were false. Before the war I thought he did have WMD, but I couldn't see any evidence that he was cooperating with al Qaeda. And such cooperation seemed unlikely to me on ideological and other grounds. By comparison, Afghanistan had of course no WMD, but it had offered something that al Qaeda badly needed, namely a base of operations where it could operate unmolested. The ties between al Qaeda and Afghanistan were obvious; the best one can say about the analogous case about Iraq is that if you squint really hard, you can see a few things that need explaining.

As to the 'transforming the Middle East' line of thought, if we're not talking now about a process that will come to fruition in a century or so, it would have required real deftness on the part of the Bush administration to pull this off in a way that wouldn't inflame people's resentment of us. Moreover, if we didn't pull this off, we aren't just back where we started as far as support for al Qaeda is concerned; we're much worse off. So there was always a major potential downside. The administration's prosecution of this war has been, in my view, not just not deft, but incompetent, and I think it will be a long time before we undo this damage. By contrast, Afghanistan was always easier to pull off, especially once the government had been constituted in the loya jirga and had asked for our help. And we could, as I said, have done something that would have confounded the people who hate us, and whose results would have been most visible in some of the parts of the Middle East we most want to influence.

Add to that the fact that Iraq seems to be on its way to becoming a failed state, which will provide al Qaeda with one more safe haven than it had before.

If I understand hilzoy correctly, she is not saying "full scale invasion with U.S. troops". She is saying, sure, let the Northern Alliance handle the Taliban, but insist on U.S. special forces to handle the hunt for high ranking Al Qaeda members. Then, afterwards, send in troops at Karzai's request so that the national government does not depend on warlords to provide security during the critical period, and provide much more in the way of financial resources to rebuild the country.

Am I correct about that? If so I agree completely. I might even be convinced that we should have invaded with U.S. ground troops from the start, but I'm a lot more skeptical of that.

marguerite: yes. Or rather, I am agnostic about the best way to proceed at the outset, so long as we do the crucial attempts at capture ourselves. Then, do the reconstruction right. Do it better than right. Then leave, with no strings attached. It's morally right, it denies al Qaeda safe haven for the long run, not just immediately; and it would (imho) have been an enormous asset in the battle for hearts and minds.

Afghanistan hasn't had a strong central government in its entire history. How would we stamp out the warlords without appearing to be an occupying army? Furthermore the terrain in Afghanistan is much more challenging than in Iraq.

I also suspect that the word 'reconstruction' is an exercise in optimism. Afghanistan didn't have a highly functioning society that got broken down by war. It has never had what we think of as a high-level functioning society. Iraq at least has some of the trappings of a modern state, Afghanistan never has. Iraq had something to reconstruct after Saddam, Afghanistan had very little even before the Taliban.

Every so often, when I am thinking about one of these countries, I feel like throwing up my hands and saying: why don't we just go in and fix it? Normally we can't, since normally one is not supposed to go around invading other countries without some very compelling reason: having been attacked, facing a clear and imminent threat which can be met by no other means, stopping an ongoing humanitarian disaster.

In the case of Afghanistan, we can't fix it because there is very little 'it' to fix. Iraq has industry, a trained workforce, an industrial infrastructure, a relatively functioning school system, normal banks, working ports and trading systems and a valuable legal natural resource. Afghanistan has almost none of those. We can try to set the stage for eventual long-term betterment, and I think we have. But the idea that Afghanistan would be easier to fix than Iraq boggles my mind.

Afghanistan was at least reasonably stable under Zahir Shah, at least as stable as any other regime in the region. They even had elections and limited democracy.

Afghanistan wasn't always the basket case it is now thanks to decades of war.

For heaven's sake Hilzoy, cast your vote. Your well structured logic backing in to your premise sound so wonderful. However, we would have bogged down in Afghanistan. MSM and Hollywood Democrats would have begun quickly to howl occupation. 1,000 troops would have died, Kerry and his 'speuttbawl' brigade would have campaigned on removing troops from the quagmire and you know what? Hussein would have wiped out another 50,000 or so citizens, and these terrorist leaders that he so dislikes would have set up shop in one of his castles. We are far, far beyond what your wishful thinking would have brought us. Our president would welcome your vote, but understands how hard it is to think beyond political correctness.

There were many, many, many Afganis who wanted us to stay. I'm not suggesting that would have lasted indefinately but for those that cling to the neo-con fantasy of remaking the third world Afganistan would have proved a useful venue for experiment. It lies within the "gap" of the "Pentagon's New Map". Restoring it's infrastructure would be a less costly affair than Iraq's. Success there would have demonstrated to Europe that the results are worth the effort as we repeat the task in Sudan, Yeman, and other nodes of chaos. We could have used the Afganistan experiment to build the Sys Ops Force Barnett is promoting in his book and Powerpoint presentations to anyone who will listen. In short, we could have tackled the problems of the 21st century in a more thoughtful, nuanced way without blowing our wad on Iraq and with more support from our erstwhile allies. The biggest costs of having Bush as president lies not in the deficit, nor the lowering of the marginal tax rate, nor even in the misguided Iraq adventure but instead in the opportunities lost by his incompetance.

blogbudsman - where do you get the 50,000 number? You mean the people Saddam killed when Bush I exhorted the Kurds and Shia to rebel and then stood back as Saddam put down the rebellion? Do you refer the 600,000 who died in our Civil War as people that Lincoln killed? Investigators in Iraq haven't been able to find the tens of thousands of dead your side claims. And we don't count the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands dead due to our efforts. Saddam was and is a nasty character, but a true calculus of calamity might not be as weighted to Saddam's side as you think.

And is it not possible to speak even of Afghanistan, an issue upon which there is little light between the parties' positions, without casting pejoratives such as "Hollywood Democrats" and "Kerry and his 'speuttbawl' brigade"?

From Article: March 23, 2003, The Independent, UK, by Phil Reeves
“US General: ‘West is Failing Afghans’

The chief of the US forces in Afghanistan, Lt-Gen Dan McNeill, said he was ‘frustrated’ that the West had ‘not made a more bold step’ to rebuild Afghanistan, adding that this could be an important lesson for Iraq. The US search for al-Qa’ida and the Taliban would have been easier if the aid had flowed faster, he said. His remarks echo the worries of many in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, ranging from international aid workers to officials in the unstable transitional government of President Hamid Karzai. Fears abound that the war in Iraq and its aftermath will mean that international support falls away.”

The rebuilding of Afghanistan, after a quarter of a century of conflict, has been plagued by squabbles between the US military and international aid agencies, by continuing violence, and by the new government’s lack of security control over most of the country.

General McNeill commands 10,500 troops in Afghanistan.

With federal funds for Afghanistan running out in September 2004, the Bush administration decided to wait after the November presidential election for more allocations. Since Bush’s Fiscal 2004 budget contained no money for Afghanistan or Iraq, the Pentagon scrambled to cover as much as $19 billion in costs for September 2004 through January 2005. (New York Times and Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2004)

General Peter Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I am concerned … on how we bridge between the end of this fiscal year and whenever we could get a supplemental in the next year. … I do not have an answer for exactly how we would do that.” (New York Times and Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2004)

"Restoring it's infrastructure would be a less costly affair than Iraq's."

Afghanistan's infrastructure is restored now. You want it to be better than it has ever been, which is fine, but the 'restored' has all the wrong connotations as does 'rebuild'. What you are asking is for it to be built up from scratch.

"The chief of the US forces in Afghanistan, Lt-Gen Dan McNeill, said he was ‘frustrated’ that the West had ‘not made a more bold step’ to rebuild Afghanistan, adding that this could be an important lesson for Iraq. The US search for al-Qa’ida and the Taliban would have been easier if the aid had flowed faster, he said."

This is an interesting point, I don't know if it is true but it certainly fits with hilzoy's ideas. Note he says, 'the West'. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that the US was distracted by Iraq, what is the excuse for the rest of the West? Are the incapable of doing anything without the US forcing them to? Are they uninterested in the war on terrorism? Do they believe that Afghanistan was not important to the war on terrorism?

trickster - "an issue upon which there is little light between the parties' positions"

I have become cynical, true. Terribly so. It's ironic that the less light between the parties the closer they are. The 'light' widens in large part, not by the nature of the endeavor, but from the motives of those impacted by the results. There is a direct corrolation between the time elapsed from 9/11 to the time remaining in the political campaign. Ah, the light is now bright. 'Tis sad.

blogbudsman: please don't tell me what Democrats would or would not have done without providing some evidence. Virtually no one opposed the invasion of Afghanistan. You may imagine that we would have reacted one way or another to the scenario I have put forward, but unless you give some grounds for what you're saying, that's exactly what you're doing: imagining things. And, in my view, the fact that some Democrats oppose a war that we genuinely do not believe was warranted in terms of the WoT, and that moreover was a dangerous distraction from it, tells you nothing about how we would have responded to making a stronger effort to rebuild a country that we had, according to virtually all of us, been absolutely right to invade. (Note: "virtually" here reflects the existence of a Democratic fringe, not a significant faction of the party. It's in that sentence for the same reason that you might say "Virtually all Republicans condemn violence against their political opponents" -- namely, that every party, one's own included, has its odious whackos.)

Also, as others have noted, it would be interesting to see why you think that 50,000 Iraqis would have been killed had we not invaded. I loathe and despise Saddam Hussein, but I see no reason to think that's true.

Finally, what makes you so confident that 'terrorist leaders would have set up shop in one of his castles'? In an earlier thread you said that his regime was like a big welcome mat for terrorists. What makes you say this, in the absence of any evidence that terrorists who mean us harm had seen that welcome mat and walked in? (And don't mention Ansar al-Islam, which was operating in a part of Iraq that we had denied Saddam Hussein access to and control over.)

I think that it was wishful thinking that led this adminstration to think that we would be welcomed into Iraq; wishful thinking that led it to think that the troop levels it committed would be adequate to win the peace; wishful thinking to suppose that we could install Chalabi and that would be that. I also think it's wishful thinking to suppose that by doing what we did in Afghanistan, we have done what we needed to do to deny al Qaeda sanctuary in that country. I did not claim that my approach would necessarily have worked. I did claim that it would have been more likely to work than the Iraq invasion, and that it would have been worth trying. I can see being legitimately criticized on a number of grounds, but being criticized for wishful thinking by a supporter of our invasion of Iraq does not seem to me to be one of them.

It's not always the fringe left either. Pat Buchannon was against the first war in Iraq.

"What makes you say this, in the absence of any evidence that terrorists who mean us harm had seen that welcome mat and walked in?"

Abdul Yasin--involved in the plot to destroy the World Trade Center the first time. Iraq was one of the tightest police states in recent history. Yasin was in the capital city for almost a decade. Some of it was spent under arrest for charges which have never been specified. He was never turned over to US authorities. An offer was made to turn him over much later IF the US publically announced that Iraq had not been harbouring him--Clinton's government declined because it was untrue.

Mohammed Abbas--mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking which involved the murder of wheelchair-bound American Jew Leon Klinghoffer. Found in the capital city of one of the tightest police states around.

It's ironic that the less light between the parties the closer they are.

If by "ironic" you mean "tautological," sure!

Sebastian: sorry not to have been clearer. In the original thread in which the comment I was talking about was made, and in this one, I was arguing that we need to protect ourselves from terrorists who intend to do us harm in the future, not to capture terrorists who have done us harm in the past, gratifying though that might be. Obviously, a terrorist who harmed us, say, a week ago should presumptively be viewed as one who still means us harm in the future. But since Abbas' last act against us took place in 1985 and Yasin's in 1993, if memory serves, there are, I think, some grounds for wondering whether their presence in Iraq revealed anything more than Saddam's willingness to provide a retirement home for totally awful people. If there were nothing else that needed doing in the WoT, and if the downside of invading Iraq seemed very low, I might think: who cares, it's hard to know, let's go for it. (Though, frankly, it would have to be lower than an invasion of a country could possibly be.) But since the whole point of my post was to say: there was a much more important thing to do, as far as protecting ourselves from terrorists is concerned, I don't find the evidence you cite reason to change my assessment.

If something is predictable based on pattern and practice, time honored tradition and invincibility of old habits, then it's not imagined, regardless of the level of denial you're in. Everything I said was valid based on trend analysis if nothing else. Given the current set of circumstances you respond one way, but would take a higher road if those circumstances were different. That reassuring. Read any publication with the word Times in it and I come out smelling like a rose. (There's an opening for you carseat, pounce!)

Trend analysis: Democratic party response to direct attacks on the United States:

1861: Confusion. Party demoralised and divided.
1941: Declares war. Party supports war until victory is declared.
2001: Supports invasion of Afghanistan. Support continues to this day.

If we discount the first of our three data points, on the grounds that our Dixiecrat wing has long since left the party, the trend is clear. Even if we don't, the trend is clearly towards support of wars undertaken in retaliation for direct attacks on the US.

Declares war, fights Germany and Italy before Japan...

And Iraq was just like Germany. What with their similar army strength and occupation of other countries.

But Condi Rice says everything is fine and the Taliban is no more.

I see no reason to doubt her.

hilzoy - you neglect the (to my mind anyway) important category of humanitarian intervention - on which Clinton's record is both good and very bad.

Declares war, fights Germany and Italy before Japan...


Tell that to the veterans of Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Doolittle's Raid, Coral Sea, Midway, the Guadalcanal Campaign, Savo Island, Santa Cruz, Watchtower, and no doubt I'm leaving off several other Pacific battles and operations that occurred prior to our first land campaign in the European theater, Operation Torch, which commenced November 8, 1942.

You'll have to subtract a couple of names, but not many and not the most significant, from that list if you start with our first European heavy bombing campaign, which began August 17, 1942.

rilkefan -- where? It's on my cursory list of reasons for justifiable invasions at the end of the first para. of my post.

hilzoy - sorry, was responding to your September 8, 2004 02:58 PM. Really this site produces too many posts/comments for me to keep up with, esp. of late.

Give me a break Trickster. Please answer the following simple question directly:

Which theater was the focus of our energy in 1942? The Pacific or the European?

Sort of a moot point, since we did in fact invade Afghanistan before Iraq, so the historical analogy is even stronger in Trickster's version.

But by all means, continue fighting the last war (4 wars ago).

(I kid).

Rilkefan -- ah. That was in response to blogbudsman. I had asked for the basis of his claim that had my modest proposal been followed, "MSM and Hollywood Democrats would have begun quickly to howl occupation. 1,000 troops would have died, Kerry and his 'speuttbawl' brigade would have campaigned on removing troops from the quagmire". He said that it was based on "trend analysis". Thus I restricted myself to analyzing Democrats' response to direct attacks, since I took that to be the trend in question. (I suspect he would have picked some trend including, oh, Vietnam and Iraq, which seem to me entirely different.)

Sebastian, here's a question for you. Which WWII belligerant first destroyed an American warship and killed most of its crew? Hint: it wasn't Japan. There's also the small fact that Hitler declared war on the U.S., not vice versa, and that he was at war with our allies. You are, of course, correct that U.S. policy in WWII was to win in Europe first. But trying to create some kind of analogy from that to the invasion of Iraq is just laughable.

I have no idea what you mean by "focus of our energy." Perhaps there is some metric such as tons of supplies shipped or whatever that would favor the European Theater, since the scale of war in Europe was so much greater, but that metric would be greatly misleading about what actually happened involving American forces in 1942.

But I do know that we had barely even gotten started in the European Theater by the end of 1942. In the Pacific Theater, we had already won the war at Midway and Guadalcanal.

We fought the Japanese tooth and nail with everything we could get over there. It was desparate fighting in the Pacific in 1942. And by the end of 1942, we had broken the Japanese back at Midway and Guadalcanal. Never again would the ultimate outcome of any Pacific campaign, not to mention the war, be in doubt.

Scarcely a single American bomb had fallen or shell been fired in the European theater when we won Midway, which I personally style as the greatest naval battle in history. Maybe it's because I'm something of an amateur historian of the Pacific War, but I find the idea that we concentrated on Europe first to be amusingly inaccurate.

Excellent post - which I seem to have missed at the time.

Proves my point, I think, that the attack on Afghanistan was not justified.

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