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October 25, 2004

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Perhaps the 'October Surprise' this election season is that the press is finally asking some of the basic questions we've been discussing in the blogs for some time.
The Zarqawi question being one at the top of the list.

The excuses for failure to destroy the camp are almost as pathetic as the failure to destroy the camp.

"Would it have taken "ground troops" to take out this training camp? I thought that was why we had bombers and cruise missiles."

You wanted us to take out a town by carpet bombing? Really?

As for specific intelligence of whereabouts, our decapitation strikes didn't kill any of the top Iraqi officals, and we had more obvious intelligence about them, right? Suggesting that in an analogous, but easier, case we didn't have sufficient intelligence.

Which leaves what?

(I also have comments on the subject I made in March here.)

I'm puzzled. hilzoy's advocating starting the war before we actually started the war?

Did I miss something? Did we never hit this camp? Or did we just wait until we'd committed, to strike?

Sebastian: "retired Gen. John M. Keane, the U.S. Army's vice chief of staff when the strike was considered, said that because the camp was isolated in the thinly populated, mountainous borderlands of northeastern Iraq, the risk of collateral damage was minimal." Thus, I am not recommending carpet-bombing a town.

Slart: I have never been against strikes on terrorist training camps.

And let's remember all the massive bombing we were already doing in the no fly zones before the war, Sebastian. As I remember from the reports after the initial invasion about Zarqawi's camp, it was just a pack of ruins already.

Nice try in trying to play the humanitarian card. . .

And let's remember all the massive bombing we were already doing in the no fly zones before the war, Sebastian.

Really? Massive?

I was under the impression that we were simply taking out radar/SAM sites that decided to, what the hell, go ahead and track us in defiance of the cease-fire agreement.

The thinly populated mountainous region is one thing, the camp itself was basically a town. It didn't just have terrorists in it which is why just sending cruise missiles would have been inappropriate.

And once again, if the issue was Zarqawi, wouldn't you want good intelligence that he was there before bombing?

I'm tempted to say "do you read", but I'll let it slide. Three times, Sebastian. Three times they had plans and as good of intelligence as they were going to get. Three times they said "no". Not because there wasn't good enough intelligence. Not because they weren't prepared.

But because they didn't want to undercut the case for war.

And considering all the collateral damage done in Iraq, I find your sudden concern for civillian causualties odd. If you're willing to see 20K+ innocent Iraqis die based on a pipe dream, what's a few more?

And considering the vast number of civilian causualties the man is responsible for after the end of major combat operations, it seems like your moral calculus has gotten itself into a pickle.

And once again, if the issue was Zarqawi, wouldn't you want good intelligence that he was there before bombing?

Well sure. Because if we'd missed him then, maybe he'd be running around blowing up and beheading Americans as of today.

Oh. Wait...

rjt: yep. It's a no-lose situation. If we bombed and missed him, we'd be in the exact same pickle that we're now in if we did nothing.

Sebastian isn't using logic, it's a excuse.

One has to admire Sebastian's ability to look facts squarely in the eye and then ignore them. Bravo.

"It's a no-lose situation. If we bombed and missed him, we'd be in the exact same pickle that we're now in if we did nothing."

Uh, no. If we had bombed and missed him we would have been dealing with pictures of crying women and dead babies while we were in the middle of negotiations with the UN to even bother getting inspectors into Iraq. None of the commenters here seem to bother with the timeline. Early to mid-2002. Diplomacy. You complain about it all the time. So think about it yourself.

Hilzoy's revelation reminds me of the joy of spring. Little shoots of plants, long forgotten, rejuvenated by perfect mix of conditions. Otherwise, long forgotten and given up for dead, overlooked with the planting of new seeds and more current events. These old accusations, borne from disgruntled staffers, that were beat around and dissipated from lack of substance or easily debunked. Will the desperation ever end? Will the voters be persuaded by these pitiful efforts to misinform. It's too damn likely.

negotiations with the UN wink, wink.

Sebastian, so what you're saying is that if we had bombed and missed him we would have undercut our case for war?

We would have undercut even our case for inspectors, or further sanctions, or continued no-fly zones.

Sebastian: with all due respect, I'll stick with the army vice chief of staff's assessment of the potential for collateral damage ("minimal") over yours. As far as negotiations for the presence of inspectors: one opportunity to get him was in June 2002. But another is described in the WSJ as "around the end of 2002", at which point the inspectors were already there. That's the period during which Franks' book and the report prepared for Cheney say we had confirmed evidence that he was in the camp.

I think what Sebastian is trying to tell you knuckleheads is that the terrorist training camps were in a no fly zone.

Why any of you would advocate the US violate such a no fly zone, especially after all the rules changed due to 9/11, is beyond me. Do I have this right Sebastian?

"I think what Sebastian is trying to tell you knuckleheads is that the terrorist training camps were in a no fly zone."

Err, and who policed the no-fly zones? (Apologies if you're being delibrately ironic here).

"....who policed the no-fly zones? (Apologies if you're being delibrately ironic here)."

OK. good point. Well maybe Sebastian was trying to tell the knuckheads that it would be wrong to attack those terrorist in Iraq cause the admininstration was planning to attack the terrorists in Iraq, but later.

I don't know.

Another option would have been sending in the peshmerga.

Hey, if Sebastian is coming out against collateral damage after all this time, I don't want to discourage him.

I guess even the most committed supporter of the invasion of Iraq has to come to a point where his stomach turns at the thought of killing civilians, and Sebastian's point is something like 13 000 or more.

Please, Jesurgislac. We've been throught the whole body-count bit. It's not a tally of deaths at the hands of the coalition; it's a tally of deaths at the hands of anybody.

This is probably an example of US Cold War mindsets surviving 9/11 largely unscathed.

Considering we’d been actively using Jihadis despite vocal anti-Semitism/Americanism since the 70s all the way up to Kosovo there might well be a lot of US defense people who thought Al Zarqawi was a potentially useful asset.

Jihadis fought against the Communist Najibullah regime in the Afghan war; why not against a secular Socialist dictator like Saddam?

Sebastian, remember Bill Clinton's strike? At the time of the run up to the war, Zarqawi was clearly determined to be of more use to the administration alive - as a propaganda tool - than dead. From all we know now, the decision to go to war was already made - the "diplomacy" was just that - surrounded with scare quotes.

And from the POV of the right - not mine, mind you - this would have been a good show of resolve and such.

But the bottom line isn't all the above, as it's pretty darn clear from the record that these considerations that Sebastian is throwing out weren't even on the radar. What was on the radar was the impending war, and taking out Zarqawi would have undercut that case. They didn't decline to get him because of diplomatic concerns. They didn't take out Zarqawi because of concerns for collateral damage. Heck, it wasn't even because they didn't think the intelligence was good enough and therefore not a good risk.

So it really doesn't matter what distraction Sebastian wants to discuss, bring up or blow smoke over. The facts show what the reasoning was and that's what we should be arguing about.

Bringing up all sorts of noise and speculation is a great way to have a heated debate without actually talking about the issue.

I'm not against collateral damage in total. I'm saying that it made excellent sense at the time to delay on one important issue to allow you to deal with two important issues. At the time the decision was made (2002) we were deep in the diplomatic game with the UN. At the time, we didn't know that France would obstruct as much as it did. At the time many people didn't even admit that Zarqawi was a member of Al-Qaeda.

Sebastian: as I noted above, we made this decision several times, one of which was around the end of 2002, when we did know most of the things you mention, more than enough to justify a strike on Zarqawi.

And let's not forget the overriding fervor to strike terrorists whereever they are - regardless of the niceties of diplomacy. I find it odd that Clinton showed more cahones in this kind of matter than did the supposed adult, realist cowboys currently occupying the white house.

Sebastian: I'm not against collateral damage in total. ... At the time the decision was made (2002) we were deep in the diplomatic game with the UN

So, you're only against killing civilians when killing civilians will prove diplomatically embarrassing? Ah well. No moral high ground there, then.

i'm going to be contrarian, and support SH (but not his reasoning).

1. the Bush admin. honestly believed that Saddam was its No. 1 priority.

2. Pinprick strikes can backfire politically, as Clinton experienced both in the AlQ cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Desert Fox strikes against Saddam (which, apparently, were a significant military success, unlike the aspirin lab).

3. Control of the no-fly zone was . . . ambiguous. Saddam violated it under Bush I to attack the marsh arabs and again under Clinton (i think) to attack the Kurds before they got their act together. It would have been a major escalation to put troops on the ground in Iraq under the protection of US air power. Saddam would have gone through the roof at the UN, and might have gotten traction from europe.

4. Part of effective leadership is engaging in thoughtful cost-benefit analyses. What did the CIA think of Zarkawi at the time? just a punk or a major threat? Did the military plan on rolling up his little camp with the attack thru Turkey?

In sum, i can see lots of good reasons not to deal with Zarkawi prior to the invasion. Instead, I add his current terrorism to the long list of failures of the post-invasion management.

Francis

Instead, I add his current terrorism to the long list of failures of the post-invasion management.

Indeed, as do I. That everyone with 20-20 hindsight can speak so authoritatively as to what should have been done is understandable - but to act as if this should have been clear to everyone involved at the time is not particularily reasonable.

Jonas: but to act as if this should have been clear to everyone involved at the time is not particularily reasonable.

Bush & Co have a thoroughly and well documented habit of ignoring what expert advisers suggest they should do if it doesn't suit them.

When good advice is offered, by people who have sound, reality-based reasons for their advice, and you refuse to take it, and then things go wrong in exactly the way that was predicted, and clearly because you failed to take the good advice...

Well, at that point you'd have to be a complete irresponsible loon* to say "It's not my fault! 20/20 hindsight! How could I have known that would happen?"

*by which I mean, of course: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, et al.

Did the State Department think that bombing Zarqawi's camp would have been a good idea?

Oberon is correct: "The excuses for failure to destroy the camp are almost as pathetic as the failure to destroy the camp."

It's amazing--well, not really--to see Sebastian suddenly be concerned about collateral damage and public relations imagery after dozens of posts advocating a total war against Islam.

Now, Sebastian seems oddly concerned about what the State Dept. might have thought about Zarqawi. Funny, I never realized Sebastian cared much for what the State Dept. thought. But--we need only look back at Colin Powell's Dienbienphu--otherwise known as his presentation to the UN in Feb. 2003. Some excerpts:

But what I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi an associate and collaborator of Usama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants.

..........

When our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp, and this camp is located in northeastern Iraq. You see a picture of this camp.

The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons. Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch -- imagine a pinch of salt -- less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock, followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within 72 hours and there is no antidote. There is no cure. It is fatal.

Those helping to run this camp are Zarqawi lieutenants operating in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq. But Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization Ansar al-Islam that controls this corner of Iraq. In 2000, this agent offered al-Qaida safe haven in the region.

After we swept al-Qaida from Afghanistan, some of those members accepted this safe haven. They remain there today.

.............

We know these affiliates are connected to Zarqawi because they remain, even today, in regular contact with his direct subordinates, include the poison cell plotters. And they are involved in moving more than money and materiel. Last year, two suspected al-Qaida operatives were arrested crossing from Iraq into Saudi Arabia. They were linked to associates of the Baghdad cell and one of them received training in Afghanistan on how to use cyanide.

From his terrorist network in Iraq, Zarqawi can direct his network in the Middle East and beyond. We in the United States, all of us, the State Department and the Agency for International Development, we all lost a dear friend with the cold-blooded murder of Mr. Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan, last October. A despicable act was committed that day, the assassination of an individual whose sole mission was to assist the people of Jordan. The captured assassin says his cell received money and weapons from Zarqawi for that murder. After the attack, an associate of the assassin left Jordan to go to Iraq to obtain weapons and explosives for further operations. Iraqi officials protest that they are not aware of the whereabouts of Zarqawi or of any of his associates. Again, these protests are not credible. We know of Zarqawi's activities in Baghdad. I described them earlier.

Now let me add one other fact. We asked a friendly security service to approach Baghdad about extraditing Zarqawi and providing information about him and his close associates. This service contacted Iraqi officials twice and we passed details that should have made it easy to find Zarqawi. The network remains in Baghdad. Zarqawi still remains at large, to come and go.

As my colleagues around this table and as the citizens they represent in Europe know, Zarqawi's terrorism is not confined to the Middle East. Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against countries including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia. According to detainees Abu Atiya, who graduated from Zarqawi's terrorist camp in Afghanistan, tasked at least nine North African extremists in 2001 to travel to Europe to conduct poison and explosive attacks.

Obviously, Powell considered Zarqawi an existing threat.


Bush & Co have a thoroughly and well documented habit of ignoring what expert advisers suggest they should do if it doesn't suit them.

They most certainly do. It does not follow, however, that all advice given them was great, and they should have done what was suggested.

I'm just agnostic about whether a strike against Zarqawi would have been a good idea. Francis outlined some sound, reality-based reasons as to why it might not have been a good idea.

Meanwhile, we simply do not know what would have happened if the Administration did strike. Although I suspect that in that alternative universe you would be not be defending the decision if anything bad happened, because there would inevitably be an expert adviser leaking that he had warned everyone about what horrible things would follow :-)

Powell certainly took advantage of the administration's decision not to act. but that speech isn't particularly relevant on the overall merits of whether or not to destroy the camp.

now, the published articles certainly suggest that the admin. suppressed the strike for craven motives, i.e, to keep drumming up support for war.

but reality ain't Patriot Games (actually it may be, i'm not the CIA's Deputy Director in charge of Ops. but i doubt it.) and putting in an assassination / strike team on the ground, or levelling the camp w/ B-52s, is likely not as easy as it seems. so it's possible that the decision was made not to attack for a mixture of reasons, both good and bad.

here's where i'm going. we have all been sharply partisan over the last several months. but as the election draws near, it's time to remember that a new presidential term will be starting soon. If Kerry wins, i'm hoping that the (loyal) opposition will be fair. and even if bush wins, we democrats will have to move past the election loss.

i want a president to be reluctant to cause civilian casualties, even for the wrong reasons. And i want both sides to recognize, as hard as it is to do so, that the next president will make decisions for good and bad, political and policy-based, reasons.

not killing innocents is rarely wrong, especially if you think you're going to get the bastard later.

Francis

The article is not behind a subscription firewall. It is available here.

Obviously, Powell considered Zarqawi an existing threat.

Which is completely non-responsive to my question. Powell considered Saddam to be an existing threat too.

At the time that these opportunities reportedly presented themselves, the US was enforcing the no-fly zones and taking out radar systems and anti-aircraft locations in response to targeting of our aircraft. The US was not, at the time, engaged in offensive military operations but was responding to specific actions in accordance with the cease fire agreement.

Mounting an offensive operation would have undercut the diplomatic pressure on Iraq and complicated the ongoing and ultimately doomed effort to bring the rest of the security council on board for the coalition military build up taking place on the Iraqi border. Whether you believe this build-up was intended as a pressure mechanism to force Saddam to comply or part of a forgone conclusion to go to war is mostly irrelevant to the fact that getting more countries on board the coalition was considered a primary goal by members of both parties.

Using the Kurds, as was suggested above, would have inflamed Turkey who was then on the fence about letting the coalition cross their territory for the infamous northern front.

Unless the US had intelligence that indicated that taking out the camp would result in a significant reduction in the risk of terrorist attack, holding off until the diplomatic climate calmed down (or war operations resumed) was probably prudent given the information at the time. Zarqawi was then considered a middle level figure at best and not worth upsetting the efforts to contain what was perceived as the bigger threat of Saddam Hussein.

In hindsight, this was probably a bad decision. It turned out that Turkey disallowed the use of their territory anyway and the other NATO powers didn't come around. But this is only obvious in hindsight. Furthermore, the military has certainly been trying to target Zarqawi since the very beginning of the war and has so far been unsuccessful. Assumptions of success before the war started are probably overly optimistic considering the military's ability to wield lethal force is much greater now than it ever was during the no-fly zone enforcement period.

It is certainly embarrassing that Zarqawi is on TV executing people but US forces can't track the guy down or infiltrate his organization.

There's a certain amount of context to consider here.

Whether or not the decision made was the right one is, oddly enough, pretty immaterial. What is under discussion is the motivations for the decision. Was it made for strategic reasons, or was it made for political reasons?

Now, nobody (I hope) will claim that any politicians dealing with military action are aloof individuals who make decisions irrespective of their political expediency. It is generally considered to be the case, however, that executive decisions about military action will balance the political ramifications of military action with the strategic consequences, and try to work out a middle ground.

Thus far, from the perspective of us left-wing moderates on the ground, the Bush administration has made such a run of poor decisions and been second-guessed by schmucks with pizza on their keyboards so many times that, if he does make a good decision now, we assume it was accidental -- that it just so happened that the security and military case happened to be just what the political case needed.

Why does it matter, if it was the right decision for the wrong reasons? Because right now we're seeing what appear to be similar thought processes, with the US Presidential election dictating military strategy on the ground, rather than the pressing concerns of the actual militants who we are supposed to be fighting. In other words, if you make the right decisions only by accident, it's pretty much guaranteed that you're going to get the wrong answer a lot of the time as well.

How can I be so certain of the administration thought process? Am I a mindreader?

Well, no, but as I said above, we have four years of context (or longer, if we look at Bush's governorship of Texas) to look at the ways in which decisions are made by this president and his team, by Mr Cheney and Mr Ashcroft and Mr Rumsfeld. We know they lie, we know that they had precious little in the way of a real military strategy once they'd "shocked and awed" Iraq into submission, we know they don't care for little things like "the constitution" if they get in the way of electoral gain. In fact, given four years of context it is very hard to imagine Bush doing anything for the reasons suggested in this thread.

I'm not a mindreader, I'm just an observer. It may well be that the Bush white house is full of very clever, policy-driven strategists who have got all the unlucky breaks in Iraq and whose publicists are so incompetent that they make them seem like dunderheads, but I doubt it. The alternative is outlined above. And that's why this is important, especially on the eve of an election where people will go to the polls and say "I think George W Bush has done a good enough job to keep the suitcase with the red button in it for another four years" or not, don't you think?

I don't buy the argument that because this administration has made numerous strategic and tactical mistakes that it never makes good decisions or only makes good decisions essentially by accident. Any military campaign is strewn with numerous misteps and mistakes. I'm certainly not an expert on previous war tactics but the consensus of what I have read of prior wars indicates laundry list of errors of various importance.

But I can judge the results of this war based on my expections. I did not expect Afghanistan to be able to hold elections a mere three years after the initial invasion. Even given that surprising success, I would still not expect Iraqi elections to be held less than two years from the overthrow of that regime. This is yet to take place and there is certainly some question as to the success at this point. But 3 months before the Afghan elections, things were not looking all that great either.

So far, the results of one ME war has been surprizingly good. If the Bush administration manages to pull off the Iraqi election, it would certainly be quite an accomplishment. There have been many setbacks and some markedly bad decisions, but declaring failure seems premature. Writing off the in-theater leaders, given the fundamental successes against what seemed bad odds, also seems like a bad bet.

Gedanken: I did not expect Afghanistan to be able to hold elections a mere three years after the initial invasion.

Elections which amount to appointing a democratically-elected Mayor of Kabul. Most of Afghanistan is under the effective control of the local warlords. Real elections are a good sign. Dummy elections aren't.

Even given that surprising success, I would still not expect Iraqi elections to be held less than two years from the overthrow of that regime.

Real elections? No. Dummy elections? Sure, why not?

Hey Jes, you seemed to be satisfied with 'dummy' elections in America, like getting your party in power with the misinformed quartile and the power of the liberal party media. Why are you holding Afghanistan to such high standards? Oh yeah, any hint of success might render aid to the opposition party. I forgot.

Blogbuds, you'll have to translate the above. Are you calling the 2000 election a "dummy" election, and claiming that I was content with "getting your party in power with the misinformed quartile"? I know Bush got less than 25% of the popular vote, but I'm neither a registered Democrat nor a registered Republican, and never will be.

However, FWIW, although I have (and have voiced) strong doubts about the 2000 election, in particular the vote-rigging in Florida, and have strong doubts about the 2004 election, I do not think that the level of democracy in the US has yet fallen to the level that we can really talk about "dummy elections" in the US. Whereas the elections in Afghanistan were meaningless: a new Mayor of Kabul was elected, and the warlords continue in power except where the Taliban is in control.

I know Bush got less than 25% of the popular vote

Hogwash, Jes. Popular vote percentages are calculated by dividing the number of votes a candidate received by the total number of votes cast. When presenting irrelevancies, it's best to at least present them accurately.

Popular vote percentages are calculated by dividing the number of votes a candidate received by the total number of votes cast. When presenting irrelevancies, it's best to at least present them accurately.

Slarti, I was responding to Blogbuds assessment, in his terms. If you have a problem with the way Blogbuds presented the results of the 2000 election, go talk to him about it.

I'm under no obligation to correct the errors of everyone, Jesurgislac. Just correcting my own is nearly enough. Blogbudsman's post was confusing, so I didn't bother.

Jesurgilac: Elections which amount to appointing a democratically-elected Mayor of Kabul. Most of Afghanistan is under the effective control of the local warlords. Real elections are a good sign. Dummy elections aren't.

Although your characterization of the reach of Karzai in Afghanistan is factually incorrect, it is really immaterial to my point. The elections were, in fact, held nationwide with wide participation across the legal, cultural, and gender boundaries. Thus, a significant, valid, national election was held. The power and scope of the elected official is not relevant to this fact any more than differences in the powers of the various governors' in the US makes their elections more or less real. Even your mischaracterization of the office as "Mayor of Kabul" recognizes that the office is not totally cosmetic.

Blogbudsman's post was confusing, so I didn't bother.

My post was an invitation to Blogbuds to explain his.

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