What If?

Afghanistan and Iraq - What If? - Dexter Filkens, New York Times

In their quiet moments, aid workers call it "the tragedy:" the billions of dollars that never arrived here. The troops that landed somewhere else. The bright minds that turned to that other, greater subject. And, in all those events, the sad sinking of the promise that greeted the American-led victory over the Taliban in November 2001, more than seven years ago.

The "tragedy" these aid workers are referring to, of course, is the war in Iraq. Not that the Iraq war itself was tragic but that it was calamitous in its results for the other war that suddenly fell to the lower tier. More than any other factor, it is the American invasion of Iraq that looms over Afghanistan and all of its dashed hopes...

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Sure, rawilliams, stipulating that these are my perceptions and beliefs based on watching the entire period unfold and some service in the Middle East. All open source and I have no special sources other than friends and relatives who have served.

Let me start a little over 24 years before the attack on Iraq. Go back to 1972 and the Munich Olympics. After that mess, Nixon directed a Cabinet level study and they came up with some findings that we should have heeded -- but did not.

The 24 years starts with the Embassy seizure in Tehran and the Carter Administration's terribly flawed response to that. It could have been better and more forcefully handled without going to war but it was not. In the west Carter's handling was seen as statesmanlike -- in the ME is was seen as a capitulation by the US. The rules and thought processes are quite different. Remember this is an area where haggling is a national sport and ANY concession is seen as a weakness. The debacle of Operation Eagle Claw / Desert One cemented the appearance of gross ineptitude on the part of the US in the eyes of the ME.

That was followed by all the events in and around Beirut in 1983 starting with the bombing of the US Embassy, including several kidnappings and culminating with the bombing of US Marine Billets and subsequent withdrawal. Again we appeared to be totally ineffectual. Some in the west applauded, some did not but all in the ME cheered at US embarrassment and deaths with no retribution. The folks in the ME believe in retribution; the phrase "An eye for an eye..." after all originated there.

There followed a number of other incidents over many years including the fiasco in Somalia, the bombing attempt at the World Trade Center, Embassy attacks of various magnitude including the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, the Khobar Towers Bombing and the attack on the USS Cole. A series of probes and provocation none of which received an effective response through four US Administrations and Presidents from both parties.

To the west, we were turning the other cheek and being adults.

To the ME, we were being pusillanimous and proving that we were irresolute and an easy target.

As I said, the rules and thought processes differ. We thought we were being nice -- they thought we were ripe for destruction.

They / them are those Arabs, Persians and others of the greater ME who do not agree with western mores and ideology and in particular those willing to use violence to express their disapproval. You are no doubt aware that the persons engaged in all the incidents I cited above originated in the ME, that most were from fairly to well educated and from well to do or better families -- and that they came from virtually all nations in the ME. None were from Afghanistan (which, in any event is not in the ME).

On September 12, 2001, the issue was how to protect the US from future attacks. The President I'm sure was told the truth; it is absolutely not possible in any way to secure this extremely large and very diverse nation from terrorist action. The alternative arrived at was to go to the source of the problem and attempt to disrupt (note that word) our opponents already somewhat disjointed -- but still deadly -- efforts.

Since the attackers over all those years came from Iran as well as most Arab nations, the problem was where to do what. In the event, Iraq was selected as the target nation for many reasons. These include the facts that it had a malignant despot who was internationally despised, was a pariah state and whose people were suffering from those two facts. It also was producing and selling only a small amount of oil. These factors meant that a unilateral attack, if necessary, would receive less international complaint than an attack on either Iran or Saudi Arabia (either of which would have severely disrupted international [not US] oil supply). Iraq was also geographically central to the ME and an easy target militarily. No other ruler there wanted Saddam to be in power. There were other lesser reasons but those were the primary reasons Iraq was chosen.

You also ask:

"Also, we did not need to show the "world at large" anything. Our conventional military superiority was/is unquestionable..."

We can disagree on that. Our conventional superiority may have been unquestioned but our ability to respond to a significant number of debilitating and harmful attacks had been in question for that 24 years and an increasing number of questions about our willingness to defend ourselves were being quietly raised around the world. You may not have heard that and our rather inept and ignorant, celebrity focused news media may not have announced it but people in the Armed Forces overseas heard it. So did our Intelligence agencies and the Department of State. As one of our least competent Secretaries of State said to then General Colin Powell, "What's the sense of having this great Army you always talk about if we can't use it?" Fair question, Madame Secretary.

"... and Afghanistan exemplified our ability/will to act on our national interests.

Afghanistan showed our ability to act and Bin Laden and Co. fully expected that and were prepared for and hoping for it -- they thought. In the event, we caught them by surprise with the speed and method of attack and then, as they were preparing to build up and wage the war they wanted, in January 2002, Bush told the world "Regime change in Iraq is a goal of my administration." That announcement and the subsequent execution caught Al Qaeda by surprise and upset their original plan. Regardless, the answer to your point is that Afghanistan showed our ability but it did NOT show our will. Bush correctly realized that the issue was just that -- will. He showed it, much to their chagrin. He won.

If you are referring to us showing some undifferentiated group like Salafists or "terrorists" that our patience is not endless, then my question is: How does our invasion of Iraq accomplish that?

They were not the audience -- you aren't going to show the dedicated types anything, they'll have to be killed or die of natural causes. They won't change. We showed the nations and general populace of the ME that our patience was not endless. They got the message. The rest of the world got the message the US was nuts. That's okay too, people tend not to trifle with the insane.

You may have noticed that condemnation of our action from Asia was muted in comparison to that from Canada, Europe and Latin America. That's because the Asians understood. So did the ME, even though they made pro forma complaints about it. Only the west didn't get the message. Well, that's not totally true, many in the west didn't and don't understand...

I generally respect Filkin's work but in this case we disagree on the merit of the article. I rarely see much sense in 'what might have been' thinking, it doesn't help. Perhaps if I shared your IMO charitable view of policy makers my attitude might differ.

Hi Ken,

In response to this:

"Iraq was a generic response to 24 years of probes and provocations emanating from the Middle East to show them (and the world at large) that our patience was not endless and that future attacks on US interests world wide might draw an adverse response."

I am unsure what 24 years of probes and provocations you are talking about, and how this directly relates to Iraq. Could you elaborate?
Also I am not sure who "them" refers to in your comment. Iraqis? Arabs? This is akin to someone saying, "Well, the Turks have been giving us problems for some time now, so let's go invade the Kyrgyz Republic, because they are Turkic." Also, we did not need to show the "world at large" anything. Our conventional military superiority was/is unquestionable, and Afghanistan exemplified our ability/will to act on our national interests. If you are referring to us showing some undifferentiated group like Salafists or "terrorists" that our patience is not endless, then my question is: How does our invasion of Iraq accomplish that?

I also believe you are incorrect in saying that Mr. Filkens' piece ultimately "aids nothing." It is an interesting thought experiment in which policy-makers would be wise to explore.

This is not an anti-Iraq rant, but a desire to clarify your characterization of the reasons behind the war.

Kumquats and Kiwi Fruit.

Afghanistan was a specific response to an attack on US Soil to remove a training establishment and show a South Asian nation (and the world at large) that supporting overt, declared enemies of the the US within ones national boundaries was not smart and that attacks on the US on its soil would draw a rapid response.

Iraq was a generic response to 24 years of probes and provocations emanating from the Middle East to show them (and the world at large) that our patience was not endless and that future attacks on US interests world wide might draw an adverse response.

More effort was quite logically devoted to Iraq because of its advanced infrastructure and future potential as well as its greater relative political importance as a nation and as a cause celebré.

Playing what if games by many in Afghanistan is somewhat understandable. It is also absolutely pointless and aids nothing.