Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mission Accomplished? Rethinking the strategic assumptions of the Bush Administration


Tom Barnett had a post last week that contrasted America's apparent post-surge success in Iraq with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.  Looking at the two situations begs an interesting question: was George W. Bush's "gut" instinct about the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002-03 correct?

Taking Our Eye off the Ball?

In his book Descent Into Chaos Pakistani-born journalist Ahmed Rashid lays out a pretty strong case that president Bush took his eyes off Afghanistan at a crucial point - mid 2002 - a point when, according to Rashid's sources in various NGOs, the United States had real opportunity to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan if only we had injected more troops/money/attention.

But the Bush administration had other ideas. By the middle of 2002 the U.S. was ramping up pressure on Saddam Hussein and plans were in place to take Hussein and his regime out. Critics of the Bush administration are fond of suggesting that this shift in focus, from south-central Asia to the Middle East was a major error, brought about by an irrational obsession with Hussein and "weapons of mass destruction".  This strategic blunder - so the story goes - wasted American lives in both Iraq and Afghanistan and directly contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban.

Charging the Mound

What I describe above is more or less conventional wisdom and there is every indication that even president Obama subscribes to this strategic analysis. But what if it is wrong? What if the Bush administration began to suspect the futility of dealing with Afghanistan sometime around the so-called "Airlift of Evil", that, assuming the U.S. had been ignorant of Pakistan's complicity with the Taliban, would have removed all doubt. So even in 2001 the U.S. was forced to deal with the fact that we were fighting an enemy - aka the Taliban - who had been functioning as a wholly owned subsidiary of our new best friend - Pakistan. Further, events between India and Pakistan across 2002 would have been a wake up call to anyone paying attention: this fight is not about the Taliban. This fight is about two nuclear armed South Asian states that house about 1/5th of humanity and over a quarter of a billion Muslims between them.

Once the Bush administration realized just how touchy the situation in Afghanistan was, and just how unlikely it was that anything resembling victory was even possible in Afghanistan, the administration began casting about for another project; something far less intractable, preferably in the Middle East proper (as the hijackers had been Sunni Arabs, not Pashtuns or Pakistanis). Iraq, which had been playing its cat and mouse games with the U.N. weapons inspectors for years provided as good a candidate for an experiment in "democratic peace theory" as anywhere else.

From that perspective then, Bush didn't "take his eye off the ball" - to continue the baseball analogy - he charged the mound. He changed the rules. "We can't win in Afghanistan because Pakistan won't let us? Fine, we'll go win somewhere else and Pakistan can reap what they sewed in Afghanistan."

The Lasting After Effects of Bush's Cynicism 

To say that the invasion of Iraq - and, by extension - the elevation of Iraq to a priority versus Afghanistan dose not excuse the Bush administration's behavior in the years that followed. There was absolutely no excuse for going into Iraq under staffed and under resourced or for telling the American people that Iraq would be a cake walk. In retrospect, I do regret my vote in 2004, because the gross incompetence of the first Bush administration should have earned him a one term presidency.

But both things can be true: Bush was a bad president; he was also right about Iraq versus Afghanistan in 2002. He was right that Afghanistan would turn out to be un-winnable. But the Rovian cynicism and political calculations required him to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan and even as he was fighting a good fight to get the resources for the surge in Iraq he continued to add more troops to the Af-Pak theater and expand the war - via drones - into Pakistani territory. Bombing Pakistan makes sense. In fact, clearing the tubes on a couple of boomers into Islamabad probably would have been the best strategy on 9/12 2001, rather than getting ourselves sucked into the regional grudge match that is Afghanistan. But bombing Pakistan makes a lot more sense when we don't depend on them to get supplies to our troops and when we don't have troopers stationed close to the areas we are bombing - thus putting Americans within rifle range of pissed off villagers.

What Would George Bush (circa 2002) Do? 

The George Bush of 2002 felt that Afghanistan was best left to special forces, air strikes and former Northern Alliance warlords turned "governors". Before he was overtaken by event; overwhelmed by political opponents calling Afghanistan "the good war" versus Iraq as "the dumb war", before all of that happened George Bush had solid instincts about what was possible in south-central Asia versus what was possible in the heart of Sunni Arab world. Looking at the Middle East today we see economic growth in Jordon and Dubai; we see peace in Iraq and social reforms in Saudi Arabia. We see that the Bush of 2002 was more right than wrong.  

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