It must be said that the War on Terror has substantially been a success. After the 9/11 atrocities, the conventional wisdom — which was reflected in the claims of bin Laden and others in their bloodcurdling videos — was that terrorism would be routine and devastating against any countries that displeased militant Islam. There was the fear and the promise of unlimited numbers of suicide attackers. But despite close calls over Detroit (the panty-bomber) and in Times Square, and doubtless many quietly foiled efforts, there has been no return to terrorism in North America, and very little in Latin America. Even in Europe and Australasia, prime targets, there has not been much beyond the London buses, Madrid commuter trains, and the Australian-frequented bar in Bali.
The Israelis stopped the suicide bombing in their country by killing the outstanding surviving Hamas leader after each outrage; lo and behold, the eagerness for heroic violent death did not extend to those commissioning the suicide attacks, as bin Laden and the rest cowered and skulked in caves or anonymously behind high walls. Thus, the principal raison d’être of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been achieved, though it is not clear that the nearly $2 trillion and about 7,000 American and Western Allied lives expended in those wars were essential to the accomplishment of that objective.
George W. Bush led a 44-nation U.N. and NATO coalition into Afghanistan and then left it stretched over that poor and unfeasible country and decamped to Iraq to dispose of Saddam Hussein, a commendable objective justified in international law by his violation of the Gulf War ceasefire and 17 Security Council resolutions, but not one that had much to do with terrorism.
In 2011, only 1,500 Iraqis died of political violence, the lowest total since Saddam’s time. But the road, rail, and air transport facilities remain in shambles, millions of households are left without power for up to 20 hours a day, tankers can’t dock near Basra because of the size of bribes that are extorted from them, and the nearly $60 billion that the U.S. spent in Iraq on reconstruction seems to have been consumed almost entirely by anti-blast barricades. The former electricity minister, Raad Shalal, was fired last year for embezzling $1.7 billion (in an Iraqi GDP of $80 billion, that’s like a $300 billion theft by an American public official), and the Fertile Crescent, where cultivated agriculture originated, at least in the Western world, now imports 80 percent of its food. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is in his second term, though he lost the last election, and is still trying to arrest his former chief coalition partner, who is beyond apprehension because he is in the capital of the rebarbative province of Kurdistan.
Though comparisons to Vietnam are nonsense, because the United States was completely militarily successful in Iraq — with volunteer armed forces on a congressionally authorized mission, with fewer than 10 percent of the casualties in Vietnam, and with the government it left behind not under full-scale invasion by another country, as South Vietnam was — it is not clear that the U.S. will ultimately have much more to show for its effort in Iraq than it does for Vietnam. Nor is it clear that there was any point to the Iraq War after Saddam was got rid of. Baghdad recently successfully hosted an Arab League meeting, though twelve of the 22 member countries did not attend because they think Maliki is too much under the influence of Iran, which is not why the United States fought the war there. The meeting was a milestone of sorts, as the occasion for a $1 billion municipal cleanup, and security was successfully maintained by 100,000 troops and police.
Afghanistan is an even cloudier picture. It is a poor and land-locked country inhabited by fierce, xenophobic tribes divided by the mountainous terrain. The British Empire and the Soviet Union gave up on it as not worth, geopolitically, a fraction of the cost that would be incurred to subdue it. Of course, the U.S. and its allies had no interest in occupying or colonizing Afghanistan, and after chasing out bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorists and the knuckle-dragging Taliban Islamist government (and the two were far from interchangeable and not overly friendly), the international forces’ objective there has been to keep the Taliban out, and, at least until recently, enact some version of George W.’s scatter-gun democratization crusade.
At over ten years, this has been the longest foreign combat role in American history, and for six of those years it was largely an under-manned holding operation while the main regional military operation was in Iraq. The Hamid Karzai government in Kabul is corrupt, undemocratic, treacherous, and steeped in the insolence of ingratitude. American political tactics have become ever more peculiar, as the final Allied military offensive has been extensively, publicly described in advance, and the U.S. is encouraging talks with the Taliban, although it has given the Taliban no incentive to deal; a Taliban faction imaginatively disrupted discussions by having Karzai’s chief peace mediator blown up in his own home by an invited peace representative who gave new flair to the suicide bomb by placing it under his headgear and detonating it as he shook hands with his host. The U.S. has also lavished assistance on Pakistan, which is the chief backer of one of the most murderous Taliban factions in Afghanistan, the Haqqani.
It is no longer clear what the American war goals are. A Pentagon study indicates that half of those in the Defense Department familiar with the mission in Afghanistan think it will fail whatever its objective now is. The drawdown is scheduled for completion in 2014, and the main mission now is to train the Afghans to maintain their own security.
The Taliban cannot be defeated without invading Pakistan, which is unthinkable beyond anti-terrorist incursions into Baluchistan and Waziristan. The Pakistanis never thought the Americans had much staying power in Afghanistan, and their parliament has voted to forbid any American bases, military supplies, or supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan in their territory, as they have made them conditional on an unconditional American apology for a recent friendly-fire incident, which was largely the fault of the Pakistan Army.
The gluttonous Karzai expects $5 billion to $10 billion a year in American assistance for many years after Allied forces have departed. And Pakistan has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China’s answer to NATO. Pakistan is a fractured, neurotically unstable nuclear power and semi-failed state that is now ditching America, maintaining its pathological hostility to India, and frisking naïvely and pretentiously at the sides of China and Russia, a useful idiot among trouble-making countries.
The pressure of remaining ten years in an ambiguous war effort in Afghanistan has seriously strained American volunteer personnel. Many have done multiple tours, and while the casualty levels are not high by the standards of conventional wars, this conflict is no less nerve-wracking. The Northwest Europe campaign was eleven months from D-Day to VE-Day; Italy was 21 months, Korea 33 months, and even Vietnam, for main ground-force units, six years.
The terrible strain of such a long and uncertain commitment is what explains American soldiers’ burning the Koran and the American soldier who went berserk and killed civilians. The ability of the United States to carry out such actions is shrinking and clearly much more selectivity will be necessary in future, because of our failure to clearly analyze our strategic goals as much as the limitations of available resources.
The U.S. should clean out the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, whatever the Pakistanis think of it; stop all aid to that country; make peace with the Taliban with the understanding that if the Taliban facilitates terrorism against the West again, the Allies will be back, and not as nation-builders but as killers of the Taliban leadership cadres and without exaggerated concern for collateral damage. The United States and the West should do the necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and to dispose of Assad in Syria, Iran’s conduit to Hezbollah and Hamas. It should reinforce George W. Bush’s premier foreign-policy success story apart from the War on Terror, the alliance with India: All South Asian bets should be placed there. And the Obama administration’s one foreign-policy success apart from the War on Terror, the Asian pivot, should be reinforced with steady, but not provocative, assistance to China’s neighbors, especially Japan, India, and Indonesia, to encourage them to retain their cordial independence from China. (Under Putin, the Russians are too deluded and unreliable to bother with in the Far East.)
The United States shouldn’t care who or what governs in Baghdad or Kabul, as long as Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t breeding grounds for terrorism, genocide, or the puppet-outlawry of China, Iran, or Russia. The U.S. mustn’t waste another decade, as it did the last one.