Ten years after the September 11 attacks, as we ponder questions of justice and responsibility, stewardship and security, National Review Online asks some familiar analysts and veterans to reflect on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
E. CHRISTIAN BRUGGER
Many of the goods arising from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan will never be known, as our involvement inevitably prevented evils that would otherwise have happened. But some of the evils that our leaders told us to fear, we now know would never have happened, and were disastrously overestimated, one of them to the extent of falsely rationalizing one of the two wars.
The harms are easier to count: the deaths of more than 6,000 American service members; over a trillion dollars in war spending with no end in sight; civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated at over a hundred thousand; the merciless suppression of Iraqi Christianity; already brittle relationships with Mideast Muslims made more so; etc.
What are we to make of the two wars?
In my judgment, the preemptive war in Iraq was wrongly launched, an unjust war from its start. I do not believe any retrospective glance at belated benefits can change that. Who is to blame? An overzealous commander-in-chief? Hawkish advisers? Faulty intelligence? Bogus informers? There’s enough to go around.
The choice to invade Afghanistan in October 2001 was a different matter. It made sense to everyone because it was retributively just and arguably necessary for the protection of real U.S. interests: dismantling al-Qaeda to destroy its safe haven, and ending the corrupt Taliban regime were just causes to launch a strike. But it is now ten years later. The reasons we’re still there are not so clear.
— E. Christian Brugger is Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
JOHN F. CULLINAN
“Tell me how this ends.” Gen. David Petraeus’s famous query remains largely unanswered ten years after the 9/11 attacks. The persistent uncertainty regarding both Iraq and Afghanistan reflects above all the acute dilemma of translating a just war into a just peace in today’s international environment.
What is clearer now is that post-conflict arrangements require as much prudent statecraft and moral reflection as the resort to war (ius ad bellum) and right conduct within war (ius in bello). This is particularly imperative where forcible regime change leaves a political vacuum in a deeply wounded society that is surrounded by hostile neighbors. Unfortunately, there is a lack of readily applicable precedents, since the heavy-handed but successful post-conflict measures once deemed necessary and appropriate — as in the cases of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — are simply unthinkable today, especially in an Islamic context.
Unfortunately, Colin Powell’s rough-and-ready Pottery Barn rules (“you break it, you own it”) don’t come with detailed practical and moral guidance for policymakers. And the back-of-the-envelope adhocery that all too often characterized U.S. policy in Iraq subordinated American interests and values to expediency, atmospherics, and political correctness. Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s stunted political development are reflections of an overall failure to relate ends and means, which distinguishes America’s relative military successes from its diplomatic failures.
To cite just one example, the destruction of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities proceeded apace while two American administrations averted their gaze, indifferent to the critical distinction between doing no harm and doing nothing at all. For Iraqi Christians, it is their enduring misfortune — and our enduring shame — to have learned the hard way just how this ends.
— John F. Cullinan has written frequently about Iraq for NRO since 2002.
I’m a third-generation retired soldier. I don’t believe in “optional” wars. I did not want to invade Iraq. I was mindful of the lessons of Vietnam and Malaysia, which suggested that, absent a truly existential reason to go to war, less is usually more. That is, unless you’re willing to pound the enemy flat as we did with Germany and Japan — which wasn’t going to happen. I thought the original plan Shinseki supported was better than Rumsfeld’s plan, which was based on a faulty understanding of the situation in Iraq (of society and culture, not of WMD) — the enemy gets a vote. As they are prone to do, both wars have showed great flaws in our military culture and preparedness, while showcasing the inherent flexibility and inventiveness of a soldiery that has not been as well served by their senior leaders as their senior leaders have been served by them. (Not enough generals were fired for my taste.)
My beloved Army has lost its way and forgotten how to effectively fight a large-scale combined-arms fight — they’re aware of it and will adapt over time. The greatest upshot? A generation of young men and women have proved they are every bit the equal of the soldiers who preceded them — and better than most. Would that we could find the senior leaders to match them.
— John Donovan blogs at Argghhh!
The war started years before September 11. Desperate to believe that we faced isolated criminal gangs rather than the multi-headed manifestations of radical jihad, we absorbed terror attack after terror attack with minimal response. Then one day came an attack that we could not absorb, with losses that were too much to bear.
Wasn’t it high time that we fought back — choosing our battles according to our timetables and our strategy rather than merely reacting as the jihadists hit us time and again? As we survey the Middle East and see a free Iraq, terrorists in hiding from Predator drones in Yemen and Somalia, and pitched battles in the mountains of Afghanistan, we see the picture of a region dominated not by our pinprick retaliatory responses but by an offensive military campaign.
Presidents decide whether we’ll be on offense or defense; whether we use boots on the ground or drones in the air (or both). But presidents do not decide whether we’re at war. The enemy made that decision decades ago.
— David French is co-author of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War.
On 9/11, my office was on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower 2. In 2003, I traveled with the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq. Since then I have been over to Iraq on multiple occasions. On each visit I ask myself: Are we doing anything here that is worth the cost in blood and treasure? My answer has changed over time. A decade ago the answer was easy. Al-Qaeda was, and remains, a vile organization that is dedicated to America’s destruction. As such, it needs to be hunted into extinction. A similarly strong case can be made for the justness of deposing Saddam Hussein’s evil dictatorship. The world is better off without a man who was responsible for murdering a million Iraqis and launching two unprovoked wars on his neighbors. That the Iraq government also maintained close ties with global terrorist groups and was rapidly reconstituting its WMD programs made its removal all the more imperative.
Now, a decade later, the world has changed and the nation confronts new challenges. We have given Iraq and Afghanistan their best possible chance for democratic growth and future prosperity. It is up to them to grasp it. This is not a time for America to withdraw from the world and retrench. But it is a time to realign our priorities, reset our military forces, and position ourselves to meet the dangers and grasp the opportunities of the future.
— Jim Lacey is the author of The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men.
We don’t know if the wars were worth it. And how could we? They are not yet over. The fact that they are not over bespeaks a certain failure on our part. We won the battle for Iraq, but we and the Iraqi people are still suffering significant casualties. We destroyed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but we and the Afghan people are still being killed and maimed by Taliban fanatics. Despite significant victories, we have not won the wars.
It is unlikely that the wars will end with the projected withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies will continue to attack our friends and allies, along with whatever Americans are left behind. Sooner or later they will attack us again here at home, and we will be back on the battlefields. We cannot measure the costs of the wars anymore than we can evaluate their success or failure. The ledgers are still open, alas.
The ledgers are still open primarily because first President Bush, and then President Obama failed to prosecute the real war and chose instead to fight an imaginary one. President Bush said at the very beginning that we were at war with terrorist organizations and the states that sponsored them, and that we would not distinguish between them. If we had been serious about that, we would have waged war primarily against Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terror. Instead, after the forced move of destroying the Taliban regime that favored al-Qaeda, we moved against Iraq. By the time we figured out how to win that battle, the “Axis of Evil” was long forgotten, and the Bush administration sought to strike a bargain with Iran, as had every administration from Jimmy Carter on.
President Obama has reversed the traditional sequence: He began his administration trying to make a deal with Iran, and now, having failed to reach a modus vivendi, is looking for ways to defeat the Tehran regime on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, so far as we can tell, he has yet to seriously consider the most obvious and most promising strategy: Work for regime change in Iran by supporting non-violent democratic revolution.
At the moment, he has said, “Assad must go,” but as yet does not seem to be doing anything to enable the Syrian people to fulfill that promise. Syria is Iran in miniature, a hated regime challenged nonviolently by freedom-seeking people. So it may turn out to be a dry run for this administration, and one can only hope that they will get it right (although, to be sure, it does not seem very likely).
All of which unfortunately means that it is likely to be quite some time before we know if the wars “were worth it.”
— Michael Ledeen is author of Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West, among other books. He is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The 9/11 attacks directly led the U.S. into war in Afghanistan and indirectly into war in Iraq. The Afghan war successfully deprived al-Qaeda of its most important bases and drove its Taliban allies from power. Although bin Laden escaped justice for almost ten years, hundreds of his followers were killed or captured and al-Qaeda’s central command now poses a much reduced threat. Achieving these results in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been expensive in terms of blood and treasure, but it has prevented al-Qaeda from inflicting another devastating blow on the U.S. homeland.
The Iraq war is a more difficult question, in part as a result of the flawed intelligence that skewed the perceived threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime to the United States. But given the information then available, I think that the Bush administration made the correct decision in disarming Iraq and ousting Saddam. Although Iraq’s missing chemical weapons were never found, Saddam was caught red-handed hiding prohibited missiles and slaughtering his own people, both violations of the ceasefire that ended the 1991 Gulf War.
It would have been a mistake to continue turning a blind eye to the fact that Saddam’s Iraq was technically at war with the United States. Saddam Hussein had a well-documented thirst for vengeance and a long history of using surrogate terrorist groups against Israelis, Arabs, Turks, and Iranians. After 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks, it would have been a huge risk to continue to ignore Saddam’s escalating provocations. If he had been left in power, he probably would have provoked yet another war.
But after winning the war to remove Saddam’s regime from power, the U.S. found itself enmeshed in an Iraqi civil war stoked by Iran, which sought to radicalize Iraqi Shiites, and al-Qaeda, which sought to radicalize Iraqi Sunnis. Ultimately, this “third Iraq war” will only be “worth it” if it results in a stable Iraqi government that is an ally against terrorists, not a state sponsor of terrorism, as Saddam’s regime was.
— James Phillips is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
VINCENT G. HEINTZ
On 9/11, I emerged from the subway shortly before 10:00 a.m. to see furious columns of smoke and flame churning from the towers. Moments later, the South Tower collapsed. And then the North Tower fell. Thousands of voices screaming “NO!” combined with snapping panes of glass popping from their jambs to form a bone-chilling cacophony. Each collapse sent hurricane-force waves of pulverized glass, gypsum, and steel through the canyons of lower New York, leaving a scene like some nightmarish Pompeii. I contacted my National Guard commanders who ordered me to go to the NYPD command post. I stopped a detective escorting Mayor Giuliani on Broadway. I asked for the location of the command center. “Gone, it’s all gone,” the detective said, tears and saliva clotting in the dust caked to his face. (The City’s emergency command center, in 7 World Trade Center, just to the north of the North Tower, was aflame, and collapsed later that day.)
I found a makeshift command post. There I provided liaison between the NYPD and the military for a few hours. Then, for 13 days and nights, my unit of 80 Army infantrymen and medics labored on Church Street. We worked for an FDNY chief, and alongside Urban Search and Rescue Teams and intrepid ironworkers, who climbed onto the smoldering rubble with nothing more than their torches and fuel tanks mounted on their backs. They cut holes into the pile. Hopeful rescuers descended beneath to search for survivors.
We found none.
Almost nothing remained of the chunk of civilization that al-Qaeda annihilated that day. The pile was mostly twisted I-beams compacted in ash. There were only traces of the people who had been slaughtered, mostly slips of paper scattered in the toxic waste: a scorched checkbook; the corner of a birthday card perforated by a thumbtack hole; a charred and torn commercial contract, its last page unsigned. To this day, more than half of the 9/11 families endure the pain of having received nothing of their loved ones’ remains.
As an American soldier, my reaction — then, as now — was a composite of rage and disgust; the former, directed at the craven savages who unleashed this mass murder, and then boasted about having done so in God’s name; the latter, at certain authorities who ignored and continue to ignore the plain truth that there are forces on this earth that labor to cast our entire civilization into the same inferno that we witnessed on Sept.11, 2001.
I am asked all of the time — by people in my civilian profession, by media types, by other educated, well-read people — whether the nation’s response was “right.” The questions are typically loaded, compound, and elliptical:
“So, Vince, having been to Iraq, and to Afghanistan, how do you feel about all of this? I don’t mean to get political — but what about these wars? Do you feel that the country is any safer? In particular, do you agree with Bush’s decision to attack Iraq? I mean, when is this all going to end? People are so tired of the wars. You’re not going back, are you?”
Some pad their queries with a paradoxical caveat: “I don’t agree with the wars, by the way, especially Iraq, but I really respect your service, Vince.” So you think the wars are wrong, perhaps immoral, but you admire the way that my buddies and I have waged them? Oh, okay. Thanks.
The short answer I try to provide these well-meaning beneficiaries of American security is that (1) the nation’s homeland has generally been spared jihadist mass murder since September 11 (the pernicious Major Hassan’s attack on Fort Hood being the heart-searing, inexcusable exception), and (2) we now have a forward presence in those regions of the world from which the 9/11 operation was plotted, launched, and lauded. That presence provides the intelligence base and the operational platforms necessary to crush al-Qaeda’s murder machine, if and when the political will exists to give the green light. The SEALs’ bin Laden strike is the most notable example, but by no means the only one.
Over the last 32 months or so, our war footing has been on eggshells. We surged forces into Afghanistan, but curtailed their writ upfront with a draw-down schedule perfectly synchronized with the election cycle, and perfectly transparent to the enemy. We renamed the war in Iraq “Operation New Dawn,” as if nomenclature might neutralize the terrorism sponsored by al-Qaeda and Iran. We have witnessed policy back-flips concerning civilian trials for terrorists whose only connection to the nation is their intent to destroy it, and watched CIA officers endure threats of prosecution for following their lawyers’ guidance and protecting America. We have “led from behind” in toppling the despot Qaddafi, and now naïvely dismiss any possibility that the resulting vacuum might create sanctuary for global terrorists.
The impending tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks evokes official talking points that minimize al-Qaeda and global terrorism, and instead ask us to talk about . . . well, it is hard to understand exactly what it is we are supposed to talk about, if not the evils of terrorism and the sacrifices of those who have given all to stop it.
On that terrible morning, sometime after the North Tower fell, I heard someone in the street say that the Pentagon had been hit. It was then, at that moment, that I knew we were at war. That was my generation’s Dec. 7, 1941. Since then, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, the CIA, and their families, have been at war.
Yet, I can understand how it is that members of the suburbigentia ask me questions that flow from the predicate that there is no war, or that it is passé. I can even brook complaints from the protected that they are “tired” of the war. After all, in a campaign against terrorists who aim to strike mortal fear into the hearts of these very people, their ambivalence may be a sign that they feel protected, and thus, that we have succeeded at least to some degree.
When public officials with responsibility for national security spin talking points that encourage willful blindness, however, then we are left to wonder exactly where we are being led. In the coming months, it seems that we may be asked to call scripted draw-downs “victory” in favor of “nation-building at home.” On the current trajectory, soon we will be left to hope that firefighters, police officers, and soldiers will not be tasked again with looking for the remains of murdered Americans amid burning rubble in city streets.
Hope is nice. But hope is not a method.
— Vincent G. Heintz served with the Army National Guard at Ground Zero in September 2001, in Iraq in 2004, and in Afghanistan in 2008. He expects to return to Afghanistan in the future. He is a member of Vets for Freedom.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were both necessary and wise. The Clinton administration had mistakenly prioritized diplomacy over military action in its dealings with terrorists and their sponsors. Neither the 1993 World Trade Center attack nor Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war on America led President Clinton to order reprisals. Al-Qaeda interpreted White House inaction as weakness and was encouraged to carry out further attacks, culminating with 9/11.
Liberals and libertarians may vilify President Bush and Vice President Cheney, but dictators and terrorists now think twice about attacking the United States. Killing Americans again has a cost.
No one should question the value of liberating 24 million Iraqis and nearly as many Afghans. They may not instantly become free but, as with President Truman’s involvement in Korea, historians will recognize a wisdom that contemporaries did not. Bush deserves some credit for the Arab Spring as well. Arabs may have been critical of some U.S. actions, but Bush succeeded in changing the conversation: Arab publics began to discuss the meaning of democracy, accountability, and their achievement.
Still, it remains up to President Obama and the American public to confirm the value of the wars. Obama seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, walking away from Iraq and promising a similar abandonment of Afghanistan, with little more than rhetorical support for the continued relationships upon which their further transformation depends.
— Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
These words are written from my tent in Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. This is the very birthplace of the Taliban. Mullah Omar grew up a short distance from my tent. There is fighting every day in this area of operations. This is said to be the most deadly area in Afghanistan. Last month was reportedly the most deadly in the war.
The previous six sentences should answer any questions about how well we’ve done in Afghanistan. We are finally making obvious progress, at least. Morale in this American unit is high and we are taking away Taliban sanctuary. Are we winning? Yes. Is it worth it? Not for Americans. For Afghans, yes. Many, if not most, Afghans are afraid we will leave too quickly. If we wish to succeed — price notwithstanding — now is no time to slacken off. This will be a long process measured in many decades, but after the main enemies are beaten down and the central government is sufficiently strong, we can ease up on our commitments.
Iraq is a different story. We achieved success at a very high cost. Was it worth it? Probably. We will not know the answers for years to come.