‘I can’t have any more bills. I’m out of checks.” It is a joke we used to hear all the time, back in the days before credit cards made it even easier to run up bills we can’t or won’t pay. Like all good jokes, it has a kernel of truth: a truth about the human mind’s capacity for self-delusion. In his important new book, Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West, Michael Ledeen describes this capacity as “that part of the spirit that shelters active thought from unpleasant truths.” Rarely has the talent for self-delusion been more prominently on display than in the current debate over the war in Afghanistan.
That we are talking about the conflict as “the war in Afghanistan” is a symptom of the disorder. The Bush administration, backed by Congress, first declared a “war on terror.” That amorphous phrase suggested two impossible possibilities: either (a) we were at war with a tactic rather than an enemy, or (b) our enemies include anyone — or at least any foreign entity — practicing terrorism. It was initially understood that the pertinent “terror” was that practiced by al-Qaeda and the rogue Islamic governments that abetted it.
“Terror” was the label used to avoid offending Muslims. But this imprecision, and the failure of will it fails to conceal, inexorably evolved from a labeling challenge into a conceptual problem: Who is al-Qaeda? What are its “affiliates”? How much does a hostile nation such as Saudi Arabia need to do before it is deemed an “abettor” rather than an “ally”? And what about jihadists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who, at least in some situations, feign condemnation of terror? Are they “allies” too — even as they burrow into our institutions and announce their intention to “conquer America”?
For all its downsides, though, “war on terror” at least signified something that transcended national boundaries. But then came the Iraq campaign, which was immensely popular until its enduring difficulties intersected with presidential politics. Anticipating the “slam dunk” recovery of huge WMD caches, the Bush administration highlighted Saddam’s weapons programs and failed to articulate a convincing public case on Saddam’s prodigious terrorism ties — despite the fact that the latter was the rationale that connected Iraq to the wider war.
When the WMD failed to materialize in the expected quantities, Democrats pounced, shamefully distorting the war for political advantage. The “war on terror” became “the war in Afghanistan,” the better to distinguish it from what was relentlessly called “the war in Iraq” — or better, “George Bush’s war in Iraq,” that purportedly lawless “war of choice” that had nothing to do with terrorism. Though they never had any real enthusiasm for the military war — being largely in agreement with the jihadist critique of America — leftists had infinite zeal for the semantic war. Saddam’s extensive history with al-Qaeda and other jihadist elements was purged from the public debate by Democrats who ran rings around Republicans on the “bipartisan” 9/11 Commission. The compliant media even renamed al-Qaeda’s cells in Iraq “al-Qaeda in Iraq” — as if AQI were a totally separate, spontaneously homegrown entity.
So now Democrats have what they said they wanted: the winding down of George Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, under the watchful eye of their own Nobel Peace Prize laureate, along with stewardship of the righteous war in Afghanistan, which they assured voters they would fight smarter. Except they’re not so smart after all.
Maddeningly, President Bush refused to name the enemy. But at least he understood that the enemy was global. His actions never approached the steel of the Bush Doctrine, the vow to root out al-Qaeda’s cells wherever on earth they were and to treat in exactly the same manner any regime that sided with the terrorists against us. He knew, however, that the war was about much more than Afghanistan. President Obama, by contrast, is not merely resistant to naming the enemy; he won’t acknowledge the enemies we have or the reason why we have them.
When reality says that your bills are due, but your brain says that can’t be since you’ve run out of checks, you get through your days by pretending. The Obama administration says never let “a serious crisis go to waste,” but this rule evidently doesn’t apply to actual crises. So the war isn’t even a war, just an “overseas contingency operation” — even as we continue detaining enemy combatants under the laws of . . . well, you know . . . because we realize that, if released, they’d rejoin the contingency and kill Americans.
Meanwhile, the only overseas place this global contingency apparently happens is Afghanistan — even as administration advisers grudgingly concede Pakistan will fall like a domino if Afghanistan is lost. And it turns out our only enemies in Afghanistan are a relative handful of Takfiris who are despised because they claim the right to kill other Muslims. No need, then, to concern ourselves with the millions in Afghanistan, and the tens of millions of Muslims worldwide, who’d like to see a global caliphate under sharia (the religious law that says infidel troops in Muslim countries must be fought until they are driven out). According to the New York Times, the Obama administration has even convinced itself that incorrigible jihadists like Gilbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network aren’t jihadists at all; they’re just garden-variety politicos whose grievances are strictly parochial — just like Hamas and Hezbollah. And don’t you mind all that talk about Islamic revolution while they slay infidel after infidel; they’re probably just bluffing.
Iraq is a memory — except that Iran was just caught delivering IEDs there for (wait for it!) al-Qaeda in Iraq, which turns out to be alive and well, and which is sure to be even more alive and well when the U.S. pulls out next year. Iran continues to supply the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, too. But not to worry: The mullahs (when they take time out from murdering their citizens and acknowledging new nuclear facilities) are talking to us. About climate change.
As a newbie prosecutor, I had the good fortune to be assigned to the renowned “Pizza Connection” case. It involved a massive international drug enterprise that operated for over a decade and grossed more than a billion dollars back when a billion meant something. The Justice Department went all out — millions in investigative costs for two dozen wiretaps, round-the-clock surveillance, drug-buy money, the works — and kept it up for well over a year until arrests were finally made. The trial lasted 17 months (still a record, I think). The 19 defendants who survived the trial (remember, this was the mafia) were convicted. At the top of the heap, the sentences were stiff. But some defendants at the bottom were given paltry jail terms — less time than it took to investigate them.
Following hard on the Pizza Connection was the so-called “Pizza II” case: same mafia families, same scheme. But this time DOJ didn’t sink nearly the resources into it. The government decided it was economical to do a smaller case — fewer wiretaps, less surveillance, not nearly the commitment. It was what’s sometimes called “the philosopher’s fallacy” — the idea that a phenomenon does not have an objective reality; it just is whatever the equipment you choose to measure it with says it is. If it’s really ten feet tall, but you decide to use a ruler, then it’s twelve inches. Pizza II had very high bills, but the Justice Department decided it was out of checks. Instead of convicting everybody, we watched a lot of the bad guys walk out the courthouse door and back into the drug business.
We used fewer resources, but the blight we were addressing wasn’t proportionally smaller. Objectively, it was the same problem. We didn’t have less drug trafficking, we just had a less well-investigated case. We made a conscious decision to treat a big problem as if it were a small problem. Inevitably, we made it a worse problem.
Should we send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, as General McChrystal has suggested? How about 80,000? How about 200,000? We could quell the insurgency, at least for a time — probably enough time to pull out just as things start heating up again in Iraq, and Somalia, and Pakistan, and Yemen, and . . . .
It’s an insurgency in Afghanistan, but it’s a war everyplace else. Pretending there’s not an “everyplace else” doesn’t make the “everyplace else” go away. As Thomas Snodgrass points out, if you don’t attack and destroy the enemy’s center of gravity, the war never ends: You achieve periodic calm while the enemy makes mischief elsewhere, you get the drip, drip, drip of casualties with no end in sight, and a democracy’s zest fades as the enemy is emboldened.
Eight years have gone by and the awakening of 9/11 has faded. But reality hasn’t changed: The Bush Doctrine, as proclaimed in September 2001, remains the only roadmap for victory. Or, to quote my friend Michael Ledeen again, “If the regime came down in Tehran, it would make Afghanistan (and lots of other things) a hell of a lot easier.”
We can send tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan. But we can’t win there. A week after 9/11, we knew that. How tragic that we’ll need the next 9/11 to know it again.