Tuesday, December 7, 2004
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The question that haunts me about Iraq
Six months later, I still believe I'm right about the poor implementation -- but there's no way to know for sure.posted by Dan on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM
The question is, what would have been a better implementation? Would you have ignored the Iraqi leadership and just started taking out bad guys, without their consent? I imagine that you are among those who wanted greater troop strength. Where would they have come from? It isn't like we have lots of men and women sitting around, idle, to pull in.
The crazy thing was that when the idea of taking out Saddam came up in early 2002, there were many who wanted to do it right then. Instead, we delayed, so we could play this stupid game with Saddam's supporters and co-conspirators at the UN.posted by: Jim Bender on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Wow, glad you have that on your conscience, and not mine.posted by: Hal on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
It's the idea.
In the post-WW2 era, a large modern expeditionary force against a home-grown ideologically driven insurgency has five times resulted in the defeat of the Great Power.
Now perhaps this is not some immutable rule of the cosmos, with proper planning, the US armed forces would have had as good a chance as any to be the first great power to be successful with this conflict typology. In all the pre-war confidence and euphoria, the problem was never even identified.
posted by: Kevin de Bruxelles on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
I imagine that you are among those who wanted greater troop strength. Where would they have come from? It isn't like we have lots of men and women sitting around, idle, to pull in.
Yes, Jim Bender. Exactly right. We did not have enough troops to go do the job.
So, tell me again: Why were we in such a stinkin' hurry to go to war?posted by: Palladin on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Imagine, if you will, you're the typical knee-jerk Bush supporter such as one might find at, say, PoliPundit or BlogsForBush. Then, still performing mental gyrations, just do the opposite.
That means you send in enough troops to secure nuclear facilities (al Tuwaitha wasn't even one of the highest priority sites) and - for the love of mercy - the spy headquarters. You realize these people have been living under an authoritarian regime for as long as any of them remember, and that the sudden loosening of control with drive them a bit crazy. You clamp down immediately, you don't try to excuse looting. You shut down Iraqi TV, something that wasn't done for several days after the invasion. You tell the people why you're there (idiot talking point: "the people know why we're there, we don't have to tell them.") You discredit the opposition. And, you realize that while unilateral action is always a possibility, it has tremendous downsides. So, you try to build an international coalition so you can spread the risk and the responsibility around. If you need to investigate oil for food or do some bribing of your own, so be it. Couldn't we have found a way to make a freer Iraq more profitable to those who were profiting off Saddam's Iraq?
And, you use propaganda effectively. You had cowboy Bush going against Tariq Aziz travelling to Italy to pray for peace. Shouldn't they have, like, tried to bring up all the palaces Saddam was building? Shouldn't some U.S. proxy have, like, answered the charge that sanctions were killing Iraq's children? Shouldn't that proxy have pointed to oil for food or the palaces or the munitions Saddam was buying?
In off-topic news, the Intelligence Reform Bill appears like it will become law. It won't, however, include restrictions that had they been in place in 2001 might have prevented the 9/11 hijackers from obtaining the driver's licenses they used to get around in the U.S.posted by: BigMediaBlog.com / Lonewacko on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
It seems to me that it was the idea that was flawed. I believe the invasion was primarily about setting up permanent bases in an important energy-producing region and that talk of democracy-building is-was just propaganda. If that is the case then the invasion never had a chance of achieving peaceful stability because people inevitably see through the window-dressing of democratic rhetoric when it is being mouthed by invading foreigners.
posted by: peter on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Dan, don't beat yourself up too much. Kaus makes a slide from saying that there were inherent problems with the concept (i.e. not just with the execution) to saying that the invasion was a mistake. That doesn't necessarily follow. There are inherent, irreducible problems with virtually everything a government ever does (or refrains from doing). In this case, there were inherent problems with not invading Iraq - problems that couldn't have been eliminated by better policy. For example, a better Iraq policy (in the alternative history without an invasion) might have prevented the further erosion and ultimate collapse of sanctions, and maybe also prevented the smuggling and corruption that was enriching the regime. That would be an instance of better execution altering the result of the alternative policy. On the other hand, the continuance of the Saddam regime would have left several problems that couldn't have been eliminated by better execution of the containment policy of 1991-2003, such as:
From Dan's May TNR article:
Indeed, regime change in the Middle East looks like a lousy, rotten policy option for addressing the root causes of terrorism, until one considers the alternatives--appeasement or muddling through....
I don't get this. How is confining the war to the regimes that attacked us appeasement? This sounds like an ad-hominem argument.
As a strategy, here's what the Pentagon's Defense Science Board has to say about it:
If there is one overarching goal [Islamic terrorists] share, it is the overthrow of what Islamists call the "apostate" regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, and the Gulf states. They are the main target of the broader Islamist movement, as well as the actual fighter groups. The United States finds itself in the strategically awkward -- and potentially dangerous -- situation of being the longstanding prop and alliance partner of these authoritarian regimes. Without the U.S. these regimes could not survive..... This is the larger strategic context, and it is acutely uncomfortable.
In other words, one alternative would have been to cut off aid to Egypt -- or threaten to cut it off -- unless Mubarak gets his act together.posted by: Carl on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Maybe there were big problems inherent in the whole project. This is the possibility--that the decision to go to war itself was wrong--that vehement talk of bungling conveniently excludes.
The OTHER possibility is that there were "big problems inherent in the whole project" and the decision to go to war was nonetheless correct.
Really, I don't know what people like Drezner expected pre-invasion. I half get the idea that Drezner expected Iraq to turn into Belgium in a year. The problems we face today are not exactly what was predicted, but to have expected someone to predict this exactly is to ask for a degree of omniscience that human beings are not capable of. (And don't give the bullsh*t that some random person in the State Dept predicted exactly what we see now: that's crap. The State Dept put together volumes and volumes of predictions, some of which were right and some of which were not.)posted by: Al on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
I don't get this. How is confining the war to the regimes that attacked us appeasement?
THe cause of your confusion, apparently, is that it's not simply a state on state issue... these attacks transcend the nation state. If it helps you understand, consider that BinLaden, a Saudi national, was kicked out of his own country, and disavowed by his government.
The old models of one government vs another do not apply to this conflict.posted by: Bithead on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
It was clear from the time this Iraq mission was being pushed that Bush was going to commit 100,000 -- 125,000 troops to this battle. As many suspected (alas, not me) and as we have now found out, this was not nearly enough. I do not know what you knew or thought you knew about the appropriate troop strength to take and secure Iraq back in early 2003. Assuming you had an opinion on the right troop strength (and it's the same as you have propounded in later posts), the question should haunt you is this -- was Iraq worth doing, the way it was clear this administration was going to do it?
Regular readers already know what I am going to say about this: Removing a regime deemed a threat to the United States is one thing, trying to build a democracy in an Arab country is someting else entirely.
The first objective was clearly well within our power. I have never believed the second was. Representative democracy is a highly demanding system of government, requiring reservoirs of civic virtue that backward, tribal Arab cultures do nothing to fill. Now, I would be delighted to be proven wrong about this. But it seems to me highly unwise to lay out objectives for a military operation that depend for their success so completely on people outside the military.
There have been many mistakes made in Iraq. My objection to administration policy there focuses instead on its objective, an objective we could easily have failed to attain even if we did everything right.posted by: Zathras on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Technically, the people 'that attacked us' died in the attacks. I dont think even the most rabid lefties wanted to argue the war was over the 1/1000th of a second after the last plane impacted.
This distinction between the "idea" and the "implementation" is troubling. When it comes to war, as a moral matter, the "idea" is irrelevant if the "implementation" is bad; likewise, the "implementation" is irrelevant if the "idea" is bad. They are inextricably linked. Stupid is as stupid does.
Eliminating Saddam was never enough. Some kind of stable state that is willing to fight Islamic terrorism is necessary. If that state is democratic, great. But right now it's a bit hard to imagine a stable state, where terrorists can gain no foothold, let alone a stable state that American troops can safely leave.posted by: Andrew Steele on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Mark Buehner wrote:
But we already know that in the immediate aftermath of the invasion the US did a very poor job of securing potential terrorist "resources". Furthermore, we may be killing more terrorists than before but their number is also increasing; our success in reducing the net number of terrorists is dubious. So if this war is "about" the things you list above, we're doing an awful job of accomplishing our goals.posted by: Guy on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Inability to achieve perfection is a common justification for doing nothing. By losers.
The rest of us live in the real world.posted by: Tom Holsinger on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
"But we already know that in the immediate aftermath of the invasion the US did a very poor job of securing potential terrorist "resources"."
First of all, we had a staggering number of potential 'resources' that needed protection. Secondly, I believe you missed my point completly. Only a state can provide the all of the things listed, only one of which is physical resources such as explosives. Clearly explosives themselves are not a problem to come by, see Oklahoma City. Whatsmore, insofar as removing physical resources was a goal, _clearly_ WMD were the priority. Its hindsight to blame the admin or army for concentrating on items that didnt exist or werent there.
"Furthermore, we may be killing more terrorists than before but their number is also increasing; our success in reducing the net number of terrorists is dubious."
There is simply no evidence of this, even if it is the conventional wisdom. Are we better off leaving jihadis in Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Jordan to plot whatever they are up to? Or killing them in Fallujah? Non-trivial, and probably unanswerable question. What is clear is that the cycle of violence 'cult' would disqualify us from fighting any war. War means killing, and if death means creating more fighters no war would ever end. I dont see millions of Nazis or Kamikazees running around these days. It goes back to my point, killing people is only one part of winning a war, perhaps the least part. Breaking their will and convincing them that they cant achieve the objectives they risk or give their lives for is how you win wars. Hand-wringing over creating more enemies is not a recipe for winning that contest of wills.
"So if this war is "about" the things you list above, we're doing an awful job of accomplishing our goals."
You addressed a single aspect of the list, and incompletely. We have deprived OBL of free reign in Afghanistan, Zaquawi of Iraq, made Pakistan a dangerous place of terrorists to operate, scared Libya straight, and made allies of former enemies such as Yemen and Morocco. Those are the victories that count. Not what happened to such and such a batch of explosives or other trivialties that simply dont address the underlying battle.posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Bush started the war on terror. Terrific. Peter seems to have not noticed that the pre 9-11 US activity was exactly the law-enforcement model.
The truth is the administration had no real plan -- and has none. Before the war they said maybe we stir the pot and see what comes up, which is about as irresponsible a foreign policy as can be imagined.
The idea that we can just pick a country in the region at random and invade it is madness, and not likely to give us the legitimacy we so desperately needed if this impossible task was to succeed.posted by: Carl on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
"Criminal acts like those of AQ warrant international police actions not orgies of wanton militarism."
Keep making that argument, keep losing elections. There is no international police concert of action, so the only option in that direction is surrender. I dont expect the Taliban warlords were any more likely to hand OBL (Mullah Omars brother in law, financier, and hatchetman) to interpol than they were to Colin Powell.
"And if the war is about eliminating terrorist infrastructures and so on, then why the attack on Iraq?"
If the war was about about international law, attacking Iraq for floughting it would make sense.
"After all that state didn't have much in the way of links to international terrorism back before the war"
Flat out wrong. Huge ties to funding Hamas and Jihad, not to mention Zaqawi. Just the fact that Zaqawi chose Baghdad to seek medical attention from post Afghanistan is Causa Belli enough. Iraq was a convenient target for many reasons, not the least of which it made attacking any number of other nations such as Libya unneccesary.
"Lastly I question if Libya changed its policies owing to US policy."
Hope springs eternal. Some people think the Soviets just happened to choose the Reagan administration to collapse during as well.
"I believe things like compensation for the Lockerbie bombing were being negotiated with the UK well-before 911."
And would have continued until the end of time. Dont mistake the appearance of motion for progress. Foot dragging is the oldest play in the book for tyrants dealing with the international community. See Korean peacetalks, Vietnam peace talks, North Korea in the 90s, everything Hussein ever did, et al.posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
"The truth is the administration had no real plan -- and has none. "
The neocons are evil masterminds with devious plans to overhaul the middle east for oil and Israel. But they also have no plan.
Which is it?posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
OK Mark, I'll explain the paradox.
The fact is the neocon "plan" was a fantasy:
"Ahmed Chalabi is a treacherous, spineless turncoat," says L. Marc Zell, a former law partner of Douglas Feith, now the undersecretary of defense for policy, and a former friend and supporter of Chalabi and his aspirations to lead Iraq. "He had one set of friends before he was in power, and now he's got another."...
"He said he would end Iraq's boycott of trade with Israel, and would allow Israeli companies to do business there. He said [the new Iraqi government] would agree to rebuild the pipeline from Mosul [in the northern Iraqi oil fields] to Haifa [the Israeli port, and the location of a major refinery]." But Chalabi, Zell says, has delivered on none of them. The bitter ex-Chalabi backer believes his former friend's moves were a deliberate bait and switch designed to win support for his designs to return to Iraq and run the country.
So yes the neocons have ideas and designs, but a plan requires an intellectual rigor that they seem incapable of. Their strength is marketing.posted by: Carl on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Firstly, it is absolutely not a cause for war to give medical treatment to someone. In fact, it is a war crime to bomb a place on the grounds that it has treated someone's enemy.
"Firstly, it is absolutely not a cause for war to give medical treatment to someone"
Giving aid and comfort to a deadly enemy is an act of war.
"Secondly, if the war had been about international law then the invasion was exceedingly hyprocritical insofar as it was completely illegal. "
No controlling legal authority, to bring back a gem. The legal context, if you need one, is that Iraq broke the cease fire obligations of GW1. Breaking the terms of a cease fire by definition is cause for restarting a war.
"Fourthly, I suspect you exaggerate any links Hussein had to islamic terror groups. At least I have never heard of any."
They are well documented, I leave it to you to look up.
"Certainly your suggestion that giving medical treatment to someone is a cause of war makes me question your judgement on the matter."
Really? If Bin Laden had gone to Iran to seek medical treatment and taken up residence there, would you consider that an proper pretext for war? Patching up a terrorist and giving him refuge is no different than fixing a tank tread in a conventional war.
The problem here is that you are making the false assumption that the US is required to meet some fictitious UN standard for war. Exactly 2 wars in the last 60 years have been endorsed by the United Nations, Korea and GW1. No nation on earth relies on the UN to define when they may protect their vital interests by going to war, certainly not the United States. Neither did NATO in the Balkans, or France in any number of places.
I respect your faith in law, but in this case it is badly misplaced. The UN is corrupt and toothless. We have no obligation to give them a veto over our defense. Bush said that every nation must pick sides, if they aid and comfort our enemies, they become our enemies.
On the other hand i am mildly curious by what mechanisms you would expect our enemies to be neutralized inside the context of your international law. Realistically.posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
"To suggest that Reagan was the prime reason for its fall is a-historical. "
Yet the USSR did fall during Reagans watch, and not in the 70 years previously. Yes the USSR was rotten, but it had been rotten for years. It was Reagans brilliance in exploiting the seams and weaknesses that caused the precipitious fall, instead of some hardliner crackdown or, worse, aggression against the West to stem the flow.I tend to take the opinions of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel a bit more seriously than simple speculation.
"As to Libya, if you can write something detailed about Libyan internal politics and its relations with Europe then maybe I'll accept your idea that Bush' policy in Iraq had a positive influence. "
Peter, I cant argue with your ideas on causality. When it suits you things happen for a reason, when not it is just a coincidence of timing. But the proof is in the pudding. Libya has been recalcitrant for more than 20 years, and suddenly they voluntarilly donate their nuclear program to the US and start railing against terrorists. Yeh, maybe its an amazing coincidence.
"So yes the neocons have ideas and designs, but a plan requires an intellectual rigor that they seem incapable of."
Carl, have to agree to disagree. The good news is, one of us will be right and one wrong. If in 10 years the region is not fundamentally better and democratic to a large extent, I will concede defeat. Somehow I get the feeling that if there is fundamental change for the good in the Middle East, folks of Peter and yourself's frame of mind wont be lauding any apologies or congratulations on Bush. Im sure that Iraq was primed for democracy anyway, and this was all just a big coincidence. ;)posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
If Bush is right I'll give him credit. But I think we'll know sooner than 10 years whether this has worked. Here's a Washington Post article from March 2003:
[Michael] Ledeen said the war on terrorism "is a war of freedom against tyranny, so we have to fight tyranny." On that ground, he argued, "if there is not a democratic government in Iraq in a year or so, we will have failed."...
"[William] Kristol, in contrast, identified three tests of success or failure: victory over Hussein, discovering weapons of mass destruction and being judged as a liberator."
And as that Zell quote above indicates, many of the neocons are simply delusional. Perle said back in September of 2003 that by the end of 2004, he'd "be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush. There is no doubt that, with the exception of a very small number of people close to a vicious regime, the people of Iraq have been liberated and they understand that they've been liberated. And it is getting easier every day for Iraqis to express that sense of liberation."
The architects of this policy do not understand the region and have been wrong about almost everything for the past 18 months. We can say that right now.posted by: Carl on 12.07.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]
Jim Bender asked about a better implementation. Here are two possibilities:
0. Get the army ready to invade. Since we knew there was no urgency about WMDs, plan it a year or two later than it happened. This allows time to maybe arrange things with turkey and come in from the north too. Without the WMD fakery we'd need a more honest excuse to give the american public too, and preferably a budget. This is a big sticking point, what could we tell the US public and Congress that they'd actually go along with?
The WMD lie left us having to invade on an urgent schedule, we couldn't just put it off a year and we sent the soldiers in with chemical protective gear in the heat, because we couldn't tell the army that the WMDs were a a lie. I'm not sure what we could tell them that they'd accept. But we'd have an extra year or two to persuade them to spread democracy or whatever they agree to.
So, the US public and Congress goes along and agrees to pay for an invasion, and the troops are ready. Next:
Plan I: Contact Saddam. Point out that he can't win and we can make his life miserable. Then make him an offer he can't refuse. Sell the country to us for a measly 3 billion dollars. We let him come live in the USA or france or wherever else he wants that will take him. He gives retirement funds to whichever of his top guys he wants to reward and they can go into exile too. We'll guard him from assassins if he wants us to. We'll protect him from the World Court if we can -- we definitely can if he chooses to live in the USA.
If Saddam accepts, then iraq gets the status of guam or better the louisiana purchase. We own the place, we bought it off its former owner. Nobody in iraq is going to be loyal to Saddam, he just sold them out.
We announce to iraqis that in a while they'll get to choose whether to be fully independent like some of our former possessions, or request american statehood like louisiana etc, or keep an intermediate status longer like puerto rico.
Plan II: If Saddam refuses, we publicise the offer and explain that it's still good, that after we catch Saddam we'll still let him have a few billion dollars and go where he wants in exile. With any luck the resistance will crumble even faster than it did. Who wants to die trying to keep us from setting Saddam up as a wealthy retiree and keep us from letting iraq choose its own path? Plus it's an extra year for us to prepare and for iraqis to realise it's hopeless.
We move in and quickly set up local elections. Each town elects a mayor and a town council. THey inherit the local water works and power plants etc, and they hire a local police force and perhaps a militia. We pay for everything,but we don't just hand over the money. We give them a budget and let them allocate money and then we pay it to who they say. We pay for reconstruction, and we let them choose the local experts who'll be in charge of each project. If the projects go bad they'll pay in the next yearly election.
We let each town set up its own justice system to enforce local ordinances etc.
The town council (who were elected by the majority of the city) are responsible for terrorists etc in their town. Once they have their police force we don't patrol, so any terrorists intown will be attacking them instead of us. And they have the majority behind them. They can probably handle it.
We treat each town council like they're really in charge. We're paying the bills and we're providing the rationed food; we could stop them if we wanted to. But we never hint at that. If they want to keep our military out of their town, we get their input about where to build the detour around them. We never threaten to cut off funding unless we catch them cheating at elections or a majority of voters is clearly upset at them.
The second year or maybe sooner we set up provincial governments the same way.
The third year we suggest they set up a constitutional convention to decide how they want a federal government. They might do that the way we did and say the federal government becomes active when ten out of the sixteen provinces accept it.
We might get down to 30,000 troops in six months. With elected local governments handling local security, and active reconstruction going on, there might not be much of an insurgency. Of course there would be salafi cities and Ba'ath cities etc. You get that kind of thing in a democracy. We don't have to oppress them. We don't have to send soldiers into their cities except the bodyguards for our accountants and engineers.
Maybe they ask us to leave, and we do. We can always offer to pay them for semipermanent bases. They might accept. Much easier to make a deal when they know they don't have to. (Maybe more expensive, but how expensive is a base the locals keep attacking?)
Get things organised locally and regionally and they can argue out how to do it nationally.
We might persuade various State Department arabists to take charge of some of this. They know the language, they know the mindset, they're supposed to be good at diplomacy. Some of them might do some good.
Local democracy is easier, and it provides a base for everything else. Local security is a very good start toward global security. Local security allows local reconstruction, and when that actually happens there's more interest in making money and less interest in shooting foreigners who aren't really bothering people.
I think likely the biggest mistake of the war was when Bremer cancelled local elections because too many religious candidates were winning.
Peter, I respect your point of view but I have to reject it. You would add up all the costs of war especially to civilians, but what about the costs of non-war?
Beyond the moral argument, pragmatically what you are suggesting is just (sorry) naive. 'Soft' power is highly overrated as a means to compel a nation that doesnt give a damn. Look at Cuba or North Korea. I can assure you we'd be sitting in the same position today as we were 9/12/01 had we attempted whatever kind of 'diplomatic' 'economic' pressures you suggest, except for the fact that many more attacks would have taken place and the rest of the world would have no respect for our resolve.
Mark, I have to respect the sincerity of your position although it is ignorant, provincial, and utterly misguided.
First, we must put aside the question whether afghans are better off. The problem is that it appears the majority of afghans are religious fanatics. They have been doing what they want with their country. If religious fanatics were a majority in the USA and the Christian Right was passing laws that a liberal minority felt oppressed them, would we be better off for a foreign army to assist a coup to restore liberal values? It's basicly the same question. And the answer has to depend on how much you value liberal ideals. Speaking for myself, I don't think the USA would be better off with a bloody coup assisted by foreign airstrikes even if it was my own rights the social conservatives were violating.
We didn't give a third thought to whether the afghans would be better off in 2000 or 2001. The whole idea is a red herring.
Next, there's the question whether it's morally worse to kill people versus failing to intervene when somebody else kills people. Clearly, you have more of a moral obligation when you're doing it yourself. When it's your finger on the trigger it's you that's killing people. When somebody else might be about to kill somebody and you don't stop him, he might not do it. If it was a fair world we'd each have about one part in six billion of the responsibility. It isn't that fair -- americans have more power so we are responsible for using that power wisely. We can do airstrikes and sometimes we can stop somebody else from doing airstrikes. If we're going to talk morality at all, clearly the moral position for the most powerful is to be sure before we kill people. We definitely aren't powerful enough to unkill people when we kill them wrongly. And when we have the biggest deficit the world has ever seen, we don't necessarily have a moral obligation to spend a lot of money deciding who to kill on utterly inadequate information, on the guess that among the innocents we kill are guilty people who would have killed even more if we hadn't gotten them. This is at best a slippery moral position to take. And anyway once you decide that results are the important thing you have already discarded morality. "The end justifies the means." "You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette." Once you do immoral things because you believe they'll have a good result, you shouldn't claim to be moral. I'm not clear that morality is that important for government in the first place, but these moral arguments are worthless even if it is. Put them aside.
Pragmatically, I have to admit that it feels good to kick ass. The shock and awe bombing was way better than most fireworks displays and the whole country could watch it. It feels really good to think we're the Only Superpower, that we can beat any combination of armies across the whole world, that we're the top dogs, the Top Guns. They sass us, we kill them, that's teaching them a lesson. It feels good to be a winner, The Winner.
On the other hand ... al qaeda appears to have had about 12,000 trained infantrymen and about 1000 trained spies and saboteurs. Some of the infantrymen were in afghanistan, the spies were scattered all over the western world. The infantry had training bases in afghanistan. The spies did their training in paris and london and DC and new york. The published evidence isn't clear but it looks like we got essentially all the spies with international police work. The more recent minor bombing incidents were done with new recruits who didn't have much contact with the older groups that were already broken. Afghanistan had very little to do with that except we maybe picked up some records there.
Invading afghanistan had very little to do with the War on Terror. HOwever, those infantry might eventually have toppled some arab state. Get a place where the government's infantry isn't well-trained or well-motivated, and where the artillery and air force won't intervene, and those guys might have cleaned up. Maybe we stopped something there. It wasn't what we said we were stopping.
I agree that "soft power" is limited when the other side doesn't give a damn. But most governments do care what their own people think, and they'll do some things to keep from looking bad to their people. And there were very few governments whose interests matched al qaeda after 9/11. Afghanistan was in the embarrassing position of having awful international criminals as invited guests. If within 3 months or so of discussion of their moral obligations al qaeda had relocated to somalia, would we have been worse off? Somalia is more accessible and we maybe have unfinished business there. We could have taken out the infantry easier there and we might have gotten bin Ladin, either when he was traveling in or when he tried to get out or anytime inbetween. And if he didn't leave afghanistan would we have been worse off fighting a few months later? I don't think so, though I'm not privy to all the details.
Soft power gets less dramatic results and with less certainty. And it's much much cheaper in money and lives. Unless we have a tight deadline why not give it a try? We had no known deadline in afghanistan. Well, but the trouble was that the american public was upset after 9/11 and wanted to attack somebody, and they didn't want any lesser solution. Pragmatically we had to attack somebody to satisfy the voters, and afghanistan was about as good as any.
The "respect" the rest of the world has for our "resolve" is something we could do without. It's plain stupid for the only superpower to care what the rest of the world thinks. The whole point of being a superpower is you get to do what you want. "I don't get to choose this, I have to make the choice that will get the world to respect me." That isn't strong, that's being an utter wimp. It's like on the playground. "I have to eat this frog or the other kids won't think I'm tougher than they are." I mean, stupid.
And we weren't giving the initiative to al qaeda's sabotage people. We had a strong international effort to find them, and they were mostly taken apart. It didn't take any invasions. We could have taken them apart long before 9/11 but we didn't because we wanted to watch them.
So, what would have happened if we hadn't invaded afghanistan? What I can imagine, is maybe the 12000 infantry would sneak into saudi arabia and then try to take over the saudi government. The saudi military probably couldn't stop them, and it would look bad for the US Marines to stop them. Maybe they could have been stopped while they were sneaking in. I'n not at all clear what the plan was or what the counter measures could have been or what would have worked. The way we did it busted their infantry up temporarily, and I'm not clear how big a training base they need to replace the ones who were lost. Can they set up training camps in somalia, or chad, or colombia? I dunno. It's a soft power thing to find out, and it may be a soft power thing to get them closed.
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