Back to Square One with a Hand Tied Behind Our Back

by Steven R. Corman

I remember arriving in Karlsruhe, Germany on March 17, 2003.  It was two days before the Iraq invasion.  I didn’t know the date certain of the invasion, of course, but I knew for certain it was coming.  I was quite worried (needlessly, as it turns out) about how I would be received by the Germans.  They, like the rest of “Old Europe,” were vehemently against the war.

So was I.  It was not because I am a peace-nick who thinks there can never be a good reason for military conflict.  On the contrary, one of those reasons had surfaced just a couple of years earlier.  We needed to go to Afghanistan to close down the al Qaeda operation that had developed there over the years.

Like many others I objected to Iraq because of the flimsy rationale that was provided for it, which even at that time was showing signs of wear.  But even more than that, I knew that we hadn’t finished the job in Afghanistan.  By going to Iraq we’d be taking our eye off the ball.

I had heated arguments about this with one of my best friends, a neocon.   The mood among such people at the time was that you were either with the President or against him.  If you didn’t support him on Iraq you were against him.  And if you were against him then you were a candy-ass, Old-Europe-loving, peace-marching leftie that didn’t deserve to be looked at, much less listened to.  There was simply no room for principled opposition.  It was Groupthink on a massive, national scale.

The Wages of (Iraq) War

That form of social pathology led to profoundly bad decision making, as it inevitably does.  Today, even after five or ten revisions in the official reasons why we went to Iraq and stayed there, nobody argues that it was a good idea in hindsight.  Former military commanders and White House officials, and now even the Army’s Combat Studies Institute, are falling all over themselves to document the strategic error/blunder/disaster that was and is the Iraq War.

There are the direct negatives:  The length of the engagement, the military and civilian deaths, and the cost.  But even worse is the opportunity it has given the Bad Guys to recover in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Just today, the New York Times published an extensive article documenting this.  In a chilling statement it says

Just as it had on the day before 9/11, Al Qaeda now has a band of terrorist camps from which to plan and train for attacks against Western targets, including the United States. Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of American missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired C.I.A. officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds now have as many as 2,000 local and foreign militants, up from several hundred three years ago.

It concludes with this dismal assessment of six years of our efforts there:

“The United States faces a threat from Al Qaeda today that is comparable to what it faced on Sept. 11, 2001,” said Seth Jones, a Pentagon consultant and a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation. “The base of operations has moved only a short distance, roughly the difference from New York to Philadelphia.”

So because of the Iraq adventure, we have allowed our real enemy–the one who has attacked us on our own soil–to retreat, regroup, and plan to attack us again.  It’s hard to imagine a more grave strategic error.

But We’re Stuck

At dinner the other night, a friend who I hadn’t seen for years asked me if I favored getting out of Iraq.  You might think that, given the tone of the preceding critique, I might favor that plan. But alas, as a radical centrist my role is to be an equal-opportunity antagonist.  I told my friend that I want to see us out of there as badly as the next person, but it would be a hugh mistake to leave precipitously, before the government has firmly establish itself.

Doing so would play directly into the Bad Guys’ narrative.  This has been one of our biggest strategic communication shortcomings, and it started with going to Iraq in the first place.  At a recent conference I asked a Pakistani general why al Qaeda’s ideology is so persuasive to some people in his region.  He replied with a question:  “The extremists say that the United States is trying to conquer the Muslims and destroy the Umma. So what do you do?”  Answer:  Invade a Muslim country.  We have also played into the extremists’ narratives of humiliation with our treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

If we left Iraq prematurely, we’d be doing it yet again, and in a way that makes us look vulnerable to future attacks.  The Bad Guys think we simply don’t have the stomach for a sustained fight.  Their opinion is summed up nicely by al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al Zawahiri writing in 2005 in a treatise called The Emancipation of Mankind and Nations Under the Banner of the Koran:

I swear to God that we have exposed the secret of these American infidels.  Their soldiers are more cowardly than cowardice, and weaker than languor.  They depend on reconnaissance flights, remote shelling, and recruitment of mercenaries and thugs.  Other than that, there is no courage, perseverance, patience, or steadfastness.

The same matter is addressed by prominent extremist ideologue Abu Bakr Naji in his book The Management of Savagery:

Due to the nature of the psyche of the Taghuts and the psyche of their troops, they are not able to remain under pressure and intimidation for a long period of time. That is one of the reasons—but not all of the reasons – they do not successively and gradually exterminate the Islamic movement; rather, they resort to striking the movement (after) relatively long periods of time. Once that decision is made, a plan is put in place and the matter ends quickly because they know that they and their troops do not have the patience for a long battle, regardless of the extent of their numbers and size.

So, if we were to do anything to even imply that we are turing tail to run, we would validate this strong theme in extremist ideology.  They would be able to say to potential recruits:  “See?  We told you so.  If you will only join us and help increase the pressure, in good time they will completely collapse and we will be victorious.”

This is the real tragedy of the Iraq War.  Even though I regard it as the stupidest strategic move of my lifetime, maybe in U.S. history, there is no good way out.  We are stuck there, tying one hand behind our back.  Meanwhile, we are back to square one in Afghanistan because the roaches just scurried under a different cabinet while we were looking the other way.