It is timely to ask if either of the last two U.S. administrations had the remotest idea what it was getting into in the Iraq and Afghan wars. I have not moved from my view that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad, and certainly the Iraqis are. The Bush administration was much less cock-a-hoop about weapons of mass destruction than the British were (largely because of proximity). And although Colin Powell over-egged the pudding somewhat in his remarks to the United Nations, the administration was on safe legal ground because of Saddam's flaunting of 17 Security Council resolutions and its violation of the Gulf War ceasefire agreement. But other than in the president's excellent address to the U.N. General Assembly, the Iraq War was never really explained by the Bush administration as the enforcement of international law. Rather, it was anti-terrorism metamorphosed into the propagation of democracy. The anti-terrorism argument was defensible, but Iraq is an unconvincing candidate for democratic laurels. There is some power-sharing, and although it is not a society of laws, it is not an appallingly oppressive dictatorship like Saddam's either.
The initial intervention in Afghanistan, joined by NATO and approved by the United Nations also, targeted the authors of the Sept. 11, 2011 outrages, chased out the Omar Taliban regime that had sheltered al-Qaeda, and was legally unexceptionable and skillfully executed, militarily, and diplomatically.
In the year between the flight of Omar and the attack on Saddam, early 2002 to March 2003, it all went horribly wrong. With the task of cleansing Iraq of the Taliban just underway, the main American force decamped to Iraq, leaving behind hugely undermanned allies, who had rushed in in solidarity with the U.S. after the 9/11 outrages.
And after the swift defeat of Saddam's forces, the U.S. occupation governor, the not evidently qualified Paul Bremer, disbanded the 400,000 men of the Iraqi army and national police. They were informed that they no longer had any employment or income, but were free to keep their weapons and munitions. This ranks, I believe, as next to the failure to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Vietnam War and the failure to detect the infiltration of 150,000 Red Chinese guerrillas in Korea in 1950, as the greatest military blunder in American history, at least since the Civil War.
It was contrary to all the lessons of military occupation in Europe and the Far East at the end of World War II, and almost all the abruptly demobilized, heavily armed military and police attached themselves to the emerging political and tribal and sectarian factions and stoked up the ensuing bloodbath, for which the occupier was ultimately held responsible, and which took thousands of American and allied lives.
It appeared to be a lost mission by 2007, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice effectively acknowledged it to be so, when president Bush courageously redeemed it with the "surge," led by Gen. David Petraeus. Bush did what LBJ should have done in 1968 after the Tet Offensive; sacked commanders, changed to a winning strategy, and declared that victory was coming, not humiliating withdrawal. Bush executed the turn very artistically by recruiting a member of the defeatist Iraq Study Group, Robert Gates, to implement the plan as Secretary of Defense.
By this time, the forlorn allies and the remaining U.S. corporal's guard in Afghanistan were outgunned by the resurgent Taliban. President Obama entered office, began large-scale withdrawals from Iraq, and beefed up the effort in Afghanistan. All American and allied forces will be out of Iraq next month and force levels are now coming down in Afghanistan. It is not at all clear what either country will look like a couple of years after the allies have left.
But it is not clear either that the picture in either place is any better than it would have been if we had just dispensed with Saddam in 2003 to 2004, installed some non-Baathist regime at the head of existing security forces, required a softening of the oppression of Kurds and Shiites by the Sunnis, and left Iraq while continuing the clean-up in Afghanistan. Under that scenario, Afghanistan would have been in much better condition by 2006, and at much less cost in lives and money, than it is now.
The time to lever on the military victory in Iraq and to require improved behaviour from Iran was when victorious allied forces were on its western (Iraq) and eastern (Afghanistan) borders. Subsequent efforts to achieve that end have been a conspicuous failure. The United States has been lambasted for the pursuit of oil, but has not gained a barrel of oil for its trouble. At least the original Bush administration extracted the cost of liberating Kuwait from the Kuwaitis (not to mention what the Bush family has gained from the same grateful source). If the United States had established a plausible Iraq post-Saddam regime, and agreed with it the reconstruction of the country with payment in oil at pre-fixed prices, there would at least have been a commercial rationale for this effort.
Once America became mired in both countries, its great military presence in the Middle East flipped from being a rod on the backs of obstreperous states like Iran and Syria, and instead fed local smugness that the West had no staying power as the U.S. struggled to resurrect an apparently positive outcome to its efforts.
Perhaps there will be a lasting benefit to the Iraqi occupation, but it will be hard to establish that that benefit could not have been extracted in 2003 or 2004. And failure to settle Afghan affairs while the military, diplomatic, and moral post-9/11 fires were hot, weighs heavily on us today.
The palsied, corrupt semi-failed state of Pakistan has played all sides of the Afghan War, diluted the greatest strategic success of the second Bush administration: the rapprochement with the rising force of India; and has made a mockery of the American effort by supporting the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, harboring bin Laden and the terrorist leadership, and even seducing the corrupt ingrate the Americans have propped up in Kabul for 10 years, Hamid Karzai. All heavy supplies for land-locked Afghanistan have to come through Pakistan for 800 miles at great expense, both legitimately and in bribes, and the whole operation is far from cost-effective.
The United States should have tightened relations with India, used its air-lift capacity to clean up the border sanctuaries of Waziristan, whatever Pakistan thought about it, and made it clear it didn't care what regime prevailed in Afghanistan, but that if it were ever used for nurturing terrorism in the West again, the U.S. would be back and not to distribute aid, drop pamphlets, or knock over statues of the most recent despot.
At least no one will be able to claim that the U.S. has suffered a military defeat. But it has suffered a period of extended strategic incapacity, which has fanned defeatism and exaggerated notions of imminent loss of world leadership, and two consecutive presidents have been failures, largely because of it. If the strategic lessons have been taken on board, and there isn't a terrible post-Vietnam psychosis about the use of force, the sacrifice, though grievous, in lives, resources, and time, will not have been wasted.