« Mirror Mirror on The Wall, Who's The Most Perverted of Them All? | Main | Webb Of Lies »

October 27, 2006

What Afghanistan Could've Been

Brad Plumer, Mike Scheuer, and others have been casting doubt on the decision to invade Afghanistan lately. But Rob Farley's article retroactively arguing the case for war seems more convincing, and brings up a point too rarely mentioned:

Probably the biggest reason for the post-war problems plaguing Operation Enduring Freedom has been the war in Iraq. Even before the invasion there, the Bush administration began directing resources away from Afghanistan toward the Persian Gulf. The resultant invasion not only taxed the nation-building resources of the United States, but helped shatter the post-9/11 consensus on Afghanistan in Europe. On its own, the invasion of Afghanistan could be understood as a necessary, even noble response to a clear attack on the United States. In conjunction with the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan took on a more sinister tone, looking more like one component in a wider imperial project than a regrettable and unusual necessity.

Although we can’t say for sure, I also suspect that the invasion of Iraq has increased material and popular support for what’s left of al-Qaeda, which has worked to strengthen the hand of the rump Taliban in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much of the question of incompetence turns, therefore, on whether or not the invasion of Iraq was predictable in November 2001. Had evidence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld's obsession with Iraq been available at that point, it could reasonably have been predicted that Operation Enduring Freedom would likely suffer. Most of that evidence, however, didn’t turn up until later, making it harder to argue that the incompetence of the administration was manifest before Afghan invasion.

Finally, the international situation was favorable. The invasion of Afghanistan was widely popular in both the United States and Europe. Although the United States initially rejected direct NATO involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom (a decision that was probably correct, given how quickly U.S. and Northern Alliance forces rolled up the Taliban) it was always expected that NATO forces would participate in the occupation and reconstruction of Afghanistan. The United States also secured the cooperation of neighboring states at an early date. Pakistan acquiesced in the invasion after pressure from the United States and Russia, while Uzbekistan and Iran both cooperated fully. Iranian assistance in the western provinces was critical in the early days of the occupation -- and this cooperation might have provided the foundation for long term accommodation between Iran and the United States.

There was an alternative response to 9/11 that the war in Afghanistan could have proved the foundation of. One predicated on consensus, not division; on widely-understood goals rather than narrowly conceived interests. As Rob writes, Europe believed in that war, in our righteousness for pursuing it, and in its underlying premise: That terrorists must be hunted down and killed. The unanimity of support scared our enemies, bringing Pakistan into the fold and spurring Iran to approach us for a grand bargain.

But we rejected Iran's entreaties, figuring we needn't negotiate from a position of such strength. We demolished the NATO consensus on our mission by widening the scope to include the manifestly unconnected Iraq War. We tossed away the goodwill, the willingness to compromise, the sense of shared mission, that existed beforehand. And we did it all...for what? For this war in Iraq, which has distracted us from Afghanistan, pummeled us for years, exposed the limits of our power and the contours of our weaknesses, and degraded our international standing so countries like Iran no longer believe they need to accommodate our demands. Afghanistan could've been used to build a better world order. Instead it was used to destroy Iraq. The picture in the rearview mirror is ugly.

Update: Iran's overtures, I'm reminded, where in the Spring of 2003, so after we'd entered Iraq. The groundwork, as Gareth Porter explains in his definitive article on the subject, was laid by the cooperation during the Afghanistan conflict (which the Bushies declined to use to open negotiations towards Iran), but the actual overture was nevertheless a few months after we invaded Iraq.

October 27, 2006 | Permalink


"The picture in the rearview mirror is ugly."

But it almost certainly is not accurate. When you ask 'what would have been' you are at best guessing. In this example, it is assuming that everything would have gone 'right' in the alternate universe and nothing would have gone 'wrong.' That is understandable, in that the things that went 'wrong' in the real universe obviously wouldn't have happened. Certainly though other things would have happened.

One could just as easily paint a nightmare scenario of what 'would have been' if Iraq was not invaded. It would be no more accurate, and serve no more purpose.

In the narrow case of Afghanistan, we do not that during the occupation of Iraq substantial Al-Qaida resources were deployed to that confrontation. It is possible therefore to argue that the focus of Al-Qaida on Iraq greatly benefited the occupation of Afghanistan. Obviously, there are other things that effect this too, but the real point is that we don't know, and never will.

The biggest fault of the Bush administration in Iraq (and to a lesser extent Afghanistan) seems to be an over-reliance that what they thought would happen must actually be what will happen. That same overconfidence is present in the 'this would have happened if we had done things differently' fantasy's.

The truth is, no plan survives contact with the enemy and the enemy gets to react too, and do their best to make sure that what they think should happen actually does.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 27, 2006 11:42:41 AM

isn't this just a version of the famed 'incompetence dodge' applied to the Afghanistan war? Wasn't it clear even at the time that the Bush administration would fuck it up? And shouldn't it be clear that *any* US administration would have done a similarly half-assed job rebuilding? I mean, if we couldn't even get Haiti right, what makes you think we could fix a Haiti half a world away?

Posted by: stuck working | Oct 27, 2006 12:01:19 PM

"One could just as easily paint a nightmare scenario of what 'would have been' if Iraq was not invaded. It would be no more accurate, and serve no more purpose."

Paint it for me. And make it as accurate. Iran, after all, really did come to us asking for a deal. Europe really was on board. Worldwide approval of America really was sky high. Historical supposition is, by nature, speculative, but you take the best info you have and try to figure out how things would have gone. Either argue against the trend lines I point out, or explain the likely catastrophe that would have come from not attacking a country with no WMD's or ties to terrorists.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 27, 2006 12:10:51 PM

I also posted this at Tapped: Iran's offer came after the Iraq invasion, not in connection with the Afghanistan war. Of course, Bush did handle Afghanistan quite badly, and Farley is wrong to say that fighting it without NATO was the right decision. Read Wesley Clark for the reasons why we should have involved NATO from the start.


Posted by: Haggai | Oct 27, 2006 12:22:49 PM

Ah, I posted here before I saw your update, Ezra. The general point still stands, though--if anything, the fact that the Iranians were still willing to make that proposal after the Iraq war suggests that such an opening might have occurred as well after Afghanistan, had the administration attempted to build on Iran's cooperation during that conflict.

Posted by: Haggai | Oct 27, 2006 12:25:12 PM

Not much doubt in my mind that invading Iraq harmed the effort in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda may have sent resources to Iraq, but al Qaeda was never likely to be the main problem in Afghanistan. The Taliban was, has been and is the major threat there. Bush underestimated the needs in Afghanistan as much as he did in Iraq. He has failed to deliver, the very thing he thought he was going to excel his dad in. Maybe things will still turn for the better, as much despite Bush as because of him.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 27, 2006 12:43:51 PM


My point is that such things might be enjoyable fiction, but they are still fiction. The only thing we can probably be sure of, is that actual results wouldn't work out the way they imagine them.

Here is one possible scenario though. The key piece of evidence that resulted in dismantling the A.Q. Khan proliferation network came as a result of Libya's announcement and subsequent abandonment of its nuclear program in Dec. of 2003. Most analysts agree that Libya's decision to abandon these programs was a direct result of the invasion of Iraq. It doesn't take a leap to imagine a nightmare scenario.

I think it also fairly obvious that the isolation and sanctions against Iraq was coming apart, and it is certainly obvious that Saddam desired WMDs. It isn't hard to imagine the sanctions finaly collapsing completely in a few years and Saddam resuming his previous activities.

One can also speculate on quite plausible Iraqi involvement in Lebanon, or Palestine, which could lead to a variety of problems.

I have already mentioned that Al-Qaida and others sole focus on Afghanistan might well have made the situation there far worse. Afghanistan is pretty good ground for a guerilla campaign, while Iraq is only suitible for a terror campaign. Guerilla warfare, with less of the terrorists killing other Muslims and more of them killing American soldiers quite possibly could have been better recruitment for Al-Qaida than anything else. In addition, it is plausible that despite us not going to Iraq, Europe loses interest and patience with the 'American' war in Afghanistan and Iran doesn't end up being a wonderful friendly country after all, when it becomes clear that they had no interest in a free Afghanistan, only an Iranian dominated one.

The point is though not that these things would happen. The point is that the 'good' things we imagine would have (or will) happen never happen perfecting and all sorts of bad things happen that we don't anticipate.

Living in fantasy land doesn't help that.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 27, 2006 12:50:41 PM

Well, I am not fond of counterfactuals. But if we are playing, one of the enduring mysteries of the last few years is the precise nature of the Bush administration with Pakistan. That includes incompetence or whatever with proliferation and Dr. Khan. That relationship has finally resulted in a quasi-independent Waziristan.

It very well might have been the case that a very serious effort to pacify and reconstruct Afghanistan would have destabilized Pakistan and Musharraf. Certainly the cross-border Pashtun tribes would have come under greater stress. I can't say that the US was able to do more than it did in Afghanistan. I don't know.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 27, 2006 12:54:06 PM

The stuff in the rearview mirror isn't the fantasy. It's where we've been, what we've seen and what we've done. It's ugly because we passed through it already.

The fantasy, if it exists anywhere is beside us, not behind. That shoulda, coulda, woulda out of the side windows.

You're right that a fantasy can be spun either way, but almost 3000 dead on 911, 2800+ dead American military, either tens or hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi's, billions of wasted dollars, broken alliances, damaged reputation, lost opportunities, and any possibility of bipartisan cooperation are what's in that mirror now.

Ezra's right. It's ugly.

Posted by: William Bollinger | Oct 27, 2006 2:16:23 PM

I think it also fairly obvious that the isolation and sanctions against Iraq was coming apart, and it is certainly obvious that Saddam desired WMDs. It isn't hard to imagine the sanctions finaly collapsing completely in a few years and Saddam resuming his previous activities.

Invasion was never the most desirable alternative. It would have been more efficient and far less bloody to work to rehabilitate sanctions and inspections, which Bush wasn't very interested in doing except as a pretext for invasion. Iraq, or some piece of it, is just as likely to end up pursuing WMD and whatever other nefarious projects in a few years as it was before, given how things stand now. Except this time there is if anything a more realistic threat that they would cooperate with terrorists targeting the US. There really isn't any good way to make this war look like it was ever a good idea, even if there had been WMD there of the kinds suspected. It was always an unacceptable, unjustifiable risk pursued by people we could see were willfully delusional.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 27, 2006 2:41:11 PM

The emotional climate that Ezra states is well documented, and I felt it very much on a personal and anecdotal level. The political climate for us around the time of the Afghanistan war was very favorable. We only have ourselves and our actions to thank for what has come since.

What would have happenned without the invasion in Iraq? Likely an invasion in Iraq.

I was somewhat in favor of war in Iraq, I was very much against how we got there. I think that is a fairly popular feeling. Its not the actual invasion itself that people are so opposed to, it's the methods pre and post invading Iraq.

Afghanistan given time could have been quite different, and an example of what we would like it to be in both countries. Time, money, and resources would have been available for reconstruction politically, socially, and for infrastructure.

Im not completely versed in the details of the funding in Afghanistan. It seems however to be vastly different then the non-competitive corporate contract model that we use in Iraq. A greater balance of projects like road building seem to have been done solely by the army corps of engineers.

With that, as far as has been reported it seems that much less waste has been involved, and perhaps less corruption. So with greater time and greater resources available theres a fairly good case to make that we would have gotten much better bang for the buck there, and built up a formidable new environment for the incoming government there.

..likely at some time in the future our government would have pulled in emough allies to make a coalition against Iraq. Likely the UN inspections would have led to nothing and the screams of subterfuge by Sadham would have gotten louder. The human rights and genocide crowds would have gotten louder over time.

With Libya who knows? Quadaffi hasnt to my knowledge specifically stated he was in fear of invasion by the US and thats the reason they dropped the nuke program. We have inferred that, if for no other reason but because we like to think of ourselves as badasses and that others fear us.

What he DID mention was a desire to normalize relations for economic benefit, to feed his people and benefit from their oil. With a prosperous Afghanistan benefittinmg from our nation building and building world opinion against Iraq in this imaginary universe, it may very well be that they would have given up the program in the same manner.

One thing is evident at the present. Though Libya gave up their nuke program because of Iraq. In the same breath you have to acknowledge that N.Korea accelerated their own program because of it. So Iraq is somewhat of a zero sum in terms of nuclear security.

Some event large or small would have set us off with Iraq. Perhaps the eventual downing of some aircraft in the no fly zone. Perhaps an incursion by the Iraqi military against the kurds, perhaps the 'discovery' of Iraqi arms in palestine.. who knows.. but we would have invaded Iraq, but with much more moral authority, and much more of a coalition in place.

There are ways we could have gone and kept our political sophisticastion, retained our moral authority, retained our liberties, and retained our honor. We didnt take that path. I hope we find it again.

Posted by: david b | Oct 27, 2006 3:20:23 PM

Dave Justus, please stop BS-ing us. The 'oh, nobody knows what would have happened if..., it's all a guess' is *never* something that people use to argue for what they want. It's strictly a way of defending what *was* done.

The way that we, and you, judge what *was* done is to look at what was known then, and to make our best guess. And it's clear nnow that the Bush administration wanted a war with Iraq, lied/BSed as needed, and even then screwed it up. Against the advice of just about everybody who knew their anus from a hole in the ground.

Posted by: Barry | Oct 27, 2006 4:14:52 PM

Only the most hardcore out of touch liberal would argue that going to war against Afghanistan was a mistake.

They were openly supporting and harboring OBL. We had no choice but to invade and wipe out their pathetic taliban.

Posted by: joe blow | Oct 27, 2006 8:10:49 PM

By Dave Justus's logic, we can't condemn ANY historical event since we can't know what might have happened otherwise. How absurd. Yes, counterfactual speculation can't be done with 100% accuracy, but it is at the root of any moral judgment: What would have happened if people had acted differently? Would they have been better or worse?

It's possible to imagine a situation where no Hitler leads to Stalin controlling all of Europe, beating everyone else to the atom bomb, and ruling the world. Does that mean that Hitler was justified in his actions to fight the Red Menace? Of course not. And Dave Justus's scenario is on about this level of unlikeliness.

Posted by: Firebug | Oct 27, 2006 8:41:17 PM

Also, it's not at all clear that Libya's move away from its nuclear program was prompted by the Iraq invasion. I've read suggestions (from reporters such as Laura Rozen) that the Qadaffi regime was making diplomatic overtures as early as the late '90s, prompted by the international success in isolating Libya. (See here, for instance.)

Posted by: Steve | Oct 27, 2006 10:22:31 PM

The assault on the people of Afghanistan was a war crime, pure and simple.

Posted by: Jason | Oct 29, 2006 1:12:45 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.