[Update: In a dispatch, Cowboys from hell, I wrote: “Someone — I wish I knew whom, as I’d give him or her full credit for the phrase — claimed that Iraq was Vietnam on crack cocaine.” Thanks to two readers, a suspect is at hand and – shame on me for not knowing – she’s even written for this weblog. The sentence by Marilyn Young, historian at New York University, reads: “If Vietnam was Korea in slow motion, then Operation Iraqi Freedom is Vietnam on crack cocaine.” (Historians Reflect on the War in Iraq: A Roundtable ) And she should know. She’s authored a classic text on the subject, Vietnam Wars.]
More than two years after the World Trade Center towers came down and the President declared his “war on terrorism,” it seems reasonable to offer a little scorecard on the “war(s)” of choice for this administration.
Let’s just start with terrorists and allies (as identified by the administration); you know, the ones we were going to get “dead or alive.”
First and foremost, of course, was Osama bin Laden (still free); then the man who reputedly kept him safe, Mullah Omar, head of the vile Taliban (still free); add in the man/men or woman/women who sent anthrax through the mail along with letters implying that it came from some anti-Israeli Arab cell in the United States, though it now seems certain that he/they were actually human fallout from our own Cold War weapons labs (still free, still nameless); finally, Saddam Hussein, fingered by the administration as the most dangerous potential terrorist of all, linked by them to al-Qaeda and proclaimed ready to turn over to any terrorist in sight a massive trove of weapons of mass destruction (still free).
And — to ask that old college reunion question — where are they now? Omar, hunted mercilessly by American forces of every sort, has managed to start a new holy war in Afghanistan and is the leader of a resurgent Taliban, which controls ever larger chunks of rural, southeastern Afghanistan. Osama, hunted mercilessly by American forces of every sort, has gone into the tape-making business with a passion and — as recent bombings in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other places seem to show — has achieved remarkable success as a role model for young Islamist fanatics. (A recent Washington Post piece, Terrorism Inc., by Douglas Farah and Peter Finn dubbed this development the “franchising” of terrorism: “Leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network have franchised their organization’s brand of synchronized, devastating violence to homegrown terrorist groups across the world”)
Saddam, hunted mercilessly by American forces of every sort, has also launched a tape-producing operation and is thumbing his nose at our President while conceivably having a hand (the one not thumbing) in organizing or funding parts of the Iraqi resistance. (Eric Margolis, Sunday columnist for the Toronto Sun, catches a Bush bind in this way in his most recent column: “Bush dares not withdraw American troops from Iraq so long as the elusive Saddam stays alive. Imagine a triumphant Saddam mooning Bush from ‘liberated’ Baghdad. The Democrats would make falafel of the president.”) And finally, the Anthrax killer or killers, hunted only by the FBI and that, as far as I can tell, half-heartedly, has/have remained silent, but must be chuckling in the burbs somewhere.
Now, toss into the mix a fervent hunt for the inanimate — weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — a search at which staggering sums of money have been thrown (while the weapons inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have been carefully barred from the country). This has resulted in the discovery of a few old machine parts for nuclear-weapons production that were buried in a scientist’s garden in 1991.
So consider: If this were baseball and your centerfielder were batting .000 somewhere in the middle of a long season, you might at least consider a trade, or send him down to the minors. Think of it, 0 for 5 on the people and objects this administration most wanted to find. That’s a record of unmitigated failure. I mean, let’s remember that we’re talking about the 800-pound gorilla of planet Earth, which spends more money on military and intelligence resources and high-tech whatever than, I believe, the rest of the world’s countries combined — and we’re talking here about finding three men (leaving the Anthrax killer aside) who have next to no resources, are known to multimillions, and whose locations must be known at any given moment by hundreds if not thousands of people. This is possibly the single worst militarized detective record in history. If it were Law and Order, it would have been summarily yanked off the air. Why the American people aren’t, as of this second, calling up someone from the minors I’ll never know.
But, you may say, what about George Bush’s two great victories in the war on terror — his short, happy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Well, funny you should ask
Checking out the Bush Wars:
A recent “Daily Mojo” round-up at Mother Jones on-line (The other war) puts the Afghan matter politely.
“Two years after the United States dispatched the Taliban and set Afghanistan on a path toward freedom and democracy, that country risks reverting to a “failed state.” For starters, the drug trade is flourishing. A recent U.N. report found that Afghanistan now produces three-quarters of the world’s opium, and that the trade accounts for half of country’s total economic output. That’s a problem. ‘This money is going to terrorists, it’s going to criminals, it’s going to some corrupt officials, it’s going to warlords,’ said Vincent McClean of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.”
In fact, the situation looks disastrous enough to the United Nations that, after the murder of a French UN worker, it has just pulled its people out of the southern part of the country. Jonathan Steele of the Guardian recently offered an eerie summary/memory piece, Red Kabul, on where we are and what it brings to mind, writing in part:
“Fighting is on a heavier scale [than before], with US helicopters and aircraft conducting almost daily raids on Taliban groups. Swathes of the south have become no-go areas for UN aid workers and NGOs. More than 350 people have been killed by Taliban attackers or US air raids since August, a death toll greater than in Iraq.
“No, Kabul today bears a strong resemblance to the Kabul of 1981. This time the men setting the model are American rather than Russian, but the project for secular modernisation which Washington has embarked on is eerily reminiscent of what the Soviet Union tried to do”
Modernizing Kabul is itself isolated; the NATO troops patrolling the capital, short on support and helicopters, are largely prevented from moving anywhere else in the country, while the 10,000-odd American troops garrisoned outside the capital have upped the level of their strikes, are experiencing higher casualties (a helicopter crashed today near one of our bases killing at least 5 soldiers), and seem to be having little luck suppressing the new Taliban movement in the south or bringing order to a warlord-riven country where opium is once again the only cash crop.
Afghanistan is not just a failed state, but as of today something close to a failed war. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a supporter of the war, recently wrote a column ominously entitled Look at Afghanistan and Fear for Iraq:
“With the White House finally acknowledging that the challenge in Iraq runs deeper than gloomy journalism, the talk of what to do next is sounding rather like Afghanistan. And that’s alarming, because we have flubbed the peace in Afghanistan even more egregiously than in Iraq An analyst in the U.S. intelligence community says Afghanistan now accounts for 75 per cent of the poppies grown for narcotics worldwide. ‘The issue is not a high priority for the Bush administration,’ says the analyst, who seeks to direct more attention to the way narco-trafficking is destabilizing the region.
“If Afghanistan is a White House model for Iraq, heaven help us.”
In the meantime, in neighboring Pakistan, whose army seems implicated in the revival of the Taliban, military dictator Musharraf remains in control without a peep from Washington, as journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of the book Taliban, reports at Yale Global on-line (War on terror’s collateral damage):
“Judging by the death toll that continues to rise from terrorist attacks around the world, the success of the US war on terrorism remains dubious at best. But seen from Pakistan, a key US ally in this war, one consequence is clear. Despite President Bush’s clarion call for democratizing the Islamic world, military rulers can have a free hand at home as long as they remain partners in the War on Terror. In the long run, this policy may undermine the very attempt to uproot terrorism.”
And just as a sideline issue, the former Indian ambassador to Turkey, K. Gajendra Singh, in a piece in the Asia Times on where all the suicidal Islamist fanatics of the present moment came from and how they got there, reminds us of a recent but hardly noticed moment in history — between when the CIA (along with Pakistan’s secret service) trained and armed the Mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and the attacks of 9/11. Let me quote just part of this important piece (“Sow war and reap terror”):
“US officials estimate that tens of thousands of foreign fighters were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and guerrilla warfare tactics in Afghan camps that the US Central Intelligence Agency helped set up between 1985-92. During 1992-95, the Pentagon helped with the movement of thousands of mujahideen and other Islamic elements from Central Asia, even some Turks, into Europe to fight alongside Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs
“The Pentagon’s alliance with Islamic elements permitted mujahideen fighters to be ‘flown in’ as shock troops for particularly hazardous operations against Serb forces [A]s many as 4,000 mujahideen from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe reached Bosnia to fight with the Muslims. Richard Holbrooke, America’s former chief Balkans peace negotiator, said as much. The Bosnian Muslims ‘wouldn’t have survived’ without the imported mujahideen, which was a ‘pact with the devil’ from which Bosnia would take long to recover. If the US made a pact with the devil, then the Muslim mujahideen made a pact with Satan. They temporized with the Christian West to defeat the ungodly Russian communists, now they are after the US-led Crusaders.”
And, horrible as it is to say, Afghanistan may be the least of our problems.
Jonathan Steele, in a piece in the Guardian, “A war that can never be won” (included below) notes how bizarre it is that Bush and Blair are ever more committed to a kind of total “war” to deal with terrorism, which is a method of action, not a body of people or even a state. He comments on how helpful such wars are to the Osamas of the world.
“Coming after the war on Afghanistan, the war on Iraq has made al-Qaida’s grisly work easier. Dispersed by American bombing from their remote mountain lairs, they have shifted to the much easier terrain of an urban Arab environment where they can be more readily hidden and helped. In the long history of terrorism, al-Qaida has provided two novelties. One is its global reach, marked by willingness to strike targets in many countries. The other is its use of suicide attacks as a weapon of first, rather than last, resort. Under the broad heading of terrorism as a political and military instrument, suicide bombing is a sub-category, a technique within a technique…”
The war in Iraq and fear in the elite:
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military deputy director for operations: “They’re trying to break our will. They’re trying to seize the headlines … but they’re militarily insignificant.” (Niko Price, AP, U.S. military dismisses Iraq attacks)
“President Bush believes the current phase of the war in Iraq is ‘going as expected’” (William Branigin, the Washington Post)
Without changing anything but the names in these quotes, they could come directly from our losing war in Vietnam. The first was made in response to those Baghdad mortar attacks by mule cart on hotels filled with foreigners and on the oil ministry building. As the definition of low-tech, they were not only effective but, it seems to me, meant to mock American methods of high-tech warfare.
Thirty-odd years later, it’s remarkable actually to run across the same claims that all is going according to plan and that “they” are incapable of defeating us militarily — as if that made the slightest difference. Ever since von Clausewitz, it’s been clear enough that at the heart of war is politics. The Vietnamese certainly “lost” every major engagement that might qualify as a military battle, but those like me of a certain age should still be able to remember the scenes of American helicopters being pushed over the sides of aircraft carriers to make room for Americans and Vietnamese fleeing Saigon.
Already on this Sunday night, the usual supply of horrors for the long weekend has accumulated: suicide bombers blasting into police stations; an Iraqi police chief assassinated; two American soldiers in Mosul (outside the “Sunni Triangle”) shot, their vehicle looted, and their bodies pummeled and mutilated by teenage passers-by; Thai troops in the south mortared for the first time; the first hit on a plane taking off from Baghdad International Airport by a shoulder fired missile (it managed to land safely with its wing on fire), and so on and on and on.
Here’s part of a summary of the present situation in Iraq by Phil Reeves of the British Independent (Guerilla war without any end in sight):
“Since Mr Bush declared an end to major combat in May, guerrillas have assassinated Iraqi politicians for co-operating with the US occupiers. They have bombed US officials in their Baghdad hotels. They have blown up the United Nations, the Red Cross and Iraqi police stations using suicide volunteers. They have shot down helicopters, torched oil pipes and hit military and supply convoys. They have also demonstrated a grim flair for headline-grabbing. No sooner had the Americans last week announced a ’70 per cent’ drop in attacks in Baghdad as a result of their ‘Iron Hammer’ offensive the guerrillas replied with a volley of rockets against prime city-centre targets.
“The Americans argued that ‘Iron Hammer’ won support from peaceable Iraqis. But a tragic cameo illustrated how they are at times the recruiting sergeant for their opponents. US soldiers were conducting a house-to-house weapons search in al-Dora in southern Baghdad at 10am on Monday. An altercation blew up between an Iraqi carpenter and an American soldier. It ended when the soldier shot the man through the heart from close range”
If you don’t think this is a scary mess, don’t trust me, check out people who, in other circumstances, would be most sympathetic. I suggest you read, for instance, a fascinating Council of Foreign Relation’s interview with Lawrence Korb (included below). Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, just visited Iraq as part of a Defense Department-sponsored mission of some sort. He lays out vividly and bluntly not only many of the problems of this woeful occupation, but the tensions that exist between the occupation administration (CPA) and Iraqis, between the CPA and Washington and between it and the military commanders in the field, who, he says, are deeply “frustrated” and want more troops. You won’t catch Korb parroting the propaganda line that, except in the Sunni Triangle, all is going well, or that what’s happening in Iraq is “terrorism” rather than an “insurgency”:
“It is better[outside the Sunni Triangle], but they would like you to come away with the impression that 80 percent of the country is great and that just the so-called Sunni Triangle is bad. That’s not true Even when we were in safe areas and were driving to see a Shiite cleric, they made us wear flak jackets, and they had Humvees and armored personnel carriers escorting us with guns pointed at the population. This is in the so-called safe Shiite area.”
But check it out for yourself. It bears careful reading. In pieces like this – or, for instance, in an op-ed in the Washington Post‘s Sunday Outlook section, Wars of Choice by Richard Haass, until last June the director of policy planning in the State Department (“Any number of lessons can be learned from the handling of the aftermath of the war in Iraq, but none is more basic than this: Democracies, in particular American democracy, do not mix well with empire.”) — you can feel the increasing isolation of the Bush administration and the shiver of genuine fear that is running ever more strongly through an elite in our country that sees the light at the end of the tunnel and is ever more convinced that it’s the headlight of a train bearing down on us. Watch Nightline. Check out Charlie Rose. Read the New York Times editorials of recent weeks. There’s a sea change going on – and it’s based on a new kind of fear.
Then read the no-nonsense conservative columnist Eric Margolis’ comments below on the “sofa samurai” running this administration.
Then add things up: on stated war aims, ranging from the capture of the Evil Trio to our conflicts “of choice” in Iran and Afghanistan, this administration is indeed batting a big, fat .000 and its fielding average seems to be just about .000 as well. Every chance so far essentially muffed. You can measure the depths of this failure by the heights of the recent spate of “stay the course” “win the war” rhetoric during George and Tony’s amazing adventure in London.
Oh, and throw in some collateral damage like the long-term carnage being done to the economy, the further militarization of our society (check out a chilling piece by William Arkin in today’s Los Angeles Times — “Under the banner of ‘homeland security,’ the military and intelligence communities are implementing far-reaching changes that blur the lines between terrorism and other kinds of crises and will break down long-established barriers to military action and surveillance within the U.S.”), the return of the FBI to large-scale domestic surveillance of the opposition, the potential passage of ever newer additions to the Patriot Act, and, lest I forget it, the harm being done to the planet. And, well, you would think that these guys couldn’t get elected dog-catcher in 2004. (If they were, they’d immediately fortify the pound and begin hunting strays down with helicopters and Hellfire missiles.)
But as we all know, looking at those endlessly Florida-split national polls (“The [newest Time magazine-CNN] poll showed that 47 percent were somewhat likely or very likely to vote to re-elect Bush and 48 percent were somewhat unlikely or very unlikely to do so.”), when it comes to the 2004 election, the ledger looks a good deal brighter for the Busheviks. As electoral shortstops the question is: Already 2 for 2 in electoral contests (ignore the pine tar), are they Derek Jeter and forever heading for the World Series, or Alex Rodriguez, with money to burn but fated to exist in the cellar next year? Tom
Mr. President, oil isn’t worth dying for
By Eric Margolis, Contributing Foreign Editor
The Toronto Sun
November 23, 2003
President George Bush should heed the wise old New York garment district maxim: “First loss, best loss.”
Translated from New Yorkese, this means when you get into a bad deal, bail out fast. The longer you stay in and refuse to face reality, the more you will end up losing.
That, alas, is just what Bush is doing in Iraq. Better he had gone to the garment district for hard advice instead of the regal photo op in London thrown for him by Queen Elizabeth and her dysfunctional family.
In spite of the royal welcome in a nation that increasingly resembles a giant theme park for American tourists, many Britons were appalled by the visit. They greeted Bush and his preposterously bloated entourage, worthy of Kublai Khan, with about as much warmth as they did the Spanish Armada.
A war that can never be won
By Jonathan Steele
November 22, 2003
The bombast has increased with the bombs. We saw two disturbing escalations this week. The explosions that devastated the British consulate and the HSBC bank in Istanbul mark a significant widening in the choice of targets by those Islamist radicals who use terror to express their hatred of British and US policy in Iraq and the Middle East. The Blair/Bush response reached an equally alarming new level of ferocity.
Defense Expert Korb Says Top Military Officials in Iraq “Very Frustrated” Fighting Elusive Enemy
By Bernard Gwertzman
Council of Foreign Relations
November 12, 2003
You’ve just come back from a Defense Department-sponsored visit to Iraq. What is your overall impression of the political and security situation?
Basically, that it is going to be much more difficult than we have been led to believe. We are making some progress but not nearly as much as we should be. We are going to have to admit how difficult the job is and get our act together before we can really do what we need to over there.
Jerry Bremer was at the White House today and later told reporters he would convey the ideas of the president and others to the Iraqi Governing Council on how to get the political process moving. What is the relationship between the Governing Council and Bremer as far as you can tell? Is it strained?