Collateral Damage

From a marketing point of view, it's hard to argue with the decision to time the release of Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies to coincide with his testimony before the September 11 commission. From a political point of view, however, that decision has focused the lion's share of attention on the sexy, but ultimately irresolvable, issue of whether 9-11 could have been prevented had the Bush administration been more vigilant. Interesting as this may be, the more important question regards the merits of the administration's conduct after the attacks -- in particular, Clarke's contention that the Iraq War hindered rather than helped America's war on terrorism.

Democratic commission member Bob Kerrey, an Iraq War supporter and longtime ally of Ahmed Chalabi, was good enough to at least raise the point on Sunday's Meet The Press, though he said the Iraq War has not impeded the war on terror. Gregg Easterbrook, writing for The New Republic's Web site, pronounced the whole affair unbearably absurd:

It is equally futile and silly for Democrats to assert that Al Qaeda has benefited by George W. Bush's action against Iraq. What resource, precisely, have field commanders hunting for Al Qaeda been denied?

The question is meant rhetorically, but answers are not hard to find. Notably, the Fifth Group Special Forces, an elite unit trained in the local languages of Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region, was pulled off the al-Qaeda hunt and redeployed to Iraq. With the group's members went America's only two RC135 U spy planes. Scarce resources like Arabic translators with sufficient security clearances were seized by the Iraq campaign, as were the many FBI agents assigned to interview thousands of Iraqi Americans. More generally, there is only a limited amount of time the president and his top advisers have in any given day, and the months-long process of planning, selling, and executing the invasion can't but have been a distraction from the al-Qaeda front. This is all to say nothing of the ways in which -- as even some conservatives like Andrew Sullivan now concede -- the war has hurt America's standing in the Arab world, swelling the ranks of potential recruits and making it harder for the United States to obtain cooperation.

All this, however, neglects what is perhaps the greatest casualty of Bush's continued preoccupation with Iraq: the nation of Afghanistan.

Back when the U.S. media was still focused on that country, the president promised a "Marshall Plan" for Afghan reconstruction, but none was actually put forward. Now, as a new report from New York University's Center on International Cooperation details, the situation is rather grim. Despite a nice constitution on paper, no real progress has been made toward disarming the various warlords who exercise effective power throughout the bulk of the country. Elections scheduled long ago have recently been delayed due to the dire security situation, and the opium trade has re-emerged as the desperately poor country's main source of income. Most tragically, international experts believe that the situation could be stabilized with about $27 billion in foreign aid over seven years, but no one believes the funds will be forthcoming.

This is certainly a large sum of money. But it's considerably less than what the United States has spent in a single year's worth of operations in Iraq, indicating that we could have ponied up what was necessary.

To be sure, there is no strict trade-off between money spent in Iraq and money spent in Afghanistan. Indeed, many proponents of the Iraq War were among the harshest critics of the administration's de facto abandonment of Afghanistan. Where a strict trade-off does exist, however, is troops. Simply put, there aren't enough in Afghanistan. Providing security throughout the country and curbing the power of the warlords there would require a lot of boots on the ground -- boots we don't have because they're in Iraq trying to preserve order over there.

Focusing on Afghanistan does a great deal to undercut some of the rationales for the Iraq War that we've been hearing more of since the weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize. If this was fundamentally a humanitarian venture designed to build a model Islamic democracy, why was the project not undertaken in a country where American forces were already committed and where the gambit would have met with widespread support from the international community?

More fundamentally, it speaks to the administration's basic misunderstanding of the challenge with which the United States is now faced.

As The Washington Post recently confirmed, before 9-11, the administration downgraded the level of attention given to multinational terrorism in favor of a focus on rogue states and, in particular, the need to construct a national missile-defense system to guard against them. After 9-11, the problem of terrorism was simply assimilated to this state-centric worldview. The military was used to depose the Taliban -- conceptualized as a state sponsor of al-Qaeda -- and then packed up to move on to other projects. This theory, however, gets the nature of the relationship wrong. Unlike a classic case of state sponsorship, al-Qaeda was in no sense a tool of Taliban policy, and, as we have seen lately, the Taliban's protection is hardly necessary for the network to strike. Indeed, it appears that al-Qaeda was more the Taliban's sponsor than the other way around -- better organized, better financed, more powerful, and ultimately in control.

The correct moral to draw from al-Qaeda's involvement in Afghanistan is not the danger of rogue states but the danger of failed ones where the collapse of the central government allowed a lightly armed but highly motivated group of fanatics to seize control. Rather than resolve the problem of Afghanistan's lack of effective authority, however, Bush simply treated a symptom and left the disease in place. Now, not only are Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders still at large, the possibility that they and their allies will gain control over a substantial portion of Afghan territory remains quite real.

Worse, not only did the Iraq invasion prevent us from eliminating one failed state, it threatens to actually create another. Just about everyone not on the White House payroll agrees that more troops are needed to effectively control the situation in Iraq. The United States does not, however, have much in the way of additional forces available. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has consistently refused to take the one step -- putting the operation under United Nations control, for example -- that could entice other countries to provide more forces. As a result, Iraq seems likely to fracture, with different groups trying to seize power wherever they can, and the coalition will have little ability to stop them. The fact that the president consistently invokes Afghanistan as a success -- not just in regime toppling, but in nation building as well -- further indicates that failed state status may be in the cards for Iraq.

It's become a cliché that failure is not an option in Iraq, and if we want what's best for America -- and the world -- it certainly is not. Nevertheless, it is a real possibility, and if Bush's record is any guide, it looks like the option he'll choose.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.

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