The wrong place
Two assertions about Iraq ought to be challenged or at least examined more closely. The first is the idea that security improvements in Iraq and al-Qaeda's defeat had little if anything to do with the US effort. The second is the assertion that the "real" strategic center of gravity always should have been Afghanistan, because the proper object of the War is to "get bin Laden".
Take the question of whether the growing success in Iraq had anything to do with US effort. Once violence in Iraq began to wane and al-Qaeda was clearly being defeated, the search to find a non-American explanation began in earnest. For a while it was fashionable to credit Moqtada al-Sadr's "ceasefire" with improving conditions in Iraq. The Guardian report of February 2008 ascribing nearly miraculous powers to al-Sadr typified the explanation that violence was down because he had turned it off.
the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr today threatened to end a crucial six-month ceasefire that has been credited with halving the level of violence in Iraq. ... His decision to order his militia to stand down last August allowed stretched US forces to re-establish some control in the country and helped reduce violence by 60%.
A variant of the same narrative was that Iran had for reasons never fully explained, decided to let a defeated American army off the hook. The Washington Post reported in December of 2007 that violence in the South had declined because
The Iranian government has decided "at the most senior levels" to rein in the violent Shiite militias it supports in Iraq, a move reflected in a sharp decrease in sophisticated roadside bomb attacks over the past several months, according to the State Department's top official on Iraq.
Still another line of argument was that the Anbar Awakening occurred prior to and independently of the Surge. The Huffington Post's Sam Stein for example, wrote, "on Tuesday evening, McCain falsely claimed that the downturn in violence in Iraq's Anbar province was a result of the surge, when in fact the surge began months afterward." Others argued that the fall in sectarian violence in Baghdad occurred because the "ethnic cleansing" had already been completed. Taken together the sum of the arguments were that the decline in violence in both northern and southern Iraq was the result of either dumb luck or enemy pity, a view neatly summed up by Barack Obama when he ascribed improvements in Iraq to a confluence of unforseeable factors. He said:
I think that, I did not anticipate, and I think that this is a fair characterization, the convergence of not only the Surge but the Sunni awakening in which a whole host of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they had had enough with Al Qaeda, in the Shii’a community the militias standing down to some degrees. So what you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops. Had those political factors not occurred, I think that my assessment [that the Iraq was headed for catastrophe] would have been correct.
This discounts the effect of operations prior to the 20% increase in troop strength in Iraq that is commonly regarded as the start of the Surge. It discounts improvements in intelligence gathering, the creation of the Iraqi Army, the election of the Iraqi government, dismantling of the insurgency's lines of communication of the insurgency, the change in tactics -- a whole host of things -- almost as if the Surge started from tabula rasa; a blank slate. Future historians can debate whether General Petraeus and George W. Bush won an accidental victory, like a monkeys who have luckily typed out Shakespeare's XXIXth sonnet or whether the success owed something to skill and intelligence.
But that is a question for history, if Joe Klein of Time is to be believed. He wrote, "the reality is that neither Barack Obama nor Nouri al-Maliki nor most anybody else believes that the Iraq war can be 'lost' at this point." How the quagmire and lost cause became the inevitable victory is of academic interest but the more practical question is what to do next. In the opinion of Barack Obama, the US should withdraw from Iraq to concentrate on Afghanistan, the central theater of the war against Islamic terror. According to Boston.com Obama said:
It is unacceptable that almost seven years after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on our soil, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 are still at large. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahari are recording messages to their followers and plotting more terror. The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan that is probably no farther from their old Afghan sanctuary than a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia. ... I will focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
But is Afghanistan the enemy's center of gravity? Juan Cole, who has been a critic of the campaign in Iraq from the beginning wondered whether Obama isn't jumping from the "frying pan into the fire". Certainly the Pakistani politicians thought he was.
After Obama met with Karzai, reporters asked his aide, Humayun Hamidzada, if the criticism had come up. He tried to put the best face on issue, saying the Afghan government did not see the comment as critical, but as a fair observation, since it had in fact been tied down fighting terrorism. Less forgiving were the politicians in Pakistan, who reacted angrily to Obama's comments on unilaterally attacking targets inside that country. ... The governor of the North-West Frontier province, Owais Ghani, immediately spoke out against Obama, saying that the senator's remarks had the effect of undermining the new civilian government elected last February. Ghani warned that a U.S. incursion into the northwestern tribal areas would have "disastrous" consequences for the globe.
Even laymen might wonder whether distant Afghanistan and not the Middle East was the strategic center of gravity of Islamic fundamentalism. In an earlier post I wrote: "In the debate over whether America should have focused its initial response on uprooting al-Qaeda from Southwest Asia, one thing should not be forgotten. From it’s inception al-Qaeda’s center of gravity has been the the Middle East. It was the source of its money, leadership, ideology and manpower. Afghanistan’s importance from the beginning lay in what it could provide Bin Laden in terms of prestige he could parlay into into influence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. The strategic value of land-locked, impoverished Afghanistan to the Jihad was as a symbol rather than a geopolitical prize. The image of Jihadis defeating the Soviet Army was the ultimate source of al-Qaeda’s credibility; something that could prise money, men and political authority from their home front, treasury and recruitment depot. Given a choice between giving up Afghanistan and reprising the defeat of a superpower in Iraq, al Qaeda would have clearly preferred the latter. This does not mean that Afghanistan is strategically unimportant, but it was always secondary to the Middle East."
Kenneth Pollack in his new book A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East essentially agrees that the Middle East, with its petroleum resources, religious ideas and population is the foundation of the Islamic challenge facing the world today. It is in the Middle East that the ideological war against terrorism will be won or lost. And speaking of ideology, America's efforts to maintain status quo relationships with some of the most repressive and dysfunctional governments on the planet have been much more damaging than the attempt to bring democracy to Iraq has been . It wasn't driving Saddam from Iraq that has hurt America's image so much as maintaing support for its loyal "allies". Lee Smith, in reviewing the book says that "Pollack argues that Washington’s greatest sin in its relations with the Middle East has been its persistent unwillingness to make the sustained and patient effort needed to help the people of the Middle East overcome the crippling societal problems facing their governments and societies." Whether Iraq, one of the few elected governments in the region, should be written off in order to return to business as usual deserves at least some consideration.
Philip Bobbitt in his new book Terror and Consent argued that "the struggle against terrorism is plainly a war, to be called a war and fought as a war, against religiously driven Islamist ideologues ...". In Bobbitt's view terrorism is not simply a criminal activity, but a symptom of the convulsive transition between twentieth century state and the freewheeling 21st century "market state", in which empowered individuals seek to live in a looser -- but still ordered -- polity. He scathingly criticizes those who would view terrorism as a "tactical event" amenable to a "policy minimimalism" which reduces the current world crisis to an effort to "get bin Laden". Kenneth Anderson, reviewing Bobbitt's book writes that:
Thus, in Barack Obama’s reckoning, Islamist terrorism is just one threat among so many: climate change and poverty, genocide and disease. The task is to learn to do as Western European countries do, and manage terror and terrorism, preferably within the existing confines of the criminal justice system.
But it will not be so reduced. The treasury of the Jihad, the wellsprings of its ideology and even the source of its manpower are not to be found in Afghanistan but in the Middle East. Michael Totten, traveling through the Balkans has found that the Binladensa -- the people of Osama bin Laden -- spreading Wahabism through the Balkans don't hail from Afghanistan but from Saudi Arabia. "When they came here, the Wahhabis, with the intent to take full control of the Muslim community, they used these people who had been studying in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. They were using them to put them in some of the mosques, and now they are in control of eight mosques with these people who had been studying in the Arab countries." Whatever place Osama Bin Laden temporarily occupies the homeland of the Jihad and the place where it all comes from is arguably the Middle East.
And it is in the Middle East -- in Iraq -- that the Islamic extremism has been most publicly defeated and humiliated; it is in Iraq where a dictatorial Arab regime has been overthrown. An ordinary observer might be forgiven for thinking the defeat of al-Qaeda right next door to Saudi Arabia was a great victory on strategic ground, which makes the efforts to ascribe improvements in Iraq to Moqtada al Sadr, Iran or the Anbar Sheiks even more puzzling. And as for Afghanistan, even Barack Obama could not seem to muster much of an argument for its strategic importance. At a July 26, 2008 McClatchy Newspaper interview he said:
I'm not here to lay out a comprehensive military strategy. That's the job of our commanders on the ground. I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn't want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops. I also think that we need to deal with the situation in Pakistan and the fact that terrorists are able to operate with relative freedom of movement there right now.
This is a remarkable statement, a complete admission that even if he accomplished all he set out to do, he would not accomplish much. He doesn't call for a defeat of the Taliban -- which would be meaningless -- and still less for dismantling of Islamic extremism. One can't help thinking that Obama's reason for redeploying to Afghanistan is because it is not Iraq. That is strategic vision of a sort, but of a very political kind.