One of the reasons the Navy opposed a Southwest Pacific campaign during the Pacific War was the shrewd appreciation that once bureaucracy started on a task it would grow with it like a cancer whatever its original purpose. Admiral King wasn’t against an action in the Solomons. He was just afraid that it would take on a life of its own. The passage of time has not changed this this tendency. The campaign in Afghanistan began in 2002 with a specific purpose. But by the time Barack Obama was running for President its chief attraction was the fact that it was an alternative to the campaign in Iraq. A 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal covering his speech before the VWF captured his thinking: Afghanistan was a “war of necessity”, unlike Iraq, which was a “war of choice”. Of all the “false choices” the President was fond of rhetorically raising, this was perhaps the falsest choice of all. By asserting that Afghanistan, not oil or the Middle East or radical Islam was the center of gravity of the enemy, President Obama completely misframed the strategic choices.
President Barack Obama told military service members Monday that the war in Afghanistan was a “war of necessity” and that the U.S. would adhere to its timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. … “But we must never forget. This is not a war of choice,” he told the VFW crowd. “This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.”
To jump from the correct idea that defeating the forces which ‘attacked American on 9/11″ were an existential threat to the idea that ergo Afghanistan was a war of necessity was a huge non sequitur. Afghanistan happened to be the place from which Osama Bin launched his attack on September 11. Admiral Nagumo launched his infamous attack on Pearl Harbor from a nameless patch of ocean 200 miles North of Oahu. But Admiral King had the sense to understand that the location itself had little significance. It was the Kido Butai, the ten carriers which made up the Japanese Fast Carrier force which momentarily occupied that ocean waste that he had to destroy. While the Kido Butai existed it could move across the vast spaces and attack at a point of its choosing. While it survived every patch of ocean was dangerous. Once it had been neutralized all the oceans of the world were potentially safe. As John Adams in his book If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War wrote: “sink ten ships and win the naval war”. Both the Nihon Kaigun and the CINCPAC understood this. The entire purpose of subsequent American naval operations was to find and sink these ten ships; and the Nihon Kaigun’s subsequent efforts revolved around their attempt to preserve them.
But today only one side — the forces behind al-Qaeda — have a clear strategic conception of the war they are waging. The President seems determined to misunderstand it. He is waging existential war against tribesmen at the end of the world while denying that the Kido Butai even exists. He may succeed on narrow terms, but al-Qaeda, the modern Kido Butai, will simply move elsewhere: to Yemen, Birmingham or Detroit and the menace will remain unabated. Ralph Peters writing in the NY Post, catches the disconnection between the strategic significance of Afghanistan and the means being applied to mis-attain it. Peters complained that America isn’t fighting the forces which attacked it. It is trying to Westernize the piece of land from which the attack was launched. One is not obviously related to the other, but never mind. Like the Southwest Pacific campaign of long ago, it has taken on a political life of its own. Peters writes:
Then there’s the continuing denial that Islam has anything to do with the Taliban’s persistence or Afghan resistance to our goodwill gestures: This mullah’s corrupt; that suicide bomber wasn’t very religious(!); that local uprising’s just a neighborhood feud. Religion has nothing to do with it.
As a kid, I built model ships. What was the most important component? The glue. Which, if I had done a good job, was invisible. That HMS Victory kit had hundreds of parts large and small — but without the glue they wouldn’t have held together. Islam’s the glue binding our enemies. Even when it isn’t visible.
For all of its defects the campaign in Iraq was at least in the right place: at the locus of oil, ideology and brutal regimes that are the Middle East. Ideally the campaign in Iraq would have a sent a wave of democratization through the area, undermined the attraction of radical Islam, provided a base from which to physically control oil if necessary. That the campaign failed to attain many of objectives should not obscure the fact that its objectives were valid. It made far more strategic sense than fighting tribesmen in Afghanistan. Ideology, rogue regimes, energy are the three entities which have replaced the “ten ships” of 70 years ago. The means through which these three entities should be engaged ought to be the subject of reasoned debate, whether by military, economic or technological means. But the vital nature of these objectives ought not to be. Neutralize the intellectual appeal of radical Islam, topple the rogue regimes, and ease Western dependence on oil and you win the war. Yet their centrality, and even their existence is what the politicians constantly deny.
Bill Kristof of the New York Times does his best to talk up the magnificence of President Obama’s strategy but only succeeds in exposing its bankruptcy. His argues that America must ‘help’ Pakistan, to invest in more schools but uses an example so unfortunate that it undermines his entire argument.
I can’t tell you how frustrating it is on visits to rural Pakistan to see fundamentalist Wahabi-funded madrassas as the only game in town. They offer free meals, and the best students are given further scholarships to study abroad at fundamentalist institutions so that they come back as respected “scholars.”
We don’t even compete. Medieval misogynist fundamentalists display greater faith in the power of education than Americans do.
Let’s hope this is changing under the Obama administration. It’s promising that the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package provides billions of dollars for long-term civilian programs in Pakistan, although it’s still unclear how it will be implemented. One useful signal would be for Washington to encourage Islamabad to send not only troops to North Waziristan but also teachers.
Who funds the madrassas? The Wahabis. And where are the Wahabis? They are not based in Afghanistan. There is an almost a willful desire not to recognize the problem, as if denial would make tasks too politically distasteful to be contemplated unnecessary. The problem is avoided at all cost. And yet it is not avoided, because the war goes on and will spread in time past Times Square. The campaign in Afghanistan almost looks like an act of misdirection by a President determined not to engage the enemy’s real center of gravity: ideology, state sponsors of terrorism, money from oil. Oil funds the maddrassas. Wahabism provides the preachers. Various authoritarian states gain proxies thereby to pursue their noxious ends. The triangle has three legs. All of them were wiggling in Times Square and yet policymakers are determined not to see any of them.
The War on Terror, if one may use the term, will be won or lost in Washington DC. Although the valor and competence of the Armed Forces will play a large part, the major factor will be whether the political elite can muster the will name its enemy and recognize its foes strategic center of gravity. Killing tribesmen, creating a network of robotic killers in the skies, and surveilling everything that uses a cell phone or moves has no meaning outside of a strategic context. They are not ends in themselves. They only have meaning insofar as they advance the cause of undermining the enemy’s center of gravity. Sink those ten ships, King knew, and you win the Pacific war. Fail and no patch of ocean is safe. The calculus still applies. If you can’t see Hezbollah, can’t see the regime in Iran, can’t see Syria, can’t see the Wahabis and can only see Afghanistan, then you are in a world of pain.