Richard Clarke deserves thanks for speaking out to correct the historical and moral perspective of the aftermath of 9/11 in his Op Ed today in the Washington Post The Trauma of 9/11 Is No Excuse. His candour and reminder that some principles are meant to be enduring are of critical value in an age where the political spin and historical amnesia dominate.
The true costs of the US response to 9/11 have yet to be calculated. Today, we are neither losing nor winning two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at tremendous human and financial cost. Our surrogates are corrupt governments who hardly personify the lofty ideals we claim, and who in many cases are working against us. The withdrawal of US military forces from either country would probably result in a rapid collapse and disintegration of either national government, and the resumption of insurgency operations in urban and rural areas.
With this example, and with the examples of so many other US interventions, and with the inability (or unwillingness) of US policy to focus on the root causes of extremism rather than the symptoms, I see nothing on the horizon to convince me that the US engagements in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Long War against terrorism will be a success.
It is remarkable how soon public attention has abandoned the soaring rhetoric and unreality of the Bush Administration’s justifications for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet while we have forgotten, others live amid the consequences of our actions. Hence, so must we.
Today, we are engaged in a vast policy of managing domestic political aspirations amidst the ruin we have created abroad. While we may believe that we can expunge the historical record after every 4-year election cycle, our Taleban and Al Quaeda opponents have a very different opinion. This is reality.
The idea that we can withdraw from Iraq, reinforce Afghanistan and “win” both conflicts is a political fantasy. Iraq has all but disintegrated as a single political entity, while its national government remains dominated by foreign and sectarian interests. The Shia government’s campaign against the Sunni “Sons of Iraq” will end in renewed bloodshed. Iranian influence has long consolidated over certain sections of Iraq, and will be there long after we leave. There will be no victory in Iraq, merely the management of diminishing expectations, defined by how few casualties and fatalities we measure per month.
The “Afpak” counter-insurgency will require at least a generation of massive military and technical assistance designed to take enduring majorities of citizens in both countries from the metaphorical dark ages into the contemporary middle class. Success will be defined by the extent to which corruption can be minimised, government services and education improved, minority and gender rights guaranteed, and religious extremism moderated. It will also require the lasting reform of the Pakistani intelligence services and military, which in itself will require a lasting peace between India and Pakistan and the resolution of the status of Kashmir.
Public debate on these goals is non-existent. We hear that we have to “save Pakistan” (who wants nuclear weapons in the hand of Al Quaeda, after all), but we hear nothing of the magnitude or cost of this goal.
As with so many other American engagements, I can foresee a point somewhere in the future when the goalposts are shifted, victory is declared, and the troops are withdrawn with a minimum of fanfare. It is, after all, the same strategy that has been followed in so many past engagements.
In the meantime, we will have further indebted our country and taken hundreds or thousands of casualties for a political objective in which we have no real vital interest, or which could have been handled more effectively through alternative means.
It’s hardly “change we can believe in.” It’s more like “business as usual.”