Most Americans were unaware that we had botched Afghanistan; most still are. I watched the Pentagon send in a miniscule 8,000-troop complement where, according to its top strategists, at least half a million occupation soldiers (stationed for at least 20 years) would have been needed to control the nation’s roads, pacify the provinces and establish the security essential for building an economy and political system. Banditry and looting soon made the average Afghan nostalgic for the security that accompanies tyranny. On the other hand, since U.S. soldiers quickly gained a reputation for shoving, kidnapping, robbing and even torturing innocent Afghans, perhaps their small number was a good thing.
If Afghanistan was a dry run, I observed at the time, there was little reason to expect that Iraq would turn out less disastrously. But no one, especially not the newspaper editors who’d been conned into supporting the Fourth Afghan War, wanted to hear that argument.
Four years later, little has improved. Most Afghans, Peter Baker wrote recently in The Washington Post, “still grind out the subsistence lives they did under the Taliban.” Women still wear the burqa. “Corruption is widespread,” The Week reports. “Outside Kabul, the country functions like a group of independent fiefdoms from the Middle Ages.” Ordinary Afghans “are angry at the continuing war, the widespread malnutrition, and the snail’s pace of progress.”
As I’d feared he would, Donald Rumsfeld deployed the same low-rent approach to Iraq. There were too few troops to secure the Iraqis or themselves. As inexperienced weekend warriors shot up carloads of civilians from rooftops above invisible checkpoints, it soon became apparent that our forces were undereducated, poorly trained and excessively preoccupied with their own safety. The Americans’ cultural insensitivity, often beyond the point of brutality, transformed people grateful to be liberated into insurgents in a matter of months.
Now even the hawks say that Iraq is lost. “The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily,” admitted Representative John Murtha, a Vietnam vet who sparked the serious debate Congress ought to have held back in 2002—when he voted for the war. “It is time to bring them home.”
Thomas Edelman, whose letter to the editor appeared in the New York Times the same day Murtha’s speech rocked the House of Representatives, articulates the last logical reason not to cut and run. “Regurgitating the notion of ‘dancing Iraqis throwing flowers before American tanks’ has no merit when the brutal enemy to be defeated assumes with good reason that it is bound to win. All it has to do is to wait us out,” he wrote.
True, Iraqi resistance factions would wait for us to leave before turning on each other. Then again, isn’t that what they’re doing now?
Edelman again: “The rhetoric of aspersions cast on our leaders for having deliberately misled us; the repeated dangling of terrible mistakes; and the rumblings about the impatience of the American people not only give the terrorists hope but also convince them that what is in their minds a weak and contemptible society of ‘infidels’ lacks the fortitude to see its mission completed.”
He’s partly right: If the United States could prevail against its fearsome Axis foes in World War II, it could surely beat—even after countless errors of omission and commission—a rag-tag assortment of ad hoc cells of moonlighting jihadis. But if wealth, education and weaponry were the sole determining factors in war, we would have won Vietnam. What was missing was political will.
Edelman’s plea for compartmentalization is appealing, but we can’t separate the way we went into Iraq from the challenge we face now. Winning a war requires a politically unified society, something the United States hasn’t enjoyed since 1945. Since then our fractured nation has been unable to summon the unity to issue a formal declaration of war, much less win one. Bush-era America is highly fractured. Because the Administration can’t count on most citizens to help, it has had to fight its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the cheap.
After 2000 most Americans told the CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll that Bush had not won “fair and square.” After 2004, the pollsters found, “the nation seemed nearly as divided as it had been in Bush’s first election.” How can he convince the half of the country that considers him an illegitimate usurper to risk their lives, or those of their sons and daughters? How can he get them to tighten their belts for a real war effort—one with sufficient troop strength to win?
Bush might have earned Democrats’ fealty by convening a sort of national unity government, one that recognized the deep and even ideological divide in the electorate, appointed Democrats to key cabinet posts and ruled from the center. Bush’s radical-right policies and appointees, coupled with his habit of impugning his critics as traitors, instead increased the alienation of those who thought he’d cheated. “Not my president,” the bumper-sticker read. And not their war.
The Republicans’ decision to forego consensus made it easy to start their war. It also made it impossible to win. MTW