The Other Wars

David Tucker

March 1, 2003

As war with Iraq approaches, we should pause and consider the other wars we are fighting, in Afghanistan and on terrorism, and how all are related.

It may seem odd to report that we are fighting a war in Afghanistan. No less an authority than Charles Krauthammer, the well-known commentator, declared recently that the war in Afghanistan was a great victory that had revived American spirits and done much good for the world.

But the fighting goes on, and that is not the only reason to wonder on what basis Krauthammer has declared victory. The Taliban is no longer in power, of course, and al Qaeda no longer has the use of bases in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Economist recently reported, the murder rate in the capital, Kabul, is now half that of Washington, D.C. Yet, the President of Afghanistan can travel safely outside his palace only with American bodyguards. His government’s authority extends barely beyond Kabul. Tribal loyalty remains more important than anything else, especially attachment to the central government. Worse, it appears that the level of attacks conducted by Taliban and al Qaeda remnants on Americans, members of the international peacekeeping force, and Afghanis has increased. Many attacks are staged from the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan, where the writ of no government runs, but they have the support of tribes in the areas of Afghanistan that border Pakistan. More important, attacks are also increasing in the southern parts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement originated. While it is difficult to judge, the situation may be deteriorating. At least none of this is a sign of victory.

Our failure so far to move from initial to final success in Afghanistan results from the strategy we have employed there. Our strategy has been to hunt down and capture or kill Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. These remnants have dispersed among the populations of Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, and can be found for capturing or killing most effectively with the help of those populations. Getting this cooperation requires working with the populations and not riding roughshod over them, as we have often apparently done as we search for our enemies.

Rumors circulate that we may change our strategy in Afghanistan. Such rumors have circulated before. Alternative strategies are known but conventional military forces that understand only attacking the enemy have dominated operations in Afghanistan and these forces do not care about these alternatives. When the war starts in Iraq, these forces will probably press to get involved in the "real" war. This may open the way for a different approach in Afghanistan.

We must hope so. What happens in Afghanistan matters, even though pending war in Iraq has pushed Afghanistan to the background in the news. First, the continued survival and apparent increasing activity of Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan and Pakistan encourages their sympathizers in Pakistan. This has two bad consequences, one on Afghanistan and the other on Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s sympathizers did well at the polls in the last Pakistani election and are now the ruling political power in those areas of Pakistan from which the Taliban and al Qaeda operate. This makes our problems in Afghanistan harder to deal with. In Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons and remains an important staging area for militant Islam, our failures in Afghanistan make it easier for al Qaeda’s sympathizers to protect themselves and increase pressure on the pro-U.S. government.

Beyond Pakistan, our failures in Afghanistan give hope to al Qaeda’s allies and supporters around the world. From this hope springs new recruits and money. This makes the war on terrorism harder to prosecute.

But shouldn’t the arrest over the weekend of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, described as al Qaeda’s chief of operations, reassure us that the war on terrorism is going well? As far as we can tell, this arrest will be a serious blow to al Qaeda, even if it leads to some immediate retaliatory strikes against us or Pakistan, whose police and intelligence agencies helped in the arrest. In evaluating the long-term importance of the capture of Mohammed, however, we need to keep in mind the nature of the struggle we are in. Al Qaeda was never a gang of individuals that fooled Muslims into following them and whose capture or death, therefore, will mark the end of the war on terrorism. Bin Laden and al Qaeda express opinions and tap resentments that run deep in the Muslim world. Bin Laden responds to, as he tries to direct, Muslim opinion but he did not create the underlying emotions and ideas in the Muslim world that made September 11 possible. In this light, we will achieve victory in the war on terrorism only when the sons and nephews of those who lead al Qaeda have repudiated what their fathers and uncles did. This will stem the flow of money and recruits to organizations like al Qaeda. It will prevent the rise of the next Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. This understanding of victory in the war on terrorism is perhaps utopian but, given the nature of the struggle we are in, it is what we need to aim for.

If this is our goal, then how we handle Afghanistan and the consequences of our invasion of Iraq will ultimately affect the war on terrorism more than the arrest of Mohammed or even bin Laden. This is the context in which we need to understand President Bush’s recent speech on post-Saddam Iraq. The President’s insistence that a democratic and prosperous Iraq will emerge once Saddam is gone counters the argument that the invasion will inflame Muslim opinion against us. In the long run, the President argued, a better Iraq will make things better throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The President may well be right that a democratic and prosperous Iraq will emerge but it is possible to entertain doubts. Our experience in Afghanistan is sobering when we think of post-war Iraq. Of special importance in this regard is the status of the commitments of the international community to Afghanistan. President Bush pointed out in his speech that "a sustained commitment from many nations" will be necessary to set things right in Iraq. The same thing was true in Afghanistan but these commitments are in doubt.

Iraq and Afghanistan are different, of course. The former has vast oil deposits, which should attract the interest of many nations and help keep support for Iraq strong. But other evidence bearing on the character of post-Saddam Iraq is not as encouraging. The President mentioned the transformation of Germany and Japan following their defeats in World War II as examples of what might happen in Iraq following its defeat. But Germany was democratic, industrialized and modern before Hitler came to power. Japan had likewise undergone a modernizing revolution and was industrialized before World War II. In addition, both Germany and Japan had homogeneous populations not riven by tribal conflicts and loyalties. None of this applies to Iraq.

Nothing said so far means that we should not invade Iraq. The three wars we are about to be engaged in will affect each other in ways that we cannot predict because the wars are complex on their own and much more complex in the ways they affect each other. For example, will our success in capturing the individuals involved in al Qaeda and like groups buy us enough protection from large-scale attacks in the short-term so that we can rebuild Iraq and produce the transformation in world politics the President has argued for and thus increase our security in the long-term? Or, will the invasion of Iraq lead to increased resources for militant Islam thus overwhelming any benefits that accrue from the removal of Saddam? After all, as recent arrests in Great Britain have shown, very deadly weapons are available to terrorists without getting them from states such as Iraq. Uncertainty may not argue for maximum caution in this case. Given the stakes, some daring may be the best way forward.

One other way to think about our wars remains for us to consider. If Saddam comes to possess nuclear weapons, this would change the balance of power in the Middle East to no one’s advantage but his. In addition, it would set a bad precedent for a world in which all sorts of terribly lethal weapons will be available at a lower and lower cost and thus to more and more nations and groups. This will not be a good world to live in. Therefore, completely apart from Iraq’s connection to terrorism, whatever that may be, it must be disarmed. The war in Iraq, in this light, is not part of the war on terrorism but the first counterproliferation war. Its necessity and timing depend on knowledge of where a nation is in the process of acquiring weapons of mass destruction and which ones, on calculations about what inspections can uncover and prevent and estimates of the political will of the international community to prevent over time a determined country from acquiring such weapons. Such knowledge, calculations and estimates are difficult to possess or make but on balance they might lead to a clearer case for war on Iraq.

Thinking about war with Iraq as the first counterproliferation war does not remove all difficulties in deciding what is the best course of action. Unfortunately, the first counterproliferation war appears set to occur in the midst of the war on terrorism. Although perhaps analytically distinct, our wars will be confounded in practice. The only and perhaps unhelpful conclusion one can reach is that our security depends on success, both initial and final, in all of the wars simultaneously.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.