Covert War and a Logical Progression
The problem that the United States had with commencing covert
operations against al Qaeda was weakness in its intelligence
system. To conduct a covert war, you must have excellent
intelligence -- and U.S. intelligence on al Qaeda in the wake of
9/11 was not good enough to sustain a global covert effort. The
best intelligence on al Qaeda, simply given the nature of the group
as well as its ideology, was in the hands of the Pakistanis and the
Saudis. At the very least, Islamic governments were more likely to
have accumulated the needed intelligence than the CIA was.
The issue was in motivating these governments to cooperate with the
U.S. effort. The Saudis in particular were dubious about U.S. will,
given previous decades of behavior. Officials in Riyadh frankly
were more worried about al Qaeda's behavior within Saudi Arabia if
they collaborated with the Americans than they were about the
United States acting resolutely. Recall that the Saudis asked U.S.
forces to leave Saudi Arabia after 9/11. Changing the kingdom's
attitude was a necessary precursor to waging the covert war, just
as Afghanistan was a precursor to changing attitudes in Pakistan.
Invading Iraq was a way for the United States to demonstrate will,
while occupying strategic territory to bring further pressure
against countries like Syria. It was also a facilitator for a
global covert war. The information the Saudis started to provide
after the U.S. invasion was critical in disrupting al Qaeda
operations. And the Saudis did, in fact, pay the price for
collaboration: Al Qaeda rose up against the regime, staging its
first attack in the kingdom in May 2003, and was repressed.
In this sense, we can see a logical progression. Invading
Afghanistan disrupted al Qaeda operations there and forced
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to step up cooperation
with the United States. Invading Iraq reshaped Saudi thinking and
put the United States in a position to pressure neighboring
countries. The two moves together increased U.S. intelligence
capabilities decisively and allowed it to disrupt al Qaeda.
But it also placed U.S. forces in a strategically difficult
position. Any U.S. intervention in Asia, it has long been noted,
places the United States at a massive disadvantage. U.S. troops
inevitably will be outnumbered. They also will be fighting on an
enemy's home turf, far away from everything familiar and
comfortable. If forced into a political war, in which the enemy
combatants use the local populace to hide themselves -- and if that
populace is itself hostile to the Americans -- the results can be
extraordinarily unpleasant. Thus, the same strategy that allowed
the United States to disrupt al Qaeda also placed U.S. forces in
strategically difficult positions in two theaters of operation.
Mission Creep and Crisis
The root problem was that the United States did not crisply define
the mission in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Obviously, the immediate
purpose was to create an environment in which al Qaeda was
disrupted and the intelligence services of Muslim states felt
compelled to cooperate with the United States. But by revising the
mission upward -- from achieving these goals to providing security
to rooting out Baathism and the Taliban, then to providing security
against insurgents and even to redefining these two societies as
democracies -- the United States overreached. The issue was not
whether democracy is desirable; the issue was whether the United
States had sufficient forces at hand to reshape Iraqi and Afghan
societies in the face of resistance.
If the Americans had not at first expected resistance, they
certainly discovered that they were facing it shortly after taking
control of the major cities of each country. At that moment, they
had to make a basic decision between pursuing the United States'
own interests or defining the interest as transforming Afghan and
Iraqi society. At the moment Washington chose transformation, it
had launched into a task it could not fulfill -- or, if it could
fulfill it, would be able to do so only with enormously more force
than it placed in either country. When we consider that 300,000
Soviet troops could not subdue Afghanistan, we get a sense of how
large a force would have been needed.
The point here is this: The means used by the United States to
cripple al Qaeda also created a situation that was inherently
dangerous to the United States. Unless the mission had been parsed
precisely -- with the United States doing what it needed to do to
disrupt al Qaeda but not overreaching itself -- the outcome would
be what we see now. It is, of course, easy to say that the United
States should have intervened, achieved its goals and left each
country in chaos; it is harder to do. Nevertheless, the United
States intervened, did not leave the countries and still has chaos.
That can be said with hindsight. Acting so callously with foresight
is more difficult.
There remains the question of whether the United States could have
crippled al Qaeda without invading Iraq -- a move that still would
have left Afghanistan in its current state, but which would seem to
have been better than the situation now at hand. The answer to that
question rests on two elements. First, it is simply not clear that
the Saudis' appreciation of the situation, prior to March 2003,
would have moved them to cooperate, and extensive diplomacy over
the subject prior to the invasion had left the Americans reasonably
convinced that the Saudis could do more. Advocates of diplomacy
would have to answer the question of what more the United States
could have done on that score. Now, perhaps, over time the United
States could have developed its own intelligence sources within al
Qaeda. But time was exactly what the United States did not have.
But most important, the U.S. leadership underestimated the
consequences of an invasion. They set their goals as high as they
did because they did not believe that the Iraqis would resist --
and when resistance began, they denied that it involved anything
more than the ragtag remnants of the old regime. Their misreading
of Iraq was compounded with an extraordinary difficulty in
adjusting their thinking as reality unfolded.
But even without the administration's denial, we can see in
hindsight that the current crisis was hardwired into the strategy.
If the United States wanted to destroy al Qaeda, it had to do
things that would suck it into the current situation -- unless it
was enormously skilled and nimble, which it certainly was not. In
the end, the primary objective -- defending the homeland -- was won
at the cost of trying to achieve goals in Iraq and Afghanistan that
cannot be achieved.
In the political debate that is raging today in the United States,
our view is that both sides are quite wrong. The administration's
argument for building democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan misses the
point that the United States cannot be successful in this, because
it lacks the force to carry out the mission. The administration's
critics, who argue that Iraq particularly diverted attention from
fighting al Qaeda, fail to appreciate the complex matrix of
relationships the United States was trying to adjust with its
invasion of Iraq.
The administration is incapable of admitting that it has
overreached and led U.S. forces into an impossible position . Its
critics fail to understand the intricate connections between the
administration's various actions and the failure of al Qaeda to
strike inside the United States for five years.
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