Given declining poll numbers and rising casualty figures, it is no surprise that the chattering classes are starting to bail out on a war in Afghanistan that was launched with their enthusiastic support. From Sen. Russ Feingold on the left to columnist George Will on the right, these born-again doves seem to be chastened by the fact that the Taliban won’t simply stop fighting. Rather than rise to the challenge, they propose that we stick to what Mr. Will says “can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
Not surprisingly, Boot, a well-known chickenhawk, disagrees with these “born-again doves.” He thinks we need to send more troops to Afghanistan—many, many more troops. “No one,” he concedes, “wants to see troops risking injury and death in ground combat. It would be nice if it weren't necessary. But it is. We tried the offshore strategy in the 1990s when Afghanistan became a stronghold of al Qaeda.”
Withdrawing now, Boot continues, would send America’s enemies the wrong message. He explains:
Losing wars is a bad thing. It is especially bad if you are a superpower that depends on an aura of invincibility to keep rogue elements at bay. That should go without saying, but those calling for a scuttle from Afghanistan seem to have forgotten this elementary lesson.
Now I personally don’t like the expression, “Is he smoking crack?!” I’m not saying it’s a bad expression. But it’s become too clichéd, and, like Martin Amis, I try to avoid clichés. But this is one of those times when I just can’t help myself:
Is Max Boot smoking crack?!
Now, first of all, the US didn’t make much of an effort to defeat al Qaeda before 9/11. Michael Scheuer, who formerly headed the CIA’s bin Laden unit, has claimed that during the 1990s the CIA presented the Clinton administration with at least eight opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden. But, according to Scheurer, not once did the White House agree to authorize his assassination. Moreover, it has been widely documented that before 9/11 the Bush administration refused to take action against al Qaeda, this despite numerous warnings that the group was planning a major terrorist attack inside the United States.
So, unlike Boot cliams, the US didn’t implement Will’s “offshore strategy,” or anything even resembling that, before 9/11. Therefore, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that withdrawing from Afghanistan would prevent the US from effectively fighting al Qaeda. To the contrary, withdrawing from Afghanistan would accord with the recommendations of a July 2008 Rand Corporation study. The study shows that since 1968 “[m]ilitary force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups.” Rather, most terrorist groups have ended because “(1) they joined the political process or (2) local police and intelligence agencies arrested or killed key members.”
Given all this, the study recommends that the US begin focusing more of its efforts on policing and intelligence:
In Europe, North America, North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, al Qa’ida consists of a network of individuals who need to be tracked and arrested. This would require careful work abroad from such organizations as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as their cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies.
The study only suggests using military force if al Qaeda becomes involved in an insurgency. And even then, it says that US troops should generally not be used:
Local military forces frequently have more legitimacy to operate than the United States has, and they have a better understanding of the operating environment, even if they need to develop the capacity to deal with insurgent groups over the long run. This means a light U.S. military footprint or none at all. The U.S. military can play a critical role in building indigenous capacity but should generally resist being drawn into combat operations in Muslim societies, since its presence is likely to increase terrorist recruitment.
Now I agree with Boot that withdrawing from Afghanistan would encourage many of America’s enemies, especially militants in Afghanistan. In the same way, I imagine, that Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw US Marines from Lebanon in 1984 encouraged militants in that country. But the Lebanese militants, let’s remember, didn’t follow the Marines back to America and in fact haven’t targeted America since. Similarly, most of the people the US is fighting in Afghanistan aren’t terrorists hell-bent on global jihad but Pashtun tribesmen who simply want western forces to leave their homeland.
If the US government really wants to protect us from another 9/11, then, instead of taking Boot’s advice and trying to maintain this psychological edge over its enemies, it should stop giving its enemies so many reasons to hate us. It should stop occupying their countries and dropping bombs in civilian neighborhoods. It should stop supporting the corrupt regimes in such places as Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. It should stop supporting the Israeli government’s barbaric treatment of the Palestinians.
The terrorists, let’s remember, aren’t at war with America because they hate freedom and democracy and Christianity and apple pie. As Michael Scheuer, Robert Pape, and Marc Sageman have each convincingly shown, they’re at war with America because, for decades now, the American government has been oppressing and murdering men, women, and children throughout the Muslim world. As Noam Chomsky says, if the US government really wants to stop terrorism, then it should stop participating in it.