I missed this piece in Foreign Affairs by John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio University, when it came out in April. But I’m told it’s been circulating in military/defense circles, and that’s how it ended up in my in-box. It’s a fairly persuasive and concise dismantling of the logic behind Obama’s war in AfPakland. Writes Mueller:
President Barack Obama insists that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is about “making sure that al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies” or “project violence against” American citizens. The reasoning is that if the Taliban win in Afghanistan, al Qaeda will once again be able to set up shop there to carry out its dirty work. As the president puts it, Afghanistan would “again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” This argument is constantly repeated but rarely examined; given the costs and risks associated with the Obama administration’s plans for the region, it is time such statements be given the scrutiny they deserve.
One of the more dubious ideas fueling the war is that by keeping the Taliban from power(though, in actuality we’re fighting to get into a position so we can start seriously negotiating with the Taliban) we’ll prevent Al Qaeda from using the country as a “safe haven.” Mueller claims, that on close examination, this doesn’t really make much sense.
The very notion that al Qaeda needs a secure geographic base to carry out its terrorist operations, moreover, is questionable. After all, the operational base for 9/11 was in Hamburg, Germany. Conspiracies involving small numbers of people require communication, money, and planning — but not a major protected base camp.
Mueller then goes on to argue that the threat posed by Al Qaeda is more than a little overblown.
Policymakers and the public at large should keep in mind the words of Glenn Carle, a 23 year veteran of the CIA who served as deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats: “We must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are.” Al Qaeda “has only a handful of individuals capable of planning, organizing and leading a terrorist operation,” Carle notes, and “its capabilities are far inferior to its desires.”
This is a critical point that leads one to the question: Why are we so afraid of Al Qaeda? 9-11 was traumatic, and devastating, and horrible, yes. But our response has been so far out of proportion to the threat we’ve lost sight of what the threat really is. In fact, even under Obama we keep imagining ways to make the threat seem even bigger, scarier, deadlier(they could get their hands on nukes, and nuke somebody somewhere sometime soon!) We’ve treated the War on Terror like it’s a matter of life and death for our country and Western civilization. It really isn’t, I don’t think. Terrorism is a real danger, but so is flying Continental. And, as this RAND study from last year shows, military confrontation is the least effective means of eliminating terrorist organizations. Yet so many politicians and think-tankers and intelligence and defense types have so much invested in keeping the threat alive that it’s become a tenant of bipartisanship to passively support the wars. (Unless it’s election season, then Democrats realize they’re sort of against them.) With little debate, we just shipped another $106 billion to Iraq and Afghanistan, a vote of 91 to 5.
Anyway, read Mueller’s piece. At least then in four or five or six years from now, when we’re still stuck groin-deep in Afghanistan, still wondering why we have tens of thousand troops in Iraq, we can’t say we weren’t warned.