The longtime Atlantic writer reflects on what the United States -- and he personally -- got wrong and right about Afghanistan and Iraq
You've been writing about global unrest for decades now. When you first heard the news on September 11, what did you see as the larger geopolitical story behind it?
I didn't actually learn about the attacks until about 12 hours later because I was out sailing in Nova Scotia. I was one of the last people in the world to know about it. On the one hand, obviously when you hear the news that the Twin Towers have been destroyed and a wing of the Pentagon has been destroyed, however savvy you are about things from being on the ground in the Middle East covering wars, you're shocked. You just are. But on another level, it was a kind of a familiar shock. I said to myself, "Finally, it's happened. Finally, something absolutely horrific has happened that has to do with the political sickness and turmoil in the greater Middle East."
In the weeks and the months following, I realized that the U.S. military was now going to play a much more important role in our diplomatic security policy than it had previously. We were entering an age of U.S. military prominence, whether you liked it or not. And I thought the U.S. military was a great story.
How much time had you spent in Afghanistan and Iraq at that point?
I'd been going back and forth to Afghanistan since the late 1980s. I was there again in the 1990s. And I've been back two or three times since. I went to Iraq in the 1980s as well. I knew Iraq under Saddam and the first thing I can say about it was that the oppression of Saddam In Iraq was so bad that going from Iraq to Syria -- Syria under Hafez al-Assad -- was like coming up for liberal-humanist air. That's how much worse Iraqi repression was than Syrian repression.
You went back to Iraq in 2004 to report an Atlantic story called "Five Days in Fallujah." What struck you most on seeing the country after Saddam?
What struck me was how big a mistake I had personally made in supporting the war. I had been coming to that realization, but it really hit me in Iraq. Not because the Marines didn't perform brilliantly, not that we weren't learning a lot of lessons on the ground and doing a lot of things right. But that the chaos -- the political chaos, the security chaos -- in Iraq was to such a great extent that when we decapitated the regime, there was nothing left, there was just a nutter void. It wasn't even a weak state, it was like there was no state.
My assumption, the wrong assumption, had been that if we toppled Saddam we could get another, much more benign, dictator in his place. I was not for promoting democracy in Iraq. I thought after Saddam, we could get a Mubarak or a Musharraf -- either of whom, in human-rights terms, would have been a vast improvement over Saddam. That didn't happen. Some people say it was because we disbanded the Iraqi army, that had we handled things differently it wouldn't have turned out as badly. That may be true. But you can't argue with the facts as they are, and the war was a disaster.
What about Afghanistan? How did our invasion change that country?
Afghanistan was a more nuanced situation. It was more nuanced because Afghanistan never had a strong state to begin with. It was always a very, very weak state, even under Zahir Shah in the mid-20th century. The government really didn't govern much outside of the Ring Road and the big cities. So when we decapitated the regime in Afghanistan, not nearly as much changed as when we decapitated the regime in Iraq.