I was shocked by "Bush's Lost Year" (October Atlantic). James Fallows fails to credit the Bush administration with a single positive step in the war on terror; he discusses only the negatives.
Fallows paints the war in Afghanistan as a failure; it failed, he alleges, because we diverted resources to Iraq. But Afghanistan is now led by a strong and respected leader instead of the evil Taliban. Ten million Afghans have registered to vote, and the turnout for elections in Afghanistan may have been higher, in percentage terms, than the turnout for U.S. elections. Girls are attending school, which was forbidden under the Taliban. Women now may choose not to wear the burka and may even work outside the home. Afghans who want to be part of the modern world can listen to music and the radio and watch television. Afghanistan is still a dangerous place, and democracy won't take hold there for some time. But only a fool would expect it to be a model of perfection after its long history of bloodshed.
Fallows ignores all the successes we have achieved against al-Qaeda terrorists over the past three years. Most of the top leadership of al-Qaeda has been killed or captured. Al-Qaeda operatives are being rounded up all over the globe by our allies. Terrorists have been captured and brought to justice in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, Spain, Italy, Yemen, and Turkey. The complex web of funding for jihadi terror groups is unraveling, and bank accounts are being frozen here and everywhere. Pakistan is now an ally, doing our dirty work by killing and arresting al-Qaeda members. The Khan nuclear-export business has been shut down. Libya is no longer a terror supporter bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon. Democracy is now being discussed in the Arab world as it has never been before.
San Francisco, Calif.
James Fallows's thesis is fundamentally flawed. He fails to properly describe the aims of our enemy, and that failure leads him to present illusory choices for America in pursuit of that enemy. He says President Bush was simplistic in stating that Islamic terrorists hate America for its freedoms. He points to policy choices America has made—in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in Russia—as the real reasons for the hatred. The implication is that if we changed those policies that enrage our enemy, we would be less susceptible to attack.
This is appeasement, pure and simple. It won't work, because to our enemies the regional conflicts and issues Fallows describes are mere steppingstones on the way to their true objective, which is the establishment of Islam throughout the world. Fallows, like many others, refuses to take Osama bin Laden at his word, and that is dangerous indeed. To quote the historian Bernard Lewis in What Went Wrong?:
For Osama bin Laden and those who share in his views—and they are many—the object of the struggle is the elimination of intrusive Western power and corrupting Western influence from all the lands of Islam, and the restoration of Islamic authenticity and authority in these lands. When this has been accomplished, the stage will be set for the final struggle to bring God's message to all mankind in all the world. [emphasis added]
The unpleasant reality is that no change in our policies in the face of Islamic terror would change the level of danger and terror we face. Only when our enemies understand that attacking us will result in the destruction of their entire civilization and its ideals will we have secured our right to live freely and safely.
James Fallows says the United States left the job of closing the Afghan-Pakistani border to the Pakistanis, a decision that allowed unknown numbers of al-Qaeda and Taliban members to escape.
An aspect of the story I've never seen covered was revealed to me at Fort Benning one month before the invasion of Iraq, during interviews I conducted for a documentary that was later distributed by Public Radio International. According to an infantry captain who fought in Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan (and who does not want his name used), our forces were deliberately deployed in a way that allowed the enemy an escape route. An anaconda, he explained, encircles its prey, and there was enough troop strength at or near the site to accomplish this. To his bafflement and dismay, however, troops (including his company) were deployed on only three sides of the operation, leaving an opening in the mountainous terrain leading directly to the Pakistani border. A fourth company was never sent into battle. This man had witnessed much carnage and put his own and his men's lives on the line to make the operation succeed. When I spoke with him, he was still demoralized by what he had observed. When I asked why he thought his superiors had, as it were, defeated their own battle plan, he said he believed it was to minimize American casualties; they assumed that al-Qaeda and the Taliban would fight to the death if totally surrounded, and that the resulting loss of life on our side might have compromised public support for the war.
New York, N.Y.
James Fallows replies:
My point about Afghanistan was that its reconstruction would have been faster, cheaper, and far more successful if the United States had not prematurely diverted money, manpower, and intense governmental attention to Iraq. This argument was based on the views of, among others, James Dobbins—the Bush administration's special envoy to Afghanistan—and Larry Goodson, of the Army War College, who has been an adviser to CENTCOM. The recent election in Afghanistan was a significant step forward. The many challenges that still imperil the country, notably the upsurge in its opium industry, would have been easier to contain two years ago.
Josh Baker's views regarding al-Qaeda reflect those conveyed by the "Wanted" poster and the deck of cards featuring Iraqi regime leaders—views that President Bush and other administration officials have often expressed. That is: with each known terrorist leader the United States captures, America comes that much closer to safety from terrorist attacks.
It is true that al-Qaeda's operations
have been hampered by the loss of its sanctuaries and training camps in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is now a different organization—more widely dispersed, less centrally controlled, and by all available measures more successful in attracting new members than it was before the war in Iraq. It is not necessarily a less dangerous organization than before. As for the spread of democracy in the Middle East, we'll see how events unfold.
David Beidler very clearly expresses a view of terrorism similar to the one that has guided the administration. The purpose of my article, again, was to explain why many people at the professional level of the military and intelligence agencies flatly disagree with this logic. The latest illustration (mentioned in this issue in "Success Without Victory") is the position of the Pentagon's own Defense Science Board, which says that America's anti-terror effort has only increased sources of future terrorist attacks.
The hypothesis Helen Borten reports is one of several explanations for why the al-Qaeda leadership escaped during Operation Anaconda. It is still too early to know which explanation is correct.
I share James Fallows's gratitude for Stan Coerr's letter to the editor (November Atlantic), and honor his service. Like Major Coerr, I am frustrated by the spectacle of presumably responsible adults going to great lengths to obfuscate the relatively straightforward issue of why we went to war in Iraq.