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.
In November 2003 when I was there, I was very critical of how we were using our Special Forces. But it was certainly salvageable. I saw a lot of progress being made. Many people say that we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan by invading Iraq, but it's more complicated than that. Afghanistan did not begin to go south until about 2006 or so, after we had been in Iraq already for three years. So we also made specific mistakes in Afghanistan in and of themselves, mistakes had nothing to do whether or not we'd invaded Iraq.
What do you think America's next move should be in Afghanistan?
I think that the political reality is such: by 2014 we will have at the most about 25,000 ground troops. The politics in the United States and in Europe will not sustain a greater commitment. Already, the various factions -- the Pakistani government, the Afghan government, the Taliban, and others -- are positioning themselves for a much weaker American presence. I think the only possible way out in Afghanistan is through some regional strategy -- bringing in China, Russia, others who have equity in the country -- and trying to create some sort of regional security agreement.
One of your first magazine articles after 9/11 was an Atlantic cover story called "Supremacy by Stealth." Do you think the arguments you made there still hold up today?
That story was published in the July/August issue of 2003, but it was written in January and February of that year -- literally a few weeks before we invaded Iraq, but when it was already clear that the invasion was going to happen. So I was already able to write about it as a certainty. I said in the beginning that we didn't know if the invasion of Iraq was going to be a success or a failure. But even if it turned out to be a success, sending several hundred thousand troops off on a land invasion was not a model we were going to be able to follow in the decades to come.
So I proposed an alternative model: one of light and lethal Special Forces, area experts who speak the local language and intimately understand the culture. We were going to find these area experts by being more open-minded on immigration, by allowing people from exotic countries to enter our country more readily.
Now fast-forward five years to July/August 2008, when I did a profile of Donald Rumsfeld called "What Rumsfeld Got Right." It wasn't so much a defense of Rumsfeld as it was damning him but with faint praise. In other words, I described all the things he got right -- and there were things -- and even when you added them all up, it didn't equal the mistakes he made in Iraq. But one of the things it seems he's gotten right is his vision of the U.S. Army in the 21st century: light and lethal with far fewer ground troops. I believe he emphasized drones even before Robert Gates did.
Rumsfeld's long-term vision for the U.S. Army ground forces was somewhat similar to what I'd proposed in "Supremacy by Stealth." You can look at how we got bin Laden, how we carried out the campaigns with the use of not just drones but Special Forces on the ground in the Afghan-Pakistan border area. And you can see what Leon Panetta has been doing -- the former CIA director, now the new secretary of defense. It's recently been proposed that the size of the U.S. Army is going to come down by about 100,000 troops.
Again, that's more in line with Rumsfeld's long-term vision. I know it isn't a popular thing to say that Rumsfeld was right, but in this particular instance he seems to have been.
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