In his thorough history of 9/11 The Looming Towers, Lawrence Wright makes a pretty persuasive case that Osama bin Laden’s goal in planning out terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s was to suck the U.S. into a Soviet-style war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had no delusions about turning the U.S. into a Muslim country. Instead, he wanted to pull America into an expensive, dispiriting, unwinnable war—the sort of war nearly every power that has invaded Afghanistan has had to extract itself from, tail between legs. Wright writes that bin Laden was initially dispirited at the ease with which U.S. forces removed the Taliban from power.
Of course, we then let bin Laden escape. And then came Iraq. We’ve since given bin Laden more than he ever could have thought possible, and more. Two protracted wars. And our war in Afghanistan is looking more and more like the Soviet war bin Laden was hoping to emulate.
We’re now well into our ninth year in Afghanistan. The Soviets pulled out after 10. With Obama’s surge, we’ll be close to 100,000 U.S. troops in the country next year. That’s about the number the Soviets had deployed at the height of their own war. About the only difference between the two wars is that technology has shifted more of our war casualties from the killed column to the maimed. I guess that’s something.
Here’s a question for the politicians who support Obama’s plan, as well as those to the right of him who think it isn’t warmongery enough: What exactly does “victory” in Afghanistan look like? Certainly no one in his right mind thinks the country is going to look like, say, Iowa in 20 years. Same for Iraq. Are we expending what in the end will be a few trillion dollars and likely the lives of 6,ooo-7,000 troops to create another . . . Saudi Arabia? Another Egypt?
We do have a pretty good idea how bin Laden pictured victory. It looks a lot like what we’re seeing now. He wanted a holy war. We gave him two. We’ve compromised our values, rolled back civil liberties, and let our politicians generally scare the crap out of us whenever they want new powers. Oh, and we’ve let the bastard live to gloat about it all.
This war should have been over the moment we disposed of the Taliban. The military doesn’t build liberal societies. They destroy illiberal ones (and they do it very well). I’ll wager we have at least 50,000 troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of Obama’s first term. In fact, I’ll bet it’s closer to 75,000. Lovely that this was the anti-war candidate.
There’s no easy way out of either of these wars.
Which is a pretty damned good reason to excercise more discretion about when to get into them.