In Which the Terrorists Win

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

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.


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74 Responses to “In Which the Terrorists Win”

  1. #1 |  Wavemancali | 

    #10

    “I see the loss for the US in the afghan conflict, but where is the win for Bin Laden?”

    The win for Bin Laden, is to show that in a conflict where you are up against the most powerful nation in the world, you can make them lose.

    The enemy’s loss is the important thing here. While you may be suffering and down, you are surviving and when the enemy is sick of losing they’ll go away. If you are outnumbered by a superior force and make them go away even if it takes 12 years, that’s a win.

  2. #2 |  Dan Brown | 

    Aside from removing them as the de facto government, we never “disposed of” the Taliban; they just went underground to continue their fight in guerrilla fashion. Still, had we left after dislodging them, they probably would have lost support in the country, because the people would have blamed them for bringing disaster upon them by giving the “camels” (their derogatory name for Arabs) free rein.

  3. #3 |  Mike T | 

    #52 is exactly correct about how we should have handled this.

  4. #4 |  Phelps | 

    The military doesn’t build liberal societies. They destroy illiberal ones (and they do it very well).

    I think this is the first statement in a long time from Radley on war in general that I agree enthusiastically and 100% with. (My main disagreement is that I think we should be destroying illiberal ones at a much higher rate.)

  5. #5 |  Elliot | 

    It is a mistake to assume their ultimate goal is to hurt the United States. Rather, their goal is to use attacks on the US and the West to intimidate and impress the Muslim world. Their ultimate goal of taking control of as much of that region of the world as possible. Terrorist attacks in the West are just a means to an end. They drive out Western influence, they intimidate local leaders who don’t match their idea of fundamentalist Muslim leadership, and they rally young people to join them.

    Yes, many of the blunders of the Bush the Younger played right into the hands of al Qaeda, the Taliban, similar groups, and their often overlooked sponsors in places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. (Many of their benefactors hold high positions in governments, pretending to be our allies one minute, and sending millions in cash to the bad guys the next. That’s something which can’t be solved by any surge.)

    But I think we need to be careful not to give al Qaeda and the Taliban too much credit for long-range strategy. I seriously doubt they predicted how much they would lose at the outset. They had control of Afghanistan and I have a hard time believing they would have wanted that, even if they saw a long-range victory.

  6. #6 |  Barry | 

    #14 | SamK | December 2nd, 2009 at 9:46 pm
    “Sydney, I’ll betcha everything in my IRA at the end of ten years that you’ll be eating the “won” part of Iraq. ”

    I wouldn’t make that bet, SamK – remember what the neocons were promising back in ’02-’03? And how that got worked slowly down until the present mess in Iraq (several years of war, ~$1 trillion+ in costs, a PR/political disaster, a nasty-*ss theo-/kleptocracy in charge) is now considered success?

  7. #7 |  Barry | 

    #54 | | December 3rd, 2009 at 3:53 pm
    Radley: “The military doesn’t build liberal societies. They destroy illiberal ones (and they do it very well).”

    Phelps: “I think this is the first statement in a long time from Radley on war in general that I agree enthusiastically and 100% with. (My main disagreement is that I think we should be destroying illiberal ones at a much higher rate.)”

    Actually, you’re both wrong, and Radley’s wrong in a stunningly odd way. For example, in Iraq, the US military didn’t *destroy* an illiberal *society”; it destroyed an illiberal *government*. The society got more illiberal, due to trashing the government, and smashing the normal reorganization that people tried to do (those who succeeded were the nasty people who thrived under that trashing, and then those of that group who successfully became Our SOB’s in Iraq).

    Societies and governments are two different things.

  8. #8 |  Alexander Goristal | 

    RB: “…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.”
    “Nearly” implies that there were exceptions. Was that your intention?

    RB: “What exactly does “victory” in Afghanistan look like?”
    Didn’t Obama tell you Tuesday night? He told you he was going to tell you that. When I used to attend IBM seminars, the instructor would often preface the lesson scheme this way: “We will tell you what we are going to show you; then we will show it to you; finally we will tell you what you were shown.” Obama seems to have adopted that mantra, except for the small detail of omitting the middle step.

    hexag1: “Didn’t the US military build up two liberal societies, West Germany and Japan?”
    I don’t really think that Japan is a comparable. We didn’t transform their culture, we completely annihilated it right down to their rational for having a culture. We used nuclear weapons on people who lived in bamboo and rice paper houses and for the most part probably had no clue such things as atomic bombs existed or were even possible. Twice. Think about that. The feeble remnant of the Japanese people mindlessly copied our culture (subject to their ability to understand and interpret it), the way your dog will try to copy some of your behavior, within the limits of paws versus hands. It appears to me as if the Japanese may to a large extent still be trapped in that paradigm.

    Actually there is an accomplishment that probably lies within our grasp by means of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. We can finish the job of destabilizing Pakistan. Which I somehow suspect, without being able to articulate any specific rational for it, might be part of the real agenda.

    AleG

  9. #9 |  Billy | 

    All this is just like a Twilight Zone episode I saw as a kid, but still remember, even (and, especially..) now.

    A bright light streaks across the sky, followed by a flash as something apparently hits the ground. The townspeople get a little rattled. Then, a car won’t start, or it starts by itself. Lights go off, and on. A witch hunt ensues. Finally, people are thoroughly freaking out.

    Then, as the show ends, we see a couple space men have landed, and one of them is pushing buttons on a small box which controls the cars, lights, and so forth. He says to the other, “See how easy it is? You just have get them started, then they’ll do themselves in.”

    Sound familiar ??

  10. #10 |  What Job? « Just Above Sunset | 

    […] Of course that drives some folks crazy, like at the aptly named Agitator, where Radley Balko says we played right into bin Laden’s hands: […]

  11. #11 |  glory | 

    #50 | Danny | December 3rd, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    ‘”But the real question about this war is: “What would victory look like for the Taliban?”’

    Good to see we’ve dispensed of the illusory question of what would victory look like for the Afghans living under an oppressive regime.

  12. #12 |  SHQ | 

    Can’t….resist….urge…to feed…trolls…..

    #16 | Fritz | “Wayne, are you making an argument that the organization who couldn’t get ice to New Orleans was the same one that pulled off 9/11?”

    Fritz, are you making an argument that the organization who couldn’t get ice to New Orleans was the same one that would pull off Iraq and Afghanistan?

  13. #13 |  teezecrost | 

    The taliban are not gone, and Obama never said anything about ending the war in Afghanistan in his campaign. Still, he’s put a time limit on this thing, and started a withdrawal from Iraq as promised. Everybody’s always gotta complain about something! Even if the order was given to end the whole mission now, it would take a long time to get all those troops and equipment out of there, and you’d probably be complaining about THAT.

  14. #14 |  Historyscoper | 

    Maybe the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were about oil, but not they’re about nukes.
    When confronting resurgent Islamic extremists, most Westerners are clueless about their 7th cent. mindset and are Islam history ignoramuses. Instead of being constantly surprised at what they do, spend some time studying the history of Islam’s rise, spread and core beliefs free with the Historyscoper, just click the url to get started.

  15. #15 |  ShortWoman» Blog Archive » The Shorties Saga: New Moon | 

    […] goodbye to all this, and hello to oblivion: (obligatory) Escalation in Afghanistan is teh win… for the bin Laden anyway. Heaven forbid we should learn from those who tried to fight “the good war” there […]

  16. #16 |  TJ Wiggins | 

    What does victory in Afghanistan look like?

    Answer: a couple of cities connected by road, warehousing local serfs constructing a pipeline to run oil towards Israel.

  17. #17 |  rachel | 

    3 objectives with Afghanistan:

    1. secure poppy farming for cocaine production. Blame it on Taliban. (Who had nearly obliterated poppy farming prior to 9/11 because it’s against Muslim Law. Thus those farmers were beheaded.) Mission Accomplished.

    2. secure Asia-euro oil pipeline. Not accomplished.

    3. Distract Americans with another “Vietnam” type war. Mission Accomplished.

    2 of the 3 have been accomplished. Securing the pipeline is still in the works. Need Iran under thumb to do that.

    As strange as the news may seem at times nothing happens without someone with a checkbook making deals. The wars are all part of the military industrial machine:

    The banks make money from financing the wars, military industry makes money from supplying equipment, computers, ect, and our economy is transforming from a peaceful industrial complex which made textiles, auto and home appliances to a economy where the good jobs are military based…Thus avoiding a draft (for now.)

    However, if Iran doesn’t fall in line and allow us to steal their share of the pipeline we will allow Israel to attack them under the pretense of preemptive strike for unproven nuclear weapons which will suck us into another front and most likely into a draft.

    That is providing we don’t actually go into another civil war ourselves.

  18. #18 |  Abhishek | 

    But the war makes certain people very rich. And thats reason enough for them to influence such decisions, no?

  19. #19 |  mk | 

    As much as I enjoy this site, the post led me to read the Wright book (which is excellent). I found only one paragraph in the book that speaks to the Balko’s argument, 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.” This simply isn’t a line of argumentation that Wright pursues.

    The source for that one paragraph (p. 331) is Ali Soufan, one of the few FBI agents fluent in Arabic. He was part of the intelligence debacle that lead to 9/11 (along with a lot of people in the CIA and NSA; Soufan seems to be the least culpable of the bunch). According to Wright’s index, Soufan now works for the Giuliani partners in New York (although I don’t see him on their website). In the book, Soufan seems like a really decent man, but you’ve got to question his choice of employers.

    But this argument makes no sense. The Taliban were barely in control over Kabul at the time of 9/11; they had only killed the leader of the Northern Alliance (Massoud) two days before 9/11. If I understand the argument correctly, Bin Laden was trying to lead us to war with a country he had no control over, and in which he largely wasn’t wanted (nor, for that matter, did he want to be there). The group he was allied with, the Taliban, barely controlled parts of the country; moreover, according to Wright’s book, there were powerful factions within the Taliban that seriously considered turning bin Laden over to the Saudis (it was a standing offer for them). Moreover, bin Laden was running out of money (and his money was the one thing that probably kept him alive in Afghanistan). Why in god’s name would he think that he’d have the support of the Afghans in this war? He didn’t have the CIA and the Saudi’s financing him this time.

    Moreover, Balko writes, “Wright writes that bin Laden was initially dispirited at the ease with which U.S. forces removed the Taliban from power.” But this is inaccurate. The book says (p. 371) “Bin Laden felt betrayed by the Muslims who had failed to join him [in the fight for Tora Bora] . . .’only a few remained steadfast,’ [bin Laden] complained. ‘The rest surrendered or fled before they encountered the enemy.”’ Bin Laden was dispirited with his own people. But this is posturing. He knew from his experience against the Soviets that he couldn’t trust Afghans to join his cause (again, read the book), and he had maybe a few hundred hard-core Arab fighters. He hardly wanted to draw us into a war there.

    Look, I hate this damn war. I hate the war in Iraq even more. One damn phone call between the FBI and CIA could have stopped 9/11 (again, read the book); we would have read the second-page news report about the disrupted plot and dismissed the whole thing as impossible. But it happened, and the more we repeat this clash of civilizations bs, the more we fight on bin Laden’s ideological turf. Bin Laden’s reading of Somalia and Lebanon was that we couldn’t sustain casualties; after 9/11, he probably thought we’d stay here and fire missiles, and he’d rally public support for the innocent dead (Saddam Hussein, up to the moment he was pulled from his spider hole, thought there was no way the US would invade either). I’m not saying it was right to go into Afghanistan — in fact, the book suggests that the Taliban were more open to deal-making for bin Laden than I had ever suspected — but let’s not add to the mythologizing of bin Laden.

  20. #20 |  Lifewish | 

    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.

    As per usual, I disagree with the premise. I haven’t actually read the book, so I can’t be sure, but my guess would be that most actions of terrorist leaders are mostly intended to influence terrorist followers. The rest of the world can go hang as long as Bin Laden feels he has enough worshippers.

    From that point of view, the whole thing looks like a colossal SNAFU. “Hmm, the troops are getting restless,” says Osama, “they don’t think we’re sticking it to the infidel hard enough and are starting to defect to other groups.” He ponders. “I know, let’s throw a scare into the Americans. That’ll remind people I’m still here.”

    A few months later and Osama is basking in the adoration of his followers. Then the first bombers start soaring overhead…

    If I’m right, the whole thing is reminiscent of Japan in WWII, where a big reason why the generals couldn’t surrender until after Hiroshima/Nagasaki was because the middle-level officers would have gone crazy over the insult to Japan’s honour.

  21. #21 |  Afghanistan « working title | 

    […] 12, 2010 · Leave a Comment Radley Balko of The Agitator sums up my feelings quite well this post on […]

  22. #22 |  In Which the Terrorists Win | The Agitator « Zachary Lin Zhao | 

    […] In Which the Terrorists Win […]

  23. #23 |  fighter | 

    Obama does his biggest mistake by sending more soldiers in afghanistan. He continues a war he can never win, but that’s a problem of the soldiers and the American civilians ..

  24. #24 |  Considering Afghanistan | 

    […] see what we really gain from propping up Karzai’s government. More to the point, as Radley Balko asks, “What exactly does ‘victory’ in Afghanistan look like?” The same question […]