Fortunes of war

by John Quiggin on August 26, 2008

Things have gone better than expected (certainly better than I expected) in Iraq over the past year[1]. On the other hand, things are going very badly in Afghanistan. For those, like me (and most at CT I think), who have supported the war in Afghanistan and opposed the war in Iraq, this raises some points to consider.

Most obviously, war is inherently unpredictable and dangerous, and there is no necessary correlation between the justness of a cause and its military success. That means, among other things, that launching a war (or revolution) on the basis of a cause that seems justified to those starting it, but which has little or no hope of success (indeed without strong grounds for expecting a good outcome after the inevitable loss of life on all sides is taken into account), is not glorious but criminally reckless.

Sadly, the typical ‘war of choice’ is launched on the basis of hubristic expectations of success, an illusion which is often bolstered by initial success but usually ends in disaster (I expect this will turn out to be the case for both/all sides in the Georgia conflict).

Supporters of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan can argue that the prospects of success were excellent and would have been realised if it were not for the massive incompetence of the Bush Administration, most obviously in deciding to launch a second war in Iraq for no particular reason (or, if you prefer, for many contradictory reasons). Of course, some supporters of the Iraq war make precisely the same claim. But the Administration’s incompetence was much more evident in 2003 than in 2001, one reason why I and others changed our views. More importantly, Afghanistan was not a war of choice. The US and other countries had been attacked by terrorists operating there with the support of the Taleban, and further attacks were planned. It’s hard to see what alternatives were available.

Perhaps with more competent management the Taleban could have been defeated by now, and Al Qaeda put out of business in the region. But they haven’t been and it is time to admit that a military victory over the Taleban insurgency is now unlikely whether or not it might have been achieved in the past. As with the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, it’s time to look harder at offering both a part in the political process and plenty of cash to those willing to abandon the insurgency.

fn1. That doesn’t mean the situation is good by any normal standard. Omagh-scale bomb attacks still take place every week or so, attracting barely any notice, and both soldiers and civilians are dying every day. More importantly, even if the war ended tomorrow, it would still be a disaster for all concerned. The US has suffered thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of soldiers wounded and spent trillions of dollars while making its own international position far weaker than before. And the suffering of the Iraqi people has been far greater – hundreds of thousands dead, millions forced to flee the country, an economy in ruins and a legacy of bitter division that is unlikely to heal for decades to come.

{ 71 comments }

1

christian h. 08.27.08 at 12:59 am

It is simply not the case that the Taliban, or Afghanistan, attacked the US on 9/11. A terror group, probably Al Qaeda, did. Since the US made, as usual, every effort to avoid trying to deal with the problem in a non-military manner, I am baffled as to why you would say that “[i]t’s hard to see what alternatives were available”.

How about, for example, showing some actual proof for the involvement of Al Qaeda and then pressuring the Taliban (and their Pakistani sponsors) to shut down their operation?

It is also wrong to simply group the resistance in Afghanistan under the rubric “Taliban”. There seem to be various different groups of people, mostly Pashtu, who aren’t happy about foreign military occupation, regular massacres of civilians, and the reinstatement of the same corrupt warlords whose rule brought the Taliban to success in the first place.

2

Anderson 08.27.08 at 1:27 am

Goodness, Christian.

(1) We asked the Taliban to hand over Osama. They wouldn’t.

(2) Do you really imagine that Mullah Omar had any doubt that Osama was behind 9/11? Do you think this was something Osama was keeping secret from his Taliban hosts, after the fact of the successful attack?

The Taliban could’ve said, “you’re right, these rogues are a blot on Islam” and given us carte blanche to grab ‘em. In which case, the nasty little fanatics might still be in Kabul today, giving 40 lashes for possession of American DVDs.

3

Jim Harrison 08.27.08 at 1:42 am

Like the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to the Serbs in 1914, the American ultimatum to the Afghans was carefully crafted to make it impossible for them to comply. We wanted a war. I wasn’t particularly upset about this routine piece of diplomatic dishonesty at the time since I couldn’t see how any American government could resist the political pressure to lash out. What makes it hard to see a way out now, however, is not the karmic consequences of the original invasion, but the way in which we have become committed to imposing Western values on the Afghans. Like the Russians before us, for example, we’re in favor of women’s rights and the Afghans hate that.

4

Fortuna 08.27.08 at 1:43 am

Was there ever great optimism about the outcome in Afghanistan? I thought that indeed we might be leaving one day much as the Soviets did, but that does not mean there were better options.

We may have to resort to controlling the situation, rather than resolving it, at least in the forseeable future.

5

gandhi 08.27.08 at 1:51 am

<blockquote<We asked the Taliban to hand over Osama. They wouldn’t.

Well, that’s not necessarily true. The Taleban’s offer to hand over Bin Laden is just one more war story that has been buried because it does not fit the script.

The Taleban’s behaviour before the war was intolerable, of course, and the international community was obliged to do something to help ordinary Afghans. Prof Q says “Afghanistan was not a war of choice” but in fact there might have been other more diplomatic ways to achieve change. We will probably never know.

I find it impossible to think about Afghanistan today without thinking about what might have been… Perhaps that’s a good thing, because we Westerners cannot look to the future of Afghanistan without looking at how things went so wrong, acknowledging our own mistakes, and (dare we hope?) holding the prime architects of those mistakes accountable.

It’s nice to imagine where we might be today if the money wasted on war in Iraq had instead been spent on Afghan schools, roads and other manifestations of Western “soft power”. Such a massive show of altruism might have won the hearts and minds of people across the Middle East, bringing calls for widespread democratic change.

Ironically, this is exactly what the architects of the Iraq War claim to have desired. But like the Bible says, “by their fruits shall ye know them.” It seems increasingly obvious that their real objective – in both Afghanistan and Iraq – was control of oil by Western corporations.

This gives away the big lie about “our” concern for the suffering people of Afghanistan. Perhaps ordinary voters in NATO countries like Australia, the UK, Canada and the USA did care about the brutal suffering of Afghans under the Taliban, but our governments obviously did not. They used popular support for the war as a pretext for realising their own geo-political ambitions, and the ordinary citizens of Afghanistan (and Iraq) have suffered miserably as a result.

With the Cold War now being reignited in Georgia, we Westerners need to go back and look at the tattered remains of the “American Dream”, and the vaunted promises of freedom which were posited for decades in contrast to Communist oppression. Was that all just a PR stunt? It seems that such promises have amounted to very little since the walls came down in 1989/90.

Again, I would suggest that the reason for this is not that we ordinary citizens of the West do not hold such visions of freedom and equality dear to our hearts, but that our supposedly representative governments – beholden as they are to corporate interests, including the giant US military industrial complex – do not truly share that vision.

As long as this is the case, there is little we can do for the peasants in Afghanistan, Sudan, Burma, Mozambique or anywhere else. We need to put our own house in order before we can go out and help others. And that process surely starts with some long-overdue accountability.

6

RCMoya612 08.27.08 at 1:53 am

Err, Anderson: Not to be too contrarian, but there definitely were overtures by the Taliban to hand bin Laden over to the US after 9/11. The precondition? That evidence be produced as to his guilt.

This doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, given that the Taliban considered itself the governing group of the sovereign state of Afghanistan. Trouble with saying otherwise is that the United States was happy to deal with them as such right up to the point Chevron pulled its plans for an oil pipeline.

I’m not trying to be a conspiracy theorist, but those are the facts. It’s in the news wire archives if you only care to look it up (LexisNexis is lovely :-)

7

gandhi 08.27.08 at 1:53 am

NB: Sorry, my first para above was in response to Anderson’s claim that “We asked the Taliban to hand over Osama. They wouldn’t.” My blockquotes did not work. Also, I cross posted this comment from Prof Q’s blog, which seems to be crashing repeatedly (as it often does).

8

christian h. 08.27.08 at 1:54 am

we’re in favor of women’s rights

Sure. And democracy and peace, and liberty for all. Nonsense. What “we” are in favor of, just like the Soviets were, is controlling Afghanistan. I’m happy it’s not working. (By the way, what’s it with all that “we” this and “we” that? Count me out.)

The truth is that the Western attack on the Afghan people killed thousands (at least), destroyed a country already in very bad shape, didn’t do squat for “women’s liberation” or anybody’s rights, destabilized Pakistan, and all that was entirely predictable, and predicted.

And I can’t believe that the excuse I’m supposed to accept is that “we” had to “lash out” at somebody to satisfy, I suppose, “our” need for revenge. And yet, Afghanistan is supposed to be the backward country?

9

derrida derider 08.27.08 at 2:35 am

What others said – it’s just rewriting history to say the Taliban weren’t prepared to deal. Just because the mullahs were/are ugly doesn’t mean they were stupid.

They had risen to power on a wave of genuine popularity because of their promises to bring stability. Now that they no longer needed them for support against the warlords why would they not take the opportunity to get rid of foreign adventurers like Osama who were a chronic threat to that stability? All they asked for was a face-saver to cover their breach of the Pushtu code of hospitality, and maybe some covert military help to dislodge them. But the Yanks instead preferred to “throw some shitty little country up against a wall” to relieve hurt feelings.

10

Anderson 08.27.08 at 3:01 am

The Taliban insisted that Osama be tried under Islamic law, as opposed to the law of the nation which al-Qaeda attacked.

And again, the insistence on “evidence” appears disingenuous at best. I’m happy for the Taliban that they have so many apologists, but they were perfectly well aware of bin Laden’s campaign against the United States, and had no problem sheltering him before 9/11, or after.

11

christian h. 08.27.08 at 3:54 am

Yeah, who needs evidence? I mean, just because the US routinely blames “Islamic militants” for any act of terrorism (re: Oklahoma City bombing, Anthrax) doesn’t mean they can’t be taken at their word!

Evidence was necessary, if only to allow the Taliban to point to it as an excuse for violating the laws of hospitality. But I see that you insist on being an apologist for imperialism and mass murder. Good for you!

12

c.l. ball 08.27.08 at 4:05 am

I working on a short piece on this but the prudential reasons not to invade Iraq also argued against invading Afghanistan. This was why the US chose a proxy war there in 2001 rather than a major US ground commitment. The “Northern Alliance” fought the war with US aid, supplies, and air support in 2001.

The ethnic divisions, export-dependent economy (opium instead of oil), weak democratic traditions, and weak state institutions all mitigated against a successful post-war state being established. Afghanistan is larger than Iraq physically and demographically; if RAND-recommended soldier-to-citizen ratio for successful “stability operations” is used (20:1,000 or 1:50), Afghanistan would have required @ 600,000 forces to stabilize it. Even if this ratio were now applied only to the provinces experiencing high levels of violence, the US and NATO would need 140,000 troops (not counting Afghan security forces). In other words, move the US commitment in Iraq to Afghanistan.

Unless the UN or some other body wishes to establish long-term trusteeship (with the extensive military, social, and political support that would entail), current conditions in Haiti and Somalia are the best we can expect for Iraq and Afghanistan.

13

c.l. ball 08.27.08 at 4:06 am

That should be: “I’m working…”

14

abb1 08.27.08 at 7:28 am

I remember watching the documentary called Where In The World Is Bin Laden? the other day. It reminded me of what my colleagues who travel there told me – that the Afghans seem exceptionally friendly. Confirms my suspicion that average friendliness is inversely proportional to the population density.

Anyway, the documentary shows buildings blown up by the US and tells how US generals solemnly swore to rebuild, to build schools, hospitals, roads. It’s several years later – nothing has happened.

It occurred to me then that perhaps it’s structurally impossible for the US government to do any constructive work in the troubled third-world places. The Soviets could send engineers to build a dam, the Cubans can send doctors to treat people; the US government has no engineers, no doctors – only soldiers and money. Of course the US can send a ton of hundred-dollar bills there, but that won’t pave a road, it won’t build a school – it’ll just get stolen by contractors and warlords with nothing to show for it.

So, bomb away – until the total victory!

15

sg 08.27.08 at 8:02 am

I didn’t support the Afghan invasion either. I understand some people thought it was “necessary” but it just seemed to me it was doomed to go the way of all other invasions of Afghanistan – kill a lot of Afghans, throw a whole lot more back to the stone age, and after a couple of years we all have to leave (if, unlike the famous British expedition, we are lucky).

I understand though that the US and Pakistan have to rein in their proxies when they get out of hand. You get the foreign policy you voted for, I suppose. It’s just a shame the rest of the world went along with it.

16

toby 08.27.08 at 8:40 am

I am following Lawrence Freeman’s “The Looming Tower” here when I say that there was no way that the Taliban would have handed over bin Laden. From Freeman’s book, Osama bin Laden was as strong an intellectual leader of the Taliban as Mullah Omar, who deferred to the Saudi Arabian on every issue.

There was little option but to go in an root out the whole nest. We should remind ourselves that when the Taliban took Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, they spent a week in an orgy of rape and murder on the scale of Srebenica. And recall that Afghanistan was not a peaceful country – a civil war was raging, and the Taliban were about to visit on the Northern Alliance of Tadziks and Uzbeks what they had done to Mazar-e-Sharif. There was both a moral and a legal case for intervention in the civil war.

The Taliban resurgence can be laid at the door of G.W.Bush and Co. NATO allies cooled on the war quickly when the US went off on a wild goose chase in Iraq. Basically, Bush and Cheney were happy for Afghanistan to go back to the rule of the local warlords who had caused the Taliban uprising in the first place. Now, Taliban fundamentalism has infected and taken over tribal areas in Pakistan (which has a nuclear weapon) and the problems of 2003 have been doubled (and maybe redoubled).

Pakistan military intelligence have always been major Taliban backers, first encouraged by Benazir Bhutto, so chickens are coming home to roost in both Islamabad and Washington.

It may have gone beyond the point where military success will bring about a change. It’s a mess.

17

Mikhail 08.27.08 at 8:43 am

Good on you, abb1 – the Soviets DID build dams, schools, roads, etc. Afghanistan still uses a lot of that legacy. And unlike the current occupiers who sit in their bases, the Soviets did actually control the country. Small skirmishes notwithstanding, you could actually work, live and walk in the cities being a foreigner. That was the main difference between then and now – current forces are not interested in helping these people. All the talk about winning hearts and minds is just that – talk for internal US consumption.

18

ejh 08.27.08 at 8:49 am

Afghanistan was not a war of choice

Yes it was. It may have been a good choice or a bad one (I’d say the latter, and said so at the time) but there was a choice all right. To pretend otherwise is simply bluster.

19

Z 08.27.08 at 9:26 am

Most obviously, war is inherently unpredictable and dangerous[....]

I will add an obvious point, but one that is not very regularly discussed: war is conducted in the way the military forces are organized. So, knowing the way the US and NATO military forces were organized, launching a war, any war for any reason, in Afghanistan (or Iraq or Serbia or wherever) was bound to involve high-altitude bombing of the sort that kills hundreds of civilians. So for instance last Friday’s bombing of 90 civilians, including 60 children (see for instance http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/27/world/asia/27herat.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss) is not a regrettable and unpredictable incident, it is the inevitable outcome of the way operations are conducted. Consequently, I opposed the war in Afghanistan, because I didn’t see why fighting against terrorists who have managed to kill a few thousands people makes it right to engage in operations that will kill thousands of innocent bystanders.

Or to take an analogy, if you spot a serial killer waiting in line at a supermarket, that doesn’t give you the right to lash out at him with an AK47. So if you have nothing else that an AK47 on you, you let him go or you try to get to him with your bare hands. It hurts, but that’s the moral thing to do.

It’s hard to see what other alternatives were available

Is it really? How about dealing with terrorism coming from a poor country in the same way indigenous terrorism is dealt with? The US found perfectly adequate alternatives to bombing Oklahoma after the Oklahoma city bombing.

20

J Thomas 08.27.08 at 10:00 am

…I say that there was no way that the Taliban would have handed over bin Laden.

Suppose we had tried them at it. Couldn’t we have still invaded after they showed us they wouldn’t? Since we didn’t give them the chance, now we’re reduced to arguing our prejudices about what they might have done.

How long would it have delayed the invasion to actually give them our evidence?

Of course, the afghans might have helped bin Ladin sneak out of afghanistan to go somewhere else. That would have been fine by me. Practically anywhere else he went would have been a better place for us to go after him. Sudan? Darfur? Maybe not much better but at least we wouldn’t have a bunch of idealists telling us we’re obligated to invade sudan too. Maybe sudan wouldn’t keep him, under the circumstances. Say a bunch of muslim religious authorities agreed that islam doesn’t approve of killing the innocent. Bin Ladin turns into a hot potato that nobody wants to keep. That wouldn’t have been a bad outcome compared to what we did get.

Did we really have so much to lose by giving Taliban a chance to deal with Bin Ladin? What’s the worst that can happen? They hold him, put him on trial, listen to our evidence, and take about a year to decide he’s not guilty. Then we’ve lost a year, and Taliban has unambiguously shown where they stand. To me that looks like the absolute worst case. What’s the worst case for early invasion?

21

abb1 08.27.08 at 10:33 am

Suppose we had tried them at it. Couldn’t we have still invaded after they showed us they wouldn’t?

The US harbors this guy who blew up a Cuban airliner in 1976 and is implicated in many other terrorist acts. He escaped from a Venezuelan jail and the US refuses to extradite him.

What should the Venezuelan government do?

22

novakant 08.27.08 at 11:23 am

It’s hard to see what alternatives were available.

Not really, but first you have to define what you actually want – do you want to:

a.) hit back/lash out/punish/’send a message’
b.) apprehend the bad guy or guys
c.) remove the long-term threat
d.) turn around a failed state
d.) some of the above
e.) all of the above

The Afghan War only ‘achieved’ a.) .

23

Chris Williams 08.27.08 at 12:51 pm

novakant is on the money here. I led demonstrations against the war on Afghanistan, and nothing that’s happened since has led me to doubt that I was right to do so. I only wish I’d done more to try and stop it.

24

RCMoya612 08.27.08 at 12:52 pm

And again, the insistence on “evidence” appears disingenuous at best. I’m happy for the Taliban that they have so many apologists, but they were perfectly well aware of bin Laden’s campaign against the United States, and had no problem sheltering him before 9/11, or after.

Actually, delivering that evidence before the invasion would have made the subsequent attack all the more justified.

But let’s ask, for the sake of devil’s advocacy, why it is Mullah Omar would have been so keen to destroy the West? Do we seriously believe he had an incentive to bring upon the wrath of the most powerful country in the world, which would unreservedly bring about the end of his régime? For ‘revelling’ in the ‘success’ of 9/11 would surely do that. Let me put this another way: I don’t think the Taliban would have been all that keen to allow 9/11 to go through had they known the full scale of it–because they knew they’d pay the consequences.

Unlike Hamas after they’ve committed acts of international terrorism, the Taliban actually condemned the 9/11 attacks–and couldn’t believe Osama bin Laden could have been responsible for them. That incredulity doesn’t strike me as entirely disingenuous–especially as reporters of Deutsche Presse-Argentur spoke to a Taliban commander on 9/12. The latter said the ‘Arabs’ (i.e. Al Qaeda) had a presence in every province, and he didn’t seem all that thrilled that they were there.

24 hours after the attacks in New York and elsewhere all fingers pointed to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts as the perpetrators.

It’s not the voice of an apologist to point out what could have been a successful policy, one that may have actually delivered Osama bin Laden for trial without the entire invasion going forth. (Not that there weren’t reasons to prosecute war against such a vile régime.)

An invasion, in case you’ve forgotten, that has so far failed to bring that man to justice. So where’s the victory? Where’s the victory when the central purpose for the invasion has eluded resolution?

25

Anderson 08.27.08 at 1:46 pm

How long would it have delayed the invasion to actually give them our evidence?

One of the criticisms of the invasion, actually, is that we spent too long preparing & thus allowed bin Laden to prepare his escape. How long did it take us to get troops on the ground? Six weeks?

Of course I agree with many of the reservations about the war. High-altitude bombing is stupid and murderous. There was absolutely no reason to minimize American casualties at the risk of the mission, given the huge public support for the war in the U.S. And, god knows, fighting in Afghanistan is one of the worst things that an army can do.

Still, given the evident disinclination of the Taliban to hand over bin Laden & Zarqawi (and readers of The Looming Tower or Ghost Wars will know that this disinclination long predated 9/11, as Toby correctly observes above), taking out the Taliban was pretty much the only plausible option that wouldn’t have amounted to a huge “Kick Me Again, I Like It” sign taped to the collective American backside.

All the more reason of course not to waste resources on a stupid and unnecessary war in Iraq. Afghanistan was biting off quite enough.

26

Anderson 08.27.08 at 1:51 pm

24 hours after the attacks in New York and elsewhere all fingers pointed to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts as the perpetrators.

I think that may actually indicate a problem with “evidence first” — I’m not clear how much of the intial evidence was classified.

But again, the Taliban had a history of non-cooperation. I’ll concede that our demand for bin Laden after 9/11 was an ultimatum, not the beginning of negotiation. But there had been plenty of negotiation *before* 9/11, and the Taliban had been obviously unwilling to go along.

(As for their professions of shock — “my goodness, Osama couldn’t have done anything like that! such a nice boy!” — well, whatever. I scarcely expected them to spit in the U.S.’s face and rejoice openly.)

27

Barry 08.27.08 at 2:01 pm

I’d like to point out that the original premise that the war in Iraq is now successful is incorrect, if ‘success’ is defined as anything other than ‘successful propaganda/looting campaign for the GOP’. The level of civilian violence is still incredibly high. IIRC, it’s down to 2005 levels, which were considered double-plus ungood back in 2005 (or denied). The government is a bunch of Iranian-backed theokleptocrats whose basis is mass murder, torture, ethnic cleansing and massive corruption. The ‘Sunni Awakening’ is running into the problem that the government of Iraq is largely a Shiite machine, which doesn’t want much Sunni participation. This new government has been purchased at the cost of 1 million Iraqi lives, and a few million refugees.

Al Qaida might be less powerful in Iraq, but only in relation to how powerful they became as a result of the invasion. And if they can’t recruit a new generation of terrorists out of genuine anger at what the US has done, they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are.

Meanwhile, the US has p*ssed away vast amounts of wealth, in dollars, respect of the world, and Constitutional respect.

And the scum who did this have almost all prospered. They’re still around, counting their gains, and dreaming of their next chance.

28

Anderson 08.27.08 at 2:25 pm

The ‘Sunni Awakening’ is running into the problem that the government of Iraq is largely a Shiite machine, which doesn’t want much Sunni participation

Maliki is probably trying to work out the “Sunni Slumber.” The sleep of the grave, if it comes to that.

But Quiggin said “better than expected” in Iraq, not “successful.” Given how low his (and my) expectations were, that is faint praise.

29

J Thomas 08.27.08 at 3:04 pm

One of the criticisms of the invasion, actually, is that we spent too long preparing & thus allowed bin Laden to prepare his escape. How long did it take us to get troops on the ground? Six weeks?

We’d have been better off if bin Ladin had escaped before we attacked, so we could chase him somewhere else.

I’m not clear how much of the intial evidence was classified.

That is a minor side issue. But suppose we asked the Taliban to ask bin Ladin whether he did it. If he denied doing the crime that would be a propaganda victory for us. More likely he wouldn’t deny it. The last poll I saw on the topic, a near-majority of pakistanis believed he didn’t do it, I think that was last year or maybe the year before. We have interviews where he bragged about it, that could have been faked. If Taliban had published his confession/brag there would have been no doubt.

We invaded when we did because the Bush administration wanted war with afghanistan. They started out mostly funding the Northern Alliance because they didn’t want to repeat the russian experience. Now we’re repeating the russian strategy anyway, but we’re trying to do it with minimal resources.

30

abb1 08.27.08 at 3:36 pm

It was interesting time after the 9/11 2001, fascinating story.

First of all, the Busies said they did have the evidence, but it was totally secret. When that didn’t impress anyone, George allowed Tony to take a pick at it, and Tony said the evidence was good.

Then George started bombing Afghanistan, and after a while (a week or so) he made a statement, he said: we don’t have anything against you, Taliban guys, we only want bin Laden and his lieutenants – cough ‘em up and we will stop ruining your country.

It’s only after that the Taliban was properly demonized. I suspect the Bushies really did like the Taliban, it’s pretty much the same thing as their favorite Saudi royals. Redneck Saudi royals, how could anyone not like them?

Then later, of course, that VHS tape with bin Laden with longer nose making confessions was found.

31

Anderson 08.27.08 at 3:53 pm

But suppose we asked the Taliban to ask bin Ladin whether he did it.

Y’know, if the Taliban themselves weren’t already *very* interested in finding out whether their Saudi friend and guest had just attacked New York City and the Pentagon, then I don’t think our suggestion was going to influence them much. Do you?

Assuming that America is always wrong is not much more clever than assuming that it’s always right.

32

The Modesto Kid 08.27.08 at 3:54 pm

the Busies

Busy, busy, busy!
–Bokonon

33

christian h. 08.27.08 at 4:01 pm

taking out the Taliban was pretty much the only plausible option that wouldn’t have amounted to a huge “Kick Me Again, I Like It” sign taped to the collective American backside.

So once again, we see that from the point of view of many, the war was about appearing “tough”. I blame too much TV.

It is, by the way, completely irrelevant what the Taliban did or didn’t do when taking this or that city. Clearly, the US ruling class doesn’t give a shit about humanitarian concerns; this is demonstrated both by their own actions and their embrace of murderous scum like Mr. Dostum (who, iirc, faked switching sides to the Taliban only to then attack them and have thousands of prisoners killed).

34

christian h. 08.27.08 at 4:04 pm

We don’t have to “assume” that the Western powers were wrong to invade Afghanistan. We know they were. The proof is in the pudding. Afghanistan: destroyed. Bin Laden: on the loose. Pakistan: destabilized after years of support for a military dictator. Opium: being harvested. Warlords: plundering, killing and raping to their heart’s (or pocket book’s) content.

35

Anderson 08.27.08 at 4:22 pm

We don’t have to “assume” that the Western powers were wrong to invade Afghanistan. We know they were.

So we judge the merits of a decision for war, not by whether it was a good idea at the time, but by whether it’s ultimately successful?

Very good. All we have to do is predict the future.

It was certainly predictable that extirpating the Taliban would be a long hard slog, but we certainly could’ve done better against al-Qaeda, as John Kerry tried to remind folks in 2004.

36

christian h. 08.27.08 at 4:32 pm

Of course, the results of this war were entirely predictable, and predicted. An imperialist power never goes to war to liberate people (it may be a side-effect, but it’s never the cause). Its military isn’t build to be humanitarian – it’s build to destroy and dominate. It doesn’t take a genius to know that (since the advent of nationalism) people will resist being occupied, destroyed and dominated. Military assaults have never in the history of mankind defeated terrorist groups.

Really, it isn’t rocket science. And since I have the opportunity, I’ll harp on my favorite point: this is precisely why humanitarian intervention is such a delusional concept, and only serves the imperialists designs.

37

Sebastian 08.27.08 at 4:37 pm

“The precondition? That evidence be produced as to his guilt.”

No. The precondition was that evidence to Sharia-as-interpreted-by-the-Taliban standards be produced as to his guilt which included rules that the word of non-Muslims not be counted against the word of Muslims.

And that isn’t the same as “they just wanted to know the truth” claim that you implying, at all.

38

Markup 08.27.08 at 4:46 pm

Not really, but first you have to define what you actually want – do you want to: [...]

Most obviously, war is inherently unpredictable and dangerous, and there is no necessary correlation between the justness of a cause and its military success.

Correlations. There are more than just us against [foreign] them. They are not always fought to achieve some perceived desire for the betterment of Them. Quite often they are fought for almost pure domestic, dare I say, “reasons.”

KISS

Grover, please fill the tub, the baby’s coming. Here’s the pea. All you need to do is pick which Mobil Shell it’s under. As Euclid said [probably], “you’ve gotta look at all the angles”….

39

mpowell 08.27.08 at 4:49 pm

I’m sorry christian, but the circumstances regarding war in Afghanistan and Iraq are different in important ways. We can argue about what the proper course of action to take in Afghanistan would have been, but at the end of the day you have to live with the government that you have. The Bush admin had access to the evidence. They were the ones talking to the Taliban. They had to make the judgement call, based on far greater evidence and exposure than you’re ever going to get in retrospect, on whether the Taliban was dealing with them in good faith or not. But I don’t think you can really argue to the American public they shouldn’t go to war because the man they just elected president is monumentally incompetent. It’s just not an argument you can expect to have taken seriously, even if true. Even aside from that, I’m really not sure how you think the Taliban could have been dealing with the US in good faith on the matter.

The fact of the matter is that if you’re harboring a well known terrorist and a terrorist attack is launched on another country your own terrorist is ideologically opposed to, I think it’s pretty absurd to argue that you have a moral defense against being attacked if you don’t take accusations against that terrorist pretty seriously. Maybe you think the Taliban did take those accusations seriously. Is that the claim you want to rest your argument on? Let’s try to be clear about this, if possible.

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abb1 08.27.08 at 4:55 pm

The precondition was that evidence to Sharia-as-interpreted-by-the-Taliban standards be produced…

Where did you get that? That’s not how I remember it; my impression is that they asked for evidence, period. And they did offer to extradite him to Pakistan based on that (hypothetical) evidence.

41

geo 08.27.08 at 5:58 pm

mpowell@39: An amazing comment. What can you mean by “having to live with the government you have”? Even if it’s the most secretive and dishonest government in your country’s history? Or by “the Bush administration had the evidence”? Are you suggesting that there was ever the slightest reason to believe that they would deal honestly with the evidence? The antiwar argument was not at all that Bush was monumentally incompetent, but rather that the administration was utterly dishonest and utterly contemptuous of international law. And also, of course, as remarked above, that large-scale American military action would probably kill thousands of innocent people.

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christian h. 08.27.08 at 6:30 pm

mpowell, I didn’t mention the Bush aministration in my comments, because I don’t think it matters for the issue at hand which of the reactionary parties was in power. The Democrats are no more humanitarians than the Republicans, and the problem with imperial wars isn’t lack of competence, its their inherent inhumane, oppressive and exploitative nature.

As for the Taliban not having any right to complain – what is that even supposed to mean? I’d think the people of Afghanistan most definitely have a right to complain, and shouldn’t they count for something?

43

Roy Belmont 08.27.08 at 6:42 pm

Given the perfidy of nearly everyone in an officially responsible position in the post-911 American government, and the extension of that perfidy into justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq; given the clear and repeated willingness on the part of those officially responsible to lie about anything and everything necessary to accomplish their goals, or the goals of their off-stage managers; given the complicity of legacy media in propagating and maintaining those lies, and the paucity of alternative media with professional standards and enough base coverage to counteract them, how can anyone take a pro-Afghan/anti-Iraq war stand?
How do you confidently know anything about any of it?
This is very frustrating and leads to feelings of intense helplessness, but this is a certainty:
the Western military presence in Afghanistan stinks.
It stinks of oil and heroin.
It stinks of inhuman disregard for the lives of common people.
It stinks of wretched compromise with evil, while evil metastisizes.

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RCMoya612 08.27.08 at 7:05 pm

Hmm.

In my humble opinion, negotiating (forcefully, quite so) for bin Laden should have been SOP in this case. Two things would have resulted from producing the evidence: either the Taliban agree and hand him over; or they become intransigent–delay his extradition, or they reject the evidence–to which the US responds by bombing the Taliban into submission.

I’d remind everyone that the Taliban changed their tune within 24 hours of the attacks, saying they would extradite him if evidence were produced.

Again, I don’t see how anyone can make a defensible argument for not having worked to having pulled over before starting a damn war. (For that matter, what would the US do if a terrorist attack occurred in the States, and the prime suspect were held in Germany? Would this administration cavalierly bomb the Germans for daring ask for evidence before producing the suspect?)

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aaron 08.27.08 at 7:48 pm

Could the possibly be related, without al Qaeda focusing on Iraq, perhaps they are now better able to operate in Kosavo and Afghanistan. Perhaps Iraq contributed greatly to the previous success in Afghanistan.

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Fortuna 08.27.08 at 8:15 pm

As the Right is finding out as they currently lose political power, you can’t implement policy and disregard wide popular sentiment from opposing views.

But this is also true on the Left. Post 9/11 the political climate would not have tolerated a long negotiating process with the Taliban or tippy toe methods. Perhaps it would have been tolerated longer than it did, but I think some get their hopes up too much given circumstances at the time, hoping for more peaceful options in Afghanistan.

But then they went over their heads and off course in Iraq …basically, the neocons got enough rope to hang themselves and their policies.

47

abb1 08.27.08 at 8:36 pm

the political climate would not have tolerated a long negotiating process with the Taliban or tippy toe methods

But they waited almost a month before they started bombing; I have to say – I was surprised. It seems to me that if the climate tolerated a month, it would’ve tolerated any negotiating process. In this situation every passing day weakens the pressure.

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Watson Aname 08.27.08 at 8:46 pm

To what degree is the `improvement’ in the situation in Iraq predicated on the continued failure of Afghanistan? Leaving aside the wisdom of invading Afghanistan, I suspect a good argument can be made that there was never a serious effort made capable of even approaching the stated goals there, largely because of the rapid removal of resources to Iraq, and continued focus on Iraq.

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christian h. 08.27.08 at 9:35 pm

the political climate would not have tolerated a long negotiating process with the Taliban or tippy toe methods

Again, what does this even mean? That there would have been riots in the streets if the US didn’t bomb something?

Propaganda was used to “sell” war (most recently, in the case of Iraq); surely, it could have been employed to sell peace.

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Anderson 08.27.08 at 9:48 pm

But they waited almost a month before they started bombing; I have to say – I was surprised.

They probably needed that long to get the behemoth awake & deployed. Rapid response is not an American strength.

Re: “if the Taliban became intransigent,” I thought I already addressed that — they had *been* intransigent for years re: bin Laden. Remember the embassy bombings? Seemed like a big deal at the time, but the Taliban didn’t care.

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Tom Doyle 08.27.08 at 9:58 pm

The antiwar argument was not at all that Bush was monumentally incompetent, but rather that the administration was utterly dishonest and utterly contemptuous of international law.

There were a number of colorable “antiwar arguments” available at the time, many, perhaps all of which were articulated by individuals and institutions at the time. Such arguments did not include claims that the Bush administration was monumentally incompetent, utterly dishonest, or utterly contemptuous of international law. It was far from clear at the time that the Bush administration was any of these things. Its utter dishonesty and contempt for law, including, but not limited to, International Law, has been subsequently established, by its statements and actions, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan, and subsequently.

Many have criticized the administration for its “monumentally incompeten[cy], (or equivalent formulations) pointing to its military and diplomatic performance in its “war on terror,” and have supported such criticism with forceful arguments. To the extent the problems they refer to are indeed attributable to incompetency, again, this wasn’t known before the invasion of Afghanistan, and would not have been cited in antiwar arguments at that time.

With respect to the administrations alleged incompetence, consider this exchange between Sen Biden and Z. Brzezinsky at a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing in Feb. 1, 2007.

SEN. BIDEN: [What] do you think …was the objective of the — of this administration [for invading Iraq] initially?

MR. BRZEZINSKI: I have no idea what his initiative objective was because the motives he provided for the action proved to be entirely erroneous, and if they were the real motives, then the whole campaign was based on false assumptions.

SEN. BIDEN: It’s unfair to ask you to be a soothsayer. I apologize.

MR. BRZEZINSKI: Now, if there were hidden motives, I can imagine potentially several. One would be to gain American domination over the region’s oil, to put it very simplistically. Another could be to help maximize Israel’s security by removing a powerful Arab state. Another one could have been to simply get rid of an obnoxious regime with which the United States had accounts to settle going back to ’91 and the alleged assassination attempt against President Bush Sr. There could be a variety of motives. But the official motives were WMDs.

Full text of article

http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=viewArticle&code=20070225&articleId=4921

It seems to me that one cannot evaluate competency unless one knows what an actor is trying to do. In my judgement, the administrations stated explanations for its invasion of Afghanistan were never clear or consistent. Furthermore, what the administration said at the time, and subsequently, can’t be taken at face value given its utter untruthfulness, which was not known when the invasion of Afghanistan was being debated.

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Fortuna 08.27.08 at 10:06 pm

Not riot in the streets, no. What I mean is, I think at that time, the Moderate electorate was more inclined to support the Right’s aggresive policy in Afghanistan. That was, I believe the post 9/11 mood. Had they decided to buck this, we’d be filling the various offices with more conservative politicians during the next election cycles. With Iraq, the mood turned against them. This is hopefully and partially why McCain won’t be the next President.

This is purely my speculation though. Feel free to post all the facts countering that. As I recall the protests against Afghanistan were much smaller than Iraq. So, I’m assuming that’s a subset of the general mood.

53

Fortuna 08.27.08 at 10:10 pm

“Had they” by which I mean our elected officials.

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novakant 08.27.08 at 11:01 pm

I think at that time, the Moderate electorate was more inclined to support the Right’s aggresive policy in Afghanistan. That was, I believe the post 9/11 mood.

You are correct, that was the post 9/11 emotional state and the fact that a Crooked Timber frontpage poster and a lot of commenters still regard these policies as inevitable six years later speaks for itself. But natural and even somewhat justified gut reactions shouldn’t be the basis of our policy making process and I am a bit astounded how many fine minds have adopted a simplistic tit-fot-tat logic in this case.

And as far as inevitability is concerned, it is important to note that the Bush administration was able to sell the US public on a softly-softly approach towards Pakistan, even selling them as an ally, when it was perfectly clear to anybody with only a little background knowledge that not a lot has been happening in Afghanistan for years without Pakistani, or more specifically ISI, support or at least knowledge. It’s impossible to discuss these matters in any depth while leaving out the role of Pakistan.

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J Thomas 08.28.08 at 1:06 am

Novakant, yes.

All we needed to get afghanistan out of Taliban’s control was for pakistan’s ISI to stop supporting Taliban. It was pakistan’s material support that let Taliban dominate.

And it’s ominous that even with our material support plus troops on the ground and airstrikes, the Taliban’s enemies haven’t been able to control afghanistan, any more than their fathers did with russian support. It gives me the strong impression that we’re backing losers.

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christian h. 08.28.08 at 1:54 am

J Thomas, or you could consider the possibility that our backing makes them losers.

57

geo 08.28.08 at 2:04 am

Tom Doyle: It was far from clear at the time that the Bush administration was any of these things.

No, it was clear immediately. From Day One, the Bush administration began packing every cabinet department and regulatory agency with industry flacks, limiting access to public records, making procedures less transparent, vetting judicial and other appointees on political grounds, employing signing statements and inventing other ways to enhance Executive Branch power, etc, etc. As Lincoln Chafee has reported, Vice President Cheney met with Republican senators shortly after the election and informed them that the administration’s policy would bear little relation to its public commitments during the campaign. Cheney illegally withheld the transcript of his energy task force meeting, claiming executive privilege. There were innumerable examples during the administration’s first nine months of reckless disregard for truth, transparency, and propriety, if you were paying attention.

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J Thomas 08.28.08 at 2:39 am

Christian H, the result is the same. If they could win a fair fight but they can’t get rid of us to do it, they’re still losers.

59

John Quiggin 08.28.08 at 2:54 am

While there are plenty of valid points made above, I think it’s pretty clear that the loss of their bases and training camps in Afghanistan was a significant defeat for Al Qaeda, and has greatly reduced their capacity for international terrorism.
On self-defence grounds, that fact alone makes a pretty strong case for the decision to go to war. It also suggests that a political settlement is the right way to go now.

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christian h. 08.28.08 at 3:54 am

Even if we accept the idea that the invasion of Afghanistan has in any way inhibited international terrorism (and I don’t, especially not long-term) by denying Al Qaeda bases and training camps (the latter seem to be really overrated – the 9/11 hijackers, for example, trained what exactly in Afghanistan – not flying, that’s for sure), this doesn’t justify the invasion, simply because there wasn’t any attempt made to achieve these goals without war.

I’d add that the “decision to go to war” wasn’t abstract for the people of Afghanistan, who have suffered far more from this war than we could possibly have from any international terrorism that might have been prevented.

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J Thomas 08.28.08 at 8:36 am

We are mostly not qualified to decide whether our invasion damaged Al Qaeda’s terrorism because the information is still entirely secret. The information that has been released may all be lies. The story is still untold about our brave honorable soldiers who refused to fake evidence about iraqi WMDs.

There are claims that AQ did terrorist training in afghanistan, though they could have done that training anywhere and afghanistan was not a good place for it. More believably, there are stories that AQ trained conventional soldiers there, that they turned out infantrymen that were on a par with US Marines. (The story is that they used US Marine manuals but removed the 3/5 of the material that was not useful, cutting down the training time by 60%.) However, they were like US Marines without much artillery or air support, so we beat them fairly easily. If these stories are true, what would AQ have done with conventional infantry? Could they have infiltrated them into saudi arabia and taken over the government? We might have stopped something other than terrorism by invading afghanistan.

For stopping terrorism, dismantling the AQ financial network was probably far more important. But we won’t find out what really happened until the people who did the work feel free to tell us what they did. At the moment we have very little to go by except Bush Administration propaganda which deserves no credibility.

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Hidari 08.28.08 at 9:15 am

Why the hell should the Afghan government have handed over Osama Bin Laden to the Americans? If they had, he would unquestionably have been tortured (a breach of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)), and would then have been tried in a Guantanamo bay style kangaroo court.

To quote Wikipedia:

‘October 14, 2001, seven days into the U.S./British bombing campaign, the Taliban offered to surrender Osama bin Laden to a third country for trial, if the bombing halted and they were shown evidence of his involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks. This offer was also rejected by U.S. President Bush, who declared “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty”‘

Now, my understanding is (please, any lawyers should feel free to contradict me) that Bush’s words in themselves would have ensured that a free trial in the United States was impossible. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that Bin Laden is legally guilty (don’t get me wrong: I am sure he is morally guilty. What I doubt is that the strongest charges (of murder, presumably) could actually be made to stand up in court).

So, in my opinion, the Afghan government were quite right not to hand over OBL to a state that regularly tortures its prisoners.

Ergo, the war in Afghanistan was unjustified.

Any discussions of ‘how can we trust the Taliban’ without discussing the more pressing issue of ‘why should the Taliban have trusted the Americans’ are not serious.

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Hidari 08.28.08 at 9:26 am

Statements that the Afghan war could be justified on grounds of self-defence presuppose the following:

1: 9/11 was not a spectacular ‘one off’ by Al-Qaeda, but was instead planned to be the beginning of a ‘rolling’ series of terrorist attacks on the US mainland.

2: These attacks were to be organised and run from Afghanistan.

Clearly both these criteria have to be met before a ‘self-defence’ argument will succeed.

But it’s not at all clear to me that even the first is correct. Where is the evidence that OBL or Al-Qaeda planned a follow up to 9/11 (let alone numerous follow ups)? And by evidence I mean serious evidence, with budgets and timetables, not evidence inferred from the idle daydreams of bored jihadis. To the best of my knowledge, all the evidence, on the contrary, is that (as far as the Americans were concerned) after 9/11 Al-Qaeda had ‘shot its bolt’ and were unlikely to be able to plan something of such complexity ever again.

2: Even if this isn’t true: what’s Afghanistan got to do with it? Notoriously, most of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis. The ‘nucleus’ for 9/11 was termed the Hamburg Cell. Should ‘we’ be bombing Hamburg?

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Z 08.28.08 at 9:49 am

On self-defence grounds, that fact alone makes a pretty strong case for the decision to go to war.

I don’t know John, as the sentence should continue “that was bound to kill several thousand civilians the way it was going to be implemented”. Is self-defense against terrorist attacks which killed 4,000 civilians (I’m including the first WTC bombing and the embassy bombing here) a pretty strong reason to bomb 4,000 civilians to death?

Note that I don’t necessarily oppose any possible war against the Taliban, I just knew at the time that thousands of civilians would die under NATO bombs, and this is not something I found I could disregard lightly.

65

Andrew Bartlett 08.28.08 at 10:24 am

“We asked the Taliban to hand over Osama. They wouldn’t.”

Luis Posada Carriles? Or any of a whole host of Latin American death squad members and enablers? The guys who mined Nicaraguan harbours? Don’t tell me that the invasion of Afghanistan was anything other than the US throwing some shitty little country against the wall. Unless you would, in principle – given that the practical possibilities are non-existent – support the military obliteration of the US state and the installation of a bunch gangster capitalists and foreign aid skimming warlords as the new rulers.

Oh, sorry, I forgot that the butchers of Latin America formed a significant part of the Bush government and circle of advisors.

“There was little option but to go in an[d] root out the whole nest.”

That’s some lovely dehumanising going on there. Fumigate the place, eh?

66

Slocum 08.28.08 at 12:20 pm

For those, like me (and most at CT I think), who have supported the war in Afghanistan and opposed the war in Iraq, this raises some points to consider.

I think, in light of the comments thread, maybe you want to reconsider the idea that most at CT supported the war in Afghanistan?

And there wasn’t any shortage of opposition to that war by the left in 2001 either. But more common than outright opposition were arguments that an invasion would be foolhardy and doomed — the harsh terrain in the mountains, the caves, the severe winter, the experiences of the Russians (and British before them) were all cited as reasons why it would likely end in quagmire and failure. For example:

If anything, Afghanistan could prove to be a more difficult battlefield for the United States than it was for the Soviet Union. As an environment for military conflict, Afghanistan is virtually impervious to American power. Not only does it lack the ”high-value” targets that are commonly attacked in modern warfare, it lacks almost any meaningful targets at all, unless the United States is prepared to bomb government offices and residential neighborhoods, producing many civilian casualties.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0CE5DB103BF933A1575AC0A9679C8B63

So the idea that pretty much everybody was on board for the American invasion of Afghanistan, is just not historically accurate.

But at this late date, the different justifications for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan matter little either for the obligations to the peoples of those countries or the broader implications of success or failure.

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Harry 08.28.08 at 1:24 pm

slocum — I think John’s parenthetical comment referred to the contributors to CT. I don’t know whether he’s right because I only know my position and one other contributor’s position. The other contributor has John’s position (supported war on Afghanistan, opposed in on Iraq). I opposed it on Iraq, and more-or-less supported it with no enthusiasm whatsoever on Afghanistan (I guess I felt that they had no choice, but also that they were bound to cock it up).

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Roy Belmont 08.28.08 at 4:07 pm

Current American foreign policy is cheap catharsis expedited by tawdry lies. It’s designed to keep resources moving toward the actual players, who are always off-stage and whose goals are nowhere visible in these discussions.
Bin Laden, or his virtual avatar in the legacy media, said specifically and emphatically that he wasn’t responsible for 9-11. Bragging, gloating, crowing over the accomplishment would have been more appropriate. How devious this man must be. Unless he’s telling the truth.
He also said specifically and emphatically that muslim rage at the heinous treatment of Palestinians by Israel, abetted and financed by the US, was one of the main forces driving terrorism.
He may have been lying, but we know we were being lied to by the other , or “our” side.
Under those circumstances any discussion about “war” in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or anywhere, against fundamentalist muslims that elides entirely the treatment of Palestinians which has continued, worsening, to this day, is weak, complicitous, and furthers the damage.
But it’s fairly effective catharsis in its own right.

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geo 08.28.08 at 5:14 pm

Slocum: But at this late date, the different justifications for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan matter little either for the obligations to the peoples of those countries or the broader implications of success or failure.

Sigh. They matter if you think that to create an international culture of law-abidingness that will restrain governments from criminal aggression is the most important prerequisite for ensuring the continuance of our species. As long as the populations of the United States and other free societies are unaware of just how immoral and illegal their governments’ actions are and are unwilling to restrain them, the danger level will remain critical. That’s why it matters a great deal to convince the American people that their government is not only incompetent but actually criminal. It may also predispose them to support extensive reparations to our government’s victims.

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Markup 08.28.08 at 6:17 pm

That’s why it matters a great deal to convince the American people that their government is not only incompetent but actually criminal. It may also predispose them to support extensive reparations to our government’s victims.

To do that though would be to deny… oops, admit much of what we are and have been for quite some time. I doubt that even the rising tide of global warming will float that boat. Little effort is required to parse much of the language at the frat party in Denver [esp. from last night] to see that while a kinder gentler hand may be used, one of the great challenges facing the new admin will be to restore ‘our position of world leadership,’ and barring a series of would be miracles, all that that entails and has for quite some time. We are were the deciders.

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aaron 08.28.08 at 9:15 pm

It may also predispose them to support extensive reparations to our government’s victims.

Like another tax rebate?

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