Lest it be forgotten, on September 20, 2001, the Bush administration stated that Osama Bin Laden had been behind the September 11 attacks, and it delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban government in Kabul demanding that the Al Qaeda leader be turned over to American authorities. It was the refusal of Mullah Omar and his colleagues to agree to this that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, Operation Enduring Freedom, originally called Operation Infinite Justice but re-branded at the last moment because of fear of offending Muslim sensibilities. (Whatever the American right may imagine and some writers at TNR on occasion have at least strongly implied, Obama is scarcely the only president ever to have taken these into account.) Subsequent transformations of the rationale for the invasion and the nine-and-a-half years of fighting that have followed should not be allowed to obscure this. That is why it is entirely appropriate that the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden (whether one welcomes it or regrets that the Al Qaeda leader was not captured instead, let us at least call it by its right name) should be the occasion for thinking through whether it is not now time to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end.
The 2001 invasion commanded as overwhelming a degree of support in America as any war since Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. The current rationale, which is that hunting down Al Qaeda has long been secondary to the more far-reaching and, in the long run, more central goal of stabilizing the country so that it never again becomes a safe area for the global jihadists, does not. Indeed, the Bush administration could never have gone to war on the ex post facto justifications that are now routinely deployed for its continuation. And, if the Obama administration, despite mounting opposition to the war both among the president’s most dedicated left-liberal supporters and his most vehement detractors on the Tea Party right, seems now to have decided that there will be no withdrawal of any real significance of U.S. forces for the foreseeable future, the main interest of this is surely not that President Obama is well on his way to breaking one of his most fervent campaign promises. Rather, it confirms once again—as if confirmation were necessary—that the difference between presidents Bush and Obama on the key questions of foreign policy boil down almost exclusively to rhetorical and cosmetic exercises in pandering to their respective groups of core voters.
This is not only true in Afghanistan and Iraq; it is true in northeast Asia, in Mexico and Central America, and in sub-Saharan Africa as well—to name three areas where the two administrations’ policies have been virtually identical. But nowhere has the continuity between the two presidencies been more in evidence than in the so-called Long War against the jihadists, above all in Afghanistan and (though it has been less publicized) in the Horn of Africa and some Sahelian countries where the U.S. Army’s Africa Command and JSOC, the special operations command (one of the elements that carried out the attack on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad) are at work. The recent changes at the CIA and the Department of Defense—with Leon Panetta, who was a Republican until he was well into his thirties, going from Langley to the Pentagon, where he will replace Robert Gates, a Bush appointee, and with David Petraeus, whose preferment owes a great deal to President Bush, becoming Director of Central Intelligence—should have erased the last doubts on the matter, though, presumably, the Donald Trumps, Michelle Bachmanns, and Dinesh D’Souzas of the world will continue to believe President Obama is far outside the traditional mainstream of U.S. politics.
In the 1990s, it was commonly said that what had been a Washington commonplace throughout the cold war, under both Republican and Democratic administrations—that politics ended at the water’s edge—had been discredited. If anything, the contrary is the case. Bipartisanship is alive and well, and not content with a war in Afghanistan that is not going well, it is now rallying behind an expedition in Libya that has received no congressional sanction and for which there is little popular enthusiasm. But then, American presidents of both parties have shown an ever-increasing reluctance to accept the idea that their power to make war should be inhibited by the Senate or the House of Representatives, and in this—as Libya has demonstrated, where Obama consulted the Arab League, the United Nations, and the NATO, but not Congress—this president is quite a bit more high-handed than President Bush ever was when it comes to deploying the armed forces of the United States.
In Libya, no one can say with any confidence what the mission is, though one presumes that it either is or will soon morph into regime change. In Afghanistan, it is what it has been for some time: nation-building—a word George W. Bush mocked while running for president in 2000, but soon learned to embrace in spirit, if never quite in name, just as Barack Obama, during his 2008 campaign against John McCain, promised to roll back the “mix of terrorism, drugs and corruption that threatens to overwhelm the country.” The problem, of course, is that those whom America is fighting, the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, are only responsibility for the first of these—the terrorism. In contrast, most of the drugs and the corruption, which are far more likely than an insurgency that, despite its battlefield successes, does not seem capable of taking and holding a single important Afghan city, to doom the chances of a stable Afghanistan, are the result of the actions or non-actions of America’s Afghan allies, whether it is the Tajik warlord, the former commander of the ant-Taliban Northern alliance and now the first vice-president of Afghanistan, Mohammed Fahim, who is generally believed to be a major narcotics trafficker, or the Uzbek warlord and former Soviet puppet, Abdul Rashid Dostum, known in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion for having ordered 2,000 Taliban prisoners locked in containers, where they died by suffocation.
And then, of course, there is Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. The United States has now supported Karzai’s corrupt for almost a decade (2001-2011), that is, a third of the time that Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt (1981-2011), and about 40 percent of the time that Ben Ali ruled Tunisia (1987-2011). Even Karzai himself has admitted that his re-election was marred by election fraud, which, while it may make him a more candid crook than his erstwhile Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts, does not otherwise distinguish him from them in any significant way. Wasn’t the United States supposed to have decided to move beyond the thinking of “he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” as Franklin Roosevelt is supposed to have said of Anastazio Somoza, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring? Or does this new dispensation stop well short of the Hindu Kush? Of course it does. And if it stood any chance of working, perhaps one could even justify it on the basis of realpolitik. But, while Afghanistan is full of Donald Rumsfeld’s proverbial “known unkowns” and “unknown unknowns,” you do not have to be Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and Henry Kissinger, all rolled into one, to see that a country cannot be stabilized at the same time that its leaders are looting it.
Eight hundred and fifty-eight U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan since President Obama took office, more than 60 percent of all American troops killed since the war began nearly a decade ago. Many, many more have been wounded. And, during the last ten years, not only has the historic leadership of Al Qaeda moved to Pakistan (presumably with the connivance of some senior Pakistani officials, as the discovery that bin Laden had been living in a villa by the Pakistani West Point may demonstrate), but Al Qaeda itself has spread across the world, in the process transforming itself into what former CIA officer and counterterrorism expert Marc Sageman has called “leaderless jihad.” Sageman does not underestimate the danger posed by what he calls “Al Qaeda Central” in Pakistan. But, by focusing on Afghanistan, and fantasizing that, if the Taliban could be decisively defeated, jihadist terrorism would be deprived of the safe rear echelon essential to its operations is to miss the point—and this is just what we have done. Today, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the organization’s network in Yemen, and disconnected groups in the West connected on the Internet pose a far graver threat—at least over the longer term. As Sageman has put it, “Missing the evolution of the threat condemns us to keep fighting the last war.”
That war has lasted almost ten years, has no end in sight, and commands the blind allegiance of President Obama and his new national security team. And, while American soldiers fight that last war, killing and being killed in ever increasing numbers to secure Afghanistan from a terrorist threat that long ago changed addresses, the profiteers and narcotics traffickers masquerading as the government of Afghanistan are making out like, well, the bandits that they are. In effect, the U.S. military protects them from the Taliban, while the threat of the Taliban protects them from the Americans, since, in order to exert real pressure, Washington would have to be serious about threatening to withdraw unless real reforms were made. But, as the Panetta and Petraeus appointments make clear, the Obama administration has decided to double down the other way. Meanwhile, in some bleak suburb of Dusseldorf, a council estate in Bradford, a slum on the outskirts of Alexandria, a mosque in Kano, or a market town in Mali, those that pose the real terrorist threat of today are harboring their grievances, steeling their will, and learning their trade.
David Rieff is a contributing editor for The New Republic.
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