The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
There is a working assumption among the American people that a new president enters the White House free of responsibility for the errors of the past, free to set a new course in any program or policy, and therefore free—at the very least in constitutional theory, and perhaps even really and truly free—to call off a war begun by a predecessor. No one would expect something so dramatic on the first day of a new administration but it remains a fact that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, and the power that allowed one president to invade Iraq would allow another to bring the troops home.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the current presidential campaign have promised to do just that—not precipitously, not recklessly, not without care to give the shaky government in Baghdad time and the wherewithal to pick up the slack. But Obama and Clinton have both promised that the course would be changed on the first day; ending the American involvement in the Iraqi fighting would be the new goal, troop numbers would be down significantly by the middle of the first year, and within a reasonable time (not long) the residual American force would be so diminished in size that any fair observer might say the war was over, for the Americans at least, and the troops had been brought home.
The presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain, has pledged to do exactly the opposite—to “win” the war, whatever that means, and whatever that takes. Politicians often differ by shades of nuance. Not this time. The contrast of McCain and his opponents on this question is stark, and if they can be taken at their word, Americans must expect either continuing war for an indefinite period with McCain or the anxieties and open questions of turning the war over to the Iraqi government for better or worse with Obama or Clinton. Which is it going to be?
It is not just lives, theories about national security, and American pride that are at stake. Money is also involved. The two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have already cost about $700 billion, and the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate that costs such as continuing medical care will add another $2 trillion even if the Iraq war ends now. But the true cost of the Iraq war ought to include something else as well—some fraction of the rise in the price of oil which we might call the Iraq war oil surcharge. If we blame the war for only $10 of the $80–$90 rise in the price of a barrel of oil since 2003, that would still come to $200 million a day.
At some point the government will have to begin paying for these wars—if it can. What looks increasingly like a serious recession, complicated by an expensive federal bailout of financial institutions, may combine to convince even John McCain that the time has come to declare a victory and head for home. It’s possible. But the United States did not acquire a $9 trillion national debt by caution with money. A decision to back out of the war is going to require something else—resolve backed by a combination of arguments that withdrawal won’t be a victory for al-Qaeda or Iran, that it isn’t prompted by fear, that it doesn’t represent defeat, that it’s going to make us stronger, that it’s going to win the applause of the world, that the people left behind have been helped, and that whatever mess remains is somebody else’s fault and responsibility.
Missing from this list is victory—the one thing that could make withdrawal automatic and easy. Its absence makes the decision an easy one for McCain—no victory, no withdrawal. But everybody else needs to think this matter through the hard way, trying to understand the real consequences of easing away from a bloody, inconclusive war. After six and a half years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Democratic candidates for president and the public weighing a choice between them have a moment of relative quiet, right now, with the primaries nearly over and the nominating conventions still ahead, to consider where we are before deciding, to the extent that presidents or publics ever do decide, what to do.
The state of play in what some writers call the Greater Middle East is roughly this: 190,000 American troops are at the moment engaged in two unresolved hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The magnitude of this endeavor is hard to exaggerate—two wars thousands of miles from home, covering a total area roughly as big as California and Texas, with a combined population of almost 60 million, speaking half a dozen major languages few Americans know. In addition, both wars are insurgencies, and in both the “enemy” is not a well-defined political, social, or military entity under central command, but something much more fluid. The difficulty of defining the “enemy” helps to explain why success, not to mention “victory,” is so elusive. In Iraq and Afghanistan alike the Americans have been trying to establish a government of convenience—friendly to the West, moderate in politics, predictable in business, open to peace with Israel, hostile to Islamic fundamentalists. The United States has been trying to establish such governments in the Middle East for sixty years.
What is new is that since 2001 we have abandoned talk for force. Our means are now military: the United States has sent its army to remake the social and political landscape of Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps of their neighbors as well. A long-simmering political struggle for hegemony in the Middle East has been abruptly transformed into a military conflict. The invasion of Afghanistan is easily justified by the Taliban’s complicity in the terrorist attacks of September 11, but we must look for different explanations for the invasion of Iraq. That was a “war of choice” and it seems to have been prompted by two factors—sheer frustration with the long defiance of Saddam Hussein and American itchiness to use a military machine so superior to all others that some Army officers thought allies would only slow us down.
One big reason President Bush invaded Iraq was that he thought it would be easy, and in a sense it was. The occupation of Baghdad took only three weeks. But the formidable American military machine proved to be a clumsy instrument for conducting the political struggle to remake Iraq, and it has been powerless to prevent the growing presence and influence of Iran throughout most of the country. The fighting in Afghanistan has been less intense—five hundred American dead in six years, versus four thousand in Iraq—but equally erratic and frustrating. It is this shapeless military undertaking to remake the Greater Middle East—not simply “the war in Iraq”—that McCain promises to push through to victory, and that Obama and Clinton promise at the very least to limit and reduce if not to end. Let us look at these arenas of conflict and consider how things are going.
As soon as Baghdad was occupied five years ago things began to go wrong in a serious way. Responsibility for this failure can largely be traced to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally. He did not simply run an organization that failed; he personally made many of the key decisions that led to failure. As described by Andrew Cockburn in a useful new biography, and supported by a five-foot shelf of other books and articles, Rumsfeld is a blustering, bullying executive with one idea at a time who dominated “planning” for the war. The one idea was to go in “light” with about a third of the forces the generals at first suggested, counting on a thundering opening bombardment—“shock and awe”—to cow the Iraqis while highly mobile US forces would dash for Baghdad. Once there, the army waited for further instruction, but the secretary of defense was flummoxed. He had no idea what to do next.
In particular Rumsfeld had no idea what to do about the storm of looting which began almost immediately after the Iraqi military disappeared and continued without letup until private businesses and government offices—the Iraqi oil ministry alone excepted—had been stripped of every movable item with a street value, from desktop computers and air conditioners to eighteen-wheelers. The US Army, ordered to stand aside, watched as the national infrastructure was carried away, a turn of events shrugged off by Rumsfeld with the explanation “Freedom’s untidy…. Stuff happens.”
While the Army was watching the looters it was not watching the vast Iraqi arms depots established by Saddam Hussein—munitions dumps covering literally hundreds of square miles containing among other things unimaginable numbers of artillery shells. It was these shells, lying unguarded and free for the taking for many months, that were soon being assembled by phantom opponents into deadly roadside bombs called Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Rumsfeld dismissed the phantom opponents as “Saddam loyalists” and Sunni “dead enders,” refusing to recognize the growing insurgency for a year.
When efforts to write an Iraqi constitution and create an Iraqi government elevated Shiites to power for the first time in many centuries, infuriated Sunnis responded with a program of sectarian murder. Shiite militias and their allies in the Iraqi military and national police in turn responded with an all-out killing spree that approached genocide—a campaign to push Sunnis out of mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, and even out of the city altogether. At the height of the killing a hundred bodies a day were dumped onto Baghdad’s streets, many showing signs of grisly torture. A million Iraqis left the country and another million left their homes for safer neighborhoods inside Iraq. By now there are two million refugees outside the country and two million displaced people inside. The man who had denied the insurgency now denied the danger of open civil war.
Rumsfeld was not merely wrong; he was self-replicating. The pattern of denial he established in the Office of the Secretary of Defense spread out and down, eventually reaching into the most remote crevices of the Office of Iraq Analysis of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where the young analyst Alex Rossmiller watched the DOD try to get what it wanted in Iraq by hoping, wishing, and predicting that it would happen. Rossmiller’s memoir, Still Broken, describes denial triumphant in both Iraq and the halls of the Pentagon. During his six months with the Combined Intelligence Operations Center (CIOC) based at the Baghdad International Airport, Rossmiller’s job was to produce “actionable intelligence” on “bad guys” to be picked up by the Army. The job was frequently interrupted by spasms of bureaucratic reorganization and by VIP visits from congressmen who nodded through long briefings.
Those who worked at the CIOC—the FBI, DIA, and OGA (meaning Other Government Agency, which designated the CIA)—referred to it as “a self-licking ice-cream cone.” By this they meant that the reports they wrote were read mainly by people down the hall, who sent back reports of their own. But eventually Rossmiller found himself in a Direct Action Cell putting together target packages which led to operations ending with detentions—actual bad guys taken off the streets. “Going after the bad guys,” Rossmiller writes, “was at least doing more good than harm, I thought. But my optimism was misplaced; I was wrong.”