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.”

The lightbulb went on one night in the field when Rossmiller accompanied US and Iraqi special forces to help process detainees seized during an operation. Few details are provided of time, place, or occasion, but Rossmiller relates a harrowing, sixteen-page narrative of bullying incomprehension. The S-2, an Army officer in charge of intelligence for a brigade, explained the drill:

Okay, we’re going to bring in these shitheads on that pad over there, and then walk them over to this field. We’ll put them on the ground and tag them, take pictures, and do a field debrief. Then they’re off to Abu G where they belong.

Off to Abu Ghraib prison? At that point Rossmiller began to understand that all his care as an intelligence analyst to separate the good guys from the bad guys was academic. The debrief was a barrage of shouted accusations. What Rossmiller saw among the detainees was confusion, fear, despair, anger, humiliation, and tears. It gradually became apparent that one of the detainees, shouted at repeatedly, was a retarded deaf mute. His brothers tried to explain this but were loudly accused of being insurgents and told they were “going away…for a long time.” It was simply a question of paperwork. Two affidavits were enough to put a detainee in prison—one saying he was armed, a second saying he resisted detention. “They get an initial three-month stay,” the S-2 explained, “and the debriefers there figure out what happens after that.” Rossmiller got the point. There were no good guys. “Anybody who’s picked up gets sent to prison.”

That was Lesson Number One. Lesson Number Two emerged that autumn back at the Pentagon, where Rossmiller was a rising member of the Office of Iraq Analysis. In the months running up to the Iraqi elections in December 2005, Rossmiller and other DIA analysts all predicted that Iraqis were going to “vote identity” and the winners would be Shiite Islamists, who were already running the government. President Bush and the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, publicly predicted the opposite—secularists were gaining, the Sunnis were going to vote this time, a genuine “national unity government” would end sectarian strife, the corner would be turned as the war entered its fourth year.

Rossmiller soon realized that this was not simply a difference of opinion. Nobody dared to tell the President he was wrong, either to his face or in an official report. This timidity ran right down the chain of command from the White House to Rumsfeld to the director of the DIA, ever downward level by level until it reached the analysts actually working the data. “You’re being too pessimistic,” they were told. “We can’t pass this up the chain…. We need to make sure we’re not too far off message with this.” Some analysts protested and watched their careers sputter; most retreated into bitter humor. Reports were rewritten to support official hope. On the very eve of the Iraqi election a briefing was concocted to “report” that Islamists were worrying about a late surge by some administration favorite, as if a roomful of nodding heads at a briefing in the Pentagon were somehow going to carry the election in Iraq. Watching this exercise in magical thinking and self-delusion convinced Rossmiller that under Rumsfeld intelligence itself was “still broken” nearly three years into the war—an expensive charade to find or predict whatever the White House wanted.

But despite Rumsfeld’s history of strategic and military failure, and the failure of the secularists as predicted by ground-level DIA analysts, President George Bush announced in April 2006, “I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as secretary of defense.” In November, following loss of control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the President changed his mind, replaced Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, a former director of the CIA, and pushed through a new plan to stave off outright civil war in Iraq with a short-term increase of US forces by 30,000 referred to as “the surge.” Now the surge is a year old and General David Petraeus is pleased by the reduction in violence. But he recommends a pause in troop withdrawals next summer after the 30,000 have been pulled back. Has the surge achieved anything enduring? President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney say they think so but the new president taking office next January ought to take a careful look at the rearrangement of forces on the ground in Iraq.

At the height of the sectarian killing in late 2006 it appeared that Iraq was spinning out of control. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, said the war was lost. Before the White House settled on the surge as a solution, national security advisers floated a number of radical ideas—dividing Iraq into three parts; dropping the democracy idea and backing the Shiites, who were in any event the majority; and leveling the playing field and bringing the Sunnis back into the government. In the event it was the third of these ideas that emerged during the course of the surge, beginning in the Sunni province of Anbar in western Iraq where the insurgency had reached its greatest intensity. There Sunnis who resented the Islamist fundamentalists of al-Qaeda in Iraq sought American help to drive out AQI. Modest pay of ten dollars a day, weapons, and a promise of eventual employment in the army or national police attracted thousands of former insurgents to join “awakening councils,” now totaling perhaps 90,000 members.

Killing has been reduced, but the decline is the result of what amounts to American intervention in the Iraqi civil war. This new strategy was apparently adopted on the fly by the American military; it is working for the moment but it has dangers of its own. The councils, also called “sons of Iraq,” are overwhelmingly Sunni in character. At the beginning of the occupation a key goal of the Americans was to disband the militias. In creating the awakening councils, the United States has armed, paid, and in effect sponsored the largest Iraqi militia of them all. But control of the councils is tenuous and they are now reported to be increasingly impatient with the Shiite government’s refusal to enroll them in the army or national police as promised. The surge, therefore, has not so much ended the sectarian strife as it has set the stage for a renewal of civil war at a higher level of violence.


Iraq after the surge might be described as the same bomb, still waiting to explode, but with a longer fuse. What about Afghanistan? There the new president may find an even more intractable problem. In Iraq the United States is fighting an array of forces who live in the shadow of the Iranian sphere of influence, are mainly trying to kill each other, and are of two minds about American departure—some are reluctant to lose American protection, others want us to clear out so they can settle with local opponents once and for all. But in Afghanistan the United States and its reluctant NATO allies face a revived Taliban with the simplest of war aims—they want the foreigners to go. What is remarkable about the situation in Afghanistan—even astonishing—is that the Americans, after watching 100,000 Russians fight Afghans at great expense with no success for nine years, have signed on for a dose of the same. Lester Grau, a retired Army colonel, has edited three books on the Russian war using Russian materials, ranging from a general staff history of the war to small-unit combat reports.

The implication of these books is not ambiguous. After their invasion in December 1979, the Russians walked into Kabul with ease, as invaders of Afghanistan invariably do, but after that it was mounting trouble all the way. The Russians paid a substantial price for thinking they could “win” if they stuck to it—a still-hidden number of dead soldiers, probably exceeding 20,000, and perhaps five times that number of seriously wounded; loss of nearly 500 aircraft including 350 helicopters; huge quantities of other equipment destroyed; hundreds of thousands of disaffected soldiers returned to civilian life back home, not to mention the opprobrium of the world.

The CIA officer Anthony Arnold, who was stationed in Kabul before the Russian invasion, thinks the penalty of failure went beyond immediate losses and humiliation to include the actual collapse of the Soviet state itself. They were weaker than they knew, Arnold thinks, but the Russians did not give in easily: they killed more than a million Afghans, bombed villages to rubble, machine-gunned herds of sheep from the air, and drove as many as a fifth of all Afghans out of the country, across the border into the safe haven of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Nothing worked and the war ended when the last Russian troops and trucks drove back across the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan in 1989. It is true that the mujahideen got plenty of material help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, but it was the Afghans who fought the Russians to exhausted frustration, and have gone right on fighting among themselves ever since.

Shrugging off the lessons of history is the preface to disaster in Afghanistan. The Afghans seem so weak—an impoverished people living in mudbrick houses making a hardscrabble living; shepherds, farmers, and nomads answering to feudal lords ruling tiny villages connected by dirt tracks over rocky mountain passes. How tough can it be to defeat these skinny men in rags and occupy their country?

The Russians should not have been surprised by the answer. The British had already learned it the hard way before them—twice: in 1839–1842 and 1878–1880. Both efforts followed the standard pattern—easy occupation of Kabul at the outset, followed by rumbles from below and then open resistance leading to bitter fighting ending in disaster. It was the first of the British invasions that established just how bad a defeat in Afghanistan could be—an expeditionary force of 4,500, trying to escape Kabul, was attacked relentlessly on its way south to Jalalabad. Only one man survived—the Army surgeon William Brydon. It is such object lessons that were ignored by the Russians and are now being ignored by the Americans.

The American economy, not the war, is the big issue in the presidential campaign as I write. The candidates have issued position papers on the war—both wars—and have adopted policies that can be summed up in a sentence or two. McCain wants to soldier on in both theaters. “Those who argue that our goals in Iraq are unachievable are wrong, just as they were wrong a year ago when they declared the war in Iraq already lost,” he said in Los Angeles on March 26. “Those who claim we should withdraw from Iraq in order to fight al-Qaeda more effectively elsewhere are making a dangerous mistake.” There’s not a lot of detail here but there’s not much ambiguity either: it’s a tough fight but we can win it.

Obama and Clinton want to wind down the war in Iraq but focus new attention on Afghanistan—an approach that allows both candidates to draw on popular dislike of the war in Iraq while escaping charges of being irresponsible on national security. “We did not finish the job against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” said Obama last August. “The first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Clinton calls Afghanistan “the forgotten front line.” Recently she added ballast to her own “plan to win the war in Afghanistan” with a nine-point strategy of sensible steps to invite more help from NATO allies and international donors while helping the Afghans to help themselves.

To walk away from the Afghans seems unconscionable; the country, poor to begin with, has suffered dreadfully with little respite since the mid-1970s. The Americans helped the Afghans fight the Russians and then turned away after the Russians left. The best account of the long Afghan ordeal leading to the terrorist attacks of September 11 is to be found in Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. The focus is narrow—how the CIA managed the American part of a long, semiclandestine war and political struggle—but it captures the breathtaking seesaw range of the American way of meddling—ready with hundreds of millions of dollars to fight to the last Afghan one day, counting pennies the next, washing our hands of the whole bloody mess on the third.

It’s not a pretty picture, but the CIA described by Coll was the one cold war presidents used instead of sending in the Marines; it made the same point, it was cheaper, and it could be called off without public humiliation. Now we’re back in Afghanistan with an army and strong words about unshakable resolution, while the Pentagon cites worrying statistics about the enemy of the kind used to take the temperature of military conflicts. It’s the usual stuff—a steady rise in small actions, ambushes, suicide bombers, attacks on convoys, clandestine traffic over the mountains into Pakistan.

The operative word is “more.” The numbers are always inching up. NATO commanders have formally asked for three thousand additional troops. It’s a modest number and suggests that the problem is manageable. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has remarked—casual words, not an announcement—that some troops withdrawn from Iraq might be sent to the “under resourced” war in Afghanistan. The presidential candidates disagree significantly about Iraq, not about Afghanistan. Nobody is talking about bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. We’re committed.

George W. Bush is unique among presidents for his tin ear for trouble or danger. On his own he cannot distinguish between a notional or imaginary threat and one that is genuine, and his choice of advisers is no help. The big problem Bush saw on taking office was a threat by rogue nations to attack the United States with nuclear weapons delivered on missiles. His solution was to redouble efforts to develop and build an antiballistic missile system. Rumsfeld and Cheney shared this priority 100 percent. Distracted by this technological chimera, which has eluded success despite huge expense for twenty-five years, Bush failed to heed clear warnings about al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. Later he was unprepared for Hurricane Katrina (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”), for the immense challenges of climate change caused by greenhouse gases, and for the full-fledged financial crisis precipitated by the lending practices of a runaway, unregulated banking system.


But these dangers were all at least new in some sense, harder to see in prospect than retrospect. This cannot be said for the President’s decision to send American expeditionary armies to occupy two countries in the Greater Middle East. A better-read, more reflective man might have seen what was coming. Regretting adventures in the Middle East is one of the constants of history. The Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the French, the British, and the Russians all sent armies and were forced in the end to bring them home again.

Invading the Middle East is the kind of imperial overreach that breaks the spine of great powers. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to warn Bush against the magnitude of the undertaking with reference to the homespun “Pottery Barn rule”—if you break it, you own it. Did anyone go further and attempt to explain that Iraq was a seething cockpit of warring religions, political movements, social classes, and ethnic groups, many influenced by Iran? Did the President worry about the difficulty of occupying and rebuilding a country of nearly 30 million people with ancient scores to settle?

It appears that he did not. Going to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq was what the President wanted to do and he let nothing stand in his way. Afghanistan was not a hard sell but Iraq took real resolution. The arguments for war were weak to begin with and got weaker with time. The UN inspectors found none of the Iraqi weapons cited to justify war and asked only for some months to verify disarmament; the Security Council refused to pass a resolution for war; only Britain among America’s most important allies joined the coalition of the willing to fight the war. But no setback cracked Bush’s resolution and he went ahead. John McCain is content with the wars he will inherit if fate touches him with its finger, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do not like the situation as they expect to find it. The war in Iraq promises only expense and failure, and the mix includes other daunting troubles—a Turkish military hovering just across the border from Iraq’s quasi-autonomous Kurdish region, with one Turkish eye on the oil of Kirkuk; deepening connections between the Shiite government in Baghdad and Shiite Iran, which continues to ignore American threats of military action if it does not believably abandon its nuclear program; a safe haven for the Taliban in the Pakistani provinces bordering on Afghanistan; and loss of Pakistani support for American desire to take the war into the tribal areas. That safe haven made it impossible for the Russians to win, and it will soon obsess the Americans as well.

But set Afghanistan aside. Iraq is the big war. Getting out of Iraq will require just as much resolution as it took to get in—and the same kind of resolution: a willingness to ignore the consequences. The consequence hardest to ignore will be the growing power and influence of Iran, which Bush has described as one of the two great security threats to the US. Israel shares this view of Iran. No new president will want to run the risk of being thought soft on Iran. This is where the military error exacts a terrible price. A political conflict transformed into a military conflict requires a military resolution, and those, famously, come in two forms—victory or defeat. Getting out means admitting defeat.

Is it possible that the new president will have that kind of resolution? I think not; to my ear Clinton and Obama don’t sound drained of hope or bright ideas, determined to cut losses and end the agony. Why should they? They’re coming in fresh from the sidelines. Getting out, giving up, admitting defeat are not what we expect from the psychology of newly elected presidents who have just overcome all odds and battled through to personal victory. They’ve managed the impossible once; why not again? Planning for withdrawals might begin on Day One, but the plans will be hostage to events.

At first, perhaps, all runs smoothly. Then things begin to happen. The situation on the first day has altered by the tenth. Some faction of Iraqis joins or drops out of the fight. A troublesome law is passed, or left standing. A helicopter goes down with casualties in two digits. The Green Zone is hit by a new wave of rockets or mortars from Sadr City in Baghdad. The US Army protests that the rockets or mortars were provided by Iran. The new president warns Iran to stay out of the fight. The government in Tehran dismisses the warning. This is already a long-established pattern. Why should we expect it to change? So it goes. At an unmarked moment somewhere between the third and the sixth month a sea change occurs: Bush’s war becomes the new president’s war, and getting out means failure, means defeat, means rising opposition at home, means no second term. It’s not hard to see where this is going.

We are committed in Afghanistan. We are not ready to leave Iraq. In both countries our friends are in trouble. The pride of American arms is at stake. The world is watching. To me the logic of events seems inescapable. Unless something quite unexpected happens, four years from now the presidential candidates will be arguing about two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one going into its ninth year, the other into its eleventh. The choice will be the one Americans hate most—get out or fight on.

—April 30, 2008

This Issue

May 29, 2008