The Duck of Minerva

No, they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time

11 August 2007

Remember when critics of the impending Iraq War argued that it would divert our attention from Afghanistan… and received a thunderstorm of mockery?

Remember when an unprecedented number of international-relations specialists raised red flags about the conduct of the Iraq War, pointed out that we were headed for real problems in Afghanistan, and got dismissed in the national media with a quotation from conservative think-tanker Joshua Moravscik? Well, probably not, because the only national outlet to even run the story was the Boston Globe.

Well, if you haven’t already realized who was right, and who was wrong, David Rhode and David E. Sanger have a depressing account that should make things very, very clear:

But that skepticism never took hold in Washington. Assessments by the Central Intelligence Agency circulating at the same time reported that the Taliban were so decimated they no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports. The American sense of victory was so robust that the top C.I.A. specialists and elite Special Forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan were packing their guns and preparing for the next war, in Iraq.

How many times can one administration screw up the whole “Mission Accomplished” thing?

They continue:

Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the American military call “the good war” off course.

Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the American focus wavered. Taliban fighters seeped back over the border, driving up the suicide attacks and roadside bombings by as much as 25 percent this spring, and forcing NATO and American troops into battles to retake previously liberated villages in southern Afghanistan.

They have scored some successes recently, and since the 2001 invasion, there have been improvements in health care and education, as well as the quality of life in the cities. But Afghanistan’s embattled president, Hamid Karzai, said in Washington last week that security in his country had “definitely deteriorated.” One former national security official called that “a very diplomatic understatement.”

President Bush’s critics have long contended that the Iraq war has diminished America’s effort in Afghanistan, which the administration has denied, but an examination of how the policy unfolded within the administration reveals a deep divide over how to proceed in Afghanistan and a series of decisions that at times seemed to relegate it to an afterthought as Iraq unraveled.

Statements from the White House, including from the president, in support of Afghanistan were resolute, but behind them was a halting, sometimes reluctant commitment to solving Afghanistan’s myriad problems, according to dozens of interviews in the United States, at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

At critical moments in the fight for Afghanistan, the Bush administration diverted scarce intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq, including elite C.I.A. teams and Special Forces units involved in the search for terrorists. As sophisticated Predator drone spy planes rolled off assembly lines in the United States, they were shipped to Iraq, undercutting the search for Taliban and terrorist leaders, according to senior military and intelligence officials.

As defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld claimed credit for toppling the Taliban with light, fast forces. But in a move that foreshadowed America’s trouble in Iraq, he failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, and Mr. Karzai, the administration’s handpicked president, for a large international force. As the situation deteriorated, Mr. Rumsfeld and other administration officials reversed course and cajoled European allies into sending troops.

I don’t have anything profound to add. This kind of gross incompetence–in which policy is one part wishful thinking and one part laboratory experiment in half-baked ideas dreamed up over lunch at the American Enterprise Institute–has reaped a bitter harvest at home and abroad.

I think it is about time we tried handing the reigns back to professionals, technocrats, and, heck, maybe even academics. And, no, pumping ideological iron in right-wing think tanks for eight years does not qualify anyone as a “technocrat” or “academic.”

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