Tuesday :: Dec 1, 2009

9/11 Is No Rationale For Escalating The Afghan War

by Turkana

For months, the neocons and their ilk have been telling us that we have to escalate the war in Afghanistan, to prevent another 9/11. The argument goes something like this: The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened because we neglected Afghanistan, so it protects our national security not to neglect Afghanistan, again.

Glossing right over the subtler questions about the meaning of the words "we" and "neglected," let's look at some larger flaws with this line of supposed reasoning. Because while a legitimate argument can be made that if Charlie Wilson's War had been followed by Charlie Wilson's Nation-Building, Afghanistan might never have fallen to the Taliban, it doesn't follow that Afghanistan's fall to the Taliban necessarily had to lead to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But before we think that through, let's debunk this argument in the easiest manner:

1) Osama bin Laden is thought to be in Pakistan, now.

2) Al Qaeda is thought to be based in Pakistan, now.

Which explains why Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel are reported to be opposed to an escalation in Afghanistan, with Biden said to be worried specifically that we should be focusing on Pakistan, instead. But such easy debunking of the argument for an escalation in Afghanistan is bolstered by the more important argument made by Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, who also served as an officer in the U.S. Army for more than twenty years. In an article in Harper's that I wrote about a few days ago, Bacevich makes it clear:

The events of September 11, 2001, ostensibly occurred because we ignored Afghanistan. Preventing the recurrence of those events, therefore, requires that we fix the place. Yet this widely accepted line of reasoning overlooks the primary reason the 9/11 conspiracy succeeded: federal, state, and local agencies responsible for basic security fell down on the job, failing to install even minimally adequate security measures at the nation’s airports. The national-security apparatus wasn’t paying attention. Indeed, consumed with its ABC agenda—“anything but Clinton” were the Bush Administration’s watchwords in those days—it ignored or downplayed all sorts of warning signs, not least of all Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States. Averting a recurrence of that awful day does not require the semipermanent occupation and pacification of distant countries like Afghanistan. Rather, it requires that the United States erect and maintain robust defenses.

Simply put: the problem wasn't Afghanistan; it was a failure in the chain of command of our national security apparatus, and even more specifically, it was a failure of a Bush Administration that dithered while warning sirens were screaming all around it. And ensuring that such failures are not repeated necessitated neither imposing police state policies on this country's citiziens, nor invading and occupying Afghanistan. Let's review some facts.

Before the 9/11 attacks, both the Minneapolis and Phoenix FBI offices uncovered evidence that could have revealed the entire plot. The agents in these field offices did their jobs, without torturing people, wiretapping random innocents, or racial profiling. The agents in these field offices did what professional law enforcement officials are supposed to do, and had they been able to interest their nominal superiors, 9/11 might never have happened. But they couldn't interest their nominal superiors. Plain old incompetence led to these agents' important revelations being ignored. This wasn't because of Afghanistan. This wasn't because we weren't enough of a police state. This was because the people who were doing their jobs were thwarted by those not doing their jobs. A more efficient command structure and more competent people up the chain of command was all it would have taken to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

And speaking of incompetence... Only the most incompetent administration in American history could have allowed 9/11 to happen on its watch. The terrorists were quite lucky to have had exactly such an administration at the time of the attacks. At the very beginning of the Bush Administration, during the transition, President Clinton's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, warned Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice:

I believe that the Bush Administration will spend more time on terrorism generally, and on al-Qaeda specifically, than any other subject.

Rice dithered and ignored him.

Still less than a month after taking office, the Bush Administration was handed the conclusions of the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security/21st Century, but:

In its Jan. 31 report, seven Democrats and seven Republicans unanimously approved 50 recommendations. Many of them addressed the point that, in the words of the commission's executive summary, "the combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack."

"A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century," according to the report.

As reported by Newsweek, a month into the Bush presidency:

But when it comes to fighting terrorism, administration officials say the United States has no new initiatives to offer. Top antiterrorism officials in the U.S. government tell NEWSWEEK that Bush and his lieutenants have yet to put forth a counterterrorism plan. So far at least, the Bush team has kept on Clinton's counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke.

In the words of Clarke:

I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue.

The Bush Administration dithered:

The former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Hugh Shelton, said the Bush administration pushed terrorism "farther to the back burner". And in a sympathetic portrait of the young administration, Bush at War, the president himself told the author, Bob Woodward, that he "didn't feel that sense of urgency" about going after Osama bin Laden.

And dithered:

On May 8, Bush announced a new Office of National Preparedness for terrorism at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the same time, he proposed to cut FEMA's budget by $200 million. Bush said that day that Cheney would direct a government-wide review on managing the consequences of a domestic attack, and "I will periodically chair a meeting of the National Security Council to review these efforts." Neither Cheney's review nor Bush's took place.

Clarke, again:

...I believe it was, George Tenet called me and said, "I don't think we're getting the message through. These people aren't acting the way the Clinton people did under similar circumstances." And I suggested to Tenet that he come down and personally brief Condi Rice, that he bring his terrorism team with him. And we sat in the national security adviser's office. And I've used the phrase in the book to describe George Tenet's warnings as "He had his hair on fire." He was about as excited as I'd ever seen him. And he said, "Something is going to happen."

Now, when he said that in December 1999 to the national security adviser, at the time Sandy Berger, Sandy Berger then held daily meetings throughout December 1999 in the White House Situation Room, with the FBI director, the attorney general, the head of the CIA, the head of the Defense Department, and they shook out of their bureaucracies every last piece of information to prevent the attacks. And we did prevent the attacks in December 1999. Dr. Rice chose not to do that.

The entire administration dithered:

But on Capitol Hill, the administration put relatively little political capital behind its proposals, choosing instead to emphasize its plan for a missile defense system.

When Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who was then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, sought to transfer money to counterterrorism from the missile defense program, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent a letter on Sept. 6 2001, , saying he would urge Mr. Bush to veto the measure. Mr. Levin nonetheless pushed the measure through the next day on a party-line vote.

And, of course, just a month before the 9/11 attacks, while on a month long vacation, Bush was personally handed a presidential daily briefing entitled:

Bin Laden determined to strike in US.

Bush responded by telling the agent briefing him:

All right. You've covered your ass, now.

And he went fishing.

The point isn't to recount one of the worst failures of an administration that defined the very concept of failure. The point is that some still want to use 9/11 to rationalize an escalation in Afghanistan. Such rationalizations are not only strategically wrong, they're also historically wrong. Afghanistan was not the problem. The September 11 attacks should have been prevented. An international terrorist network cannot be stopped merely by pushing them out of one country. They don't require a lot of infrastructure, to operate. The weapons of choice on that terrible day were mere box cutters. The problem wasn't out there, halfway around the world; it was right here at home, in the national security chain of command and in a presidential administration that was astonishing in its incompetence.

Bacevich makes the point that the war in Afghanistan will not prevent another terrorist attack. If anything, the current approach is counter-productive, as it only provides an incentive for the recruitment of terrorists. He suggests increased surveillance with an emphasis on providing incentives to local tribal leaders to solve their own problems.

The reality is that we can’t eliminate every last armed militant harboring a grudge against the West. Nor do we need to. As long as we maintain adequate defenses, Al Qaeda operatives, in their caves, pose no more than a modest threat. And unless the Taliban can establish enclaves in places like New Jersey or Miami, the danger they pose to the United States falls several notches below the threat posed by Cuba, which is no threat at all.
Turkana :: 3:21 PM :: Comments (12) :: Digg It!