Tunnel vision

For Bush, it's always either the day after 9/11 or the day before the Iraq invasion. He needs to rethink his war on terror.

Published July 21, 2005 6:43PM (EDT)

"The war on terror goes on," proclaimed President Bush on the day of the London bombings. Throughout the 2004 campaign Bush's winning theme was terror. He achieved the logic of a unified field theory connecting Iraq to Afghanistan by threading terror through both despite the absence of evidence. In almost every city and town, Bush insisted that if we didn't fight the terrorists there, we would be fighting them at home. In January of this year, the CIA's think tank, the National Intelligence Council, issued a report describing Iraq as the magnet, training and recruiting ground for international terrorism. The false rationale for the invasion had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But with his popularity flagging, Bush returned to the formulations that had succeeded in his campaign.

In Bush's "global war on terror," Iraq and Afghanistan present one extended battlefield against a common enemy, and the strategy is and must be the same. So far as Bush is concerned, it's always either the day after 9/11 or the day before the Iraq invasion. Time stands still at two ideal political moments. But his consequences since are barely managed chaos.

"I was horrified by the president's last speech on the war on terror [on June 28] -- so much unsaid, so much disingenuous, so many half-truths," James Dobbins told me. Dobbins was Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan and is now director of international programs at the Rand Corp., a defense think tank. Afghanistan is now the scene of a Taliban revival, chronic Pashtun violence, dominance by U.S.-supported warlords (who have become narco-lords, exploiting the exploding traffic in opium poppies), and a human rights black hole. "Afghanistan is going better than Iraq," Dobbins said. "That's not much of a standard."

From the start, he said, the effort in Afghanistan was "grossly underfunded and undermanned." The military doctrine was the first error. "The U.S. focus on force protection and substitution of firepower for manpower creates significant collateral damage." But the faith in firepower sustained the illusion that the mission could be "quicker, cheaper, easier." And that justification fit with Afghanistan's being relegated to a sideshow to Iraq.

At the same time, according to Dobbins, there was "a generally negative appreciation of peacekeeping and nation building as components of U.S. policy, a disinclination to learn anything from the previous [administration's experience] in Bosnia and Kosovo."

What's more, lack of accountability began at the top and filtered down. On the day of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's inauguration in December 2001, Dobbins met Gen. Tommy Franks, the CentCom commander, at the reopened Afghan airport. As they drove to the ceremony, Dobbins informed Franks of press reports that U.S. planes had mistakenly bombed a delegation of Afghan tribal leaders traveling to Kabul for the inauguration and killed perhaps several dozen people. "It was the first time he heard about it. When he got out of the car, reporters asked him about it. He denied it happened. And he denied it happened for several days. It was classic 'deny first, investigate later.' It turned out to be true. It was a normal reflex."

Democracy was at best an afterthought for the Bush administration, which believed that it had little application to Afghans. At the conference in Bonn, Germany, establishing international legitimacy for the new Afghan government, "the word 'democracy,'" Dobbins points out, "was introduced at the insistence of the Iranian delegation."

Democracy, now the overriding rationale for the global war on terror, does not, however, include support for human rights, at least in Afghanistan. "In terms of the human rights situation," said Dobbins, "Karzai is well meaning and moderate and thoroughly honorable. But he's overwhelmed, he's not a great manager, he has few instruments of power."

Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon and the White House removed restraints on torture -- in Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq. "These were command failures, not just isolated incidents, in that we dismantled systems designed to protect us from these kinds of events. You didn't have the checks and balances. They've had consequences in terms of public image," Dobbins said.

In April, the United States succeeded, after refusing to cooperate for two years with the United Nations rapporteur on human rights for Afghanistan, in abolishing the office altogether. The U.N. representative, Cherif Bassiouini, a distinguished expert on international law who has helped train hundreds of judges in Afghanistan, told me, "Karzai was in favor of keeping the mandate. But the U.S. was quite adamant. The U.S. came to the conclusion they needed to kill the messenger with hope the message would die. The tactics are contrary to any valid strategy. If the strategy is to stabilize Afghanistan, have a democratic regime, cut narco-trafficking and terrorism, what is being done is precisely the opposite."

Dobbins believes that the operation in Afghanistan has improved, but that the U.S. administration "hasn't readily acknowledged its mistakes and has corrected them only after losing a good deal of ground, irrecoverable ground." For all the problems there, "most of the violence is not al-Qaida type, but Pashtun sectarian violence. It's not international terrorism."

For Bush, however, facts on the ground cannot alter his stentorian summons to the global war on terror. "I've never liked the term 'war,'" said Dobbins. "This is a campaign conducted primarily, [as it] should be, by law enforcement, diplomatic and intelligence means. The militarization of the concept is a theme that mobilizes the American public effectively, but it's not a theme that resonates well in the Middle East or with our allies elsewhere in the world. I think some reconceptualization would be helpful. But the White House probably doesn't. Karl Rove doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the impact of his strategies in the Muslim world."

"We're taking the fight to the terrorists abroad so we don't have to face them here at home," Bush declared in June -- and repeated endlessly -- finally appearing vindicated with the London attacks. His apparent doublethink relieves any anxiety of cognitive dissonance. London, like Iraq and Afghanistan, is "there," not "here."

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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Afghanistan Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Torture