And the Dissonance Drones On, Endlessly

At Salon, Gary Kamiya opined Sunday that liberals have been “hypnotized into an endless dirty war:”

(T)he majority of Americans, including those who were opposed to the war in Iraq, have no problems with their government killing at will, so long as the killing is done in the name of “national security.”

I wonder if Kamiya has ever heard the phrase “fire at will”? Every war in American history has involved American firepower directed against America’s enemies in the name of “national security.” Wartime killing is always and forever a matter of willpower, which is why armies invest vast sums of money and time training soldiers to shoot accurately on command. Kamiya’s dissonance comes clear a few paragraphs later:

What makes this subject so tricky is that morally, legally and by any standard, the war on Afghanistan was completely justified.

“Tricky”? Really? Because it isn’t just Americans. Any nation on Earth in the whole history of forever would respond to an attack like 9/11 with as much fury as it could muster. I daresay if any president of any party had failed to respond with lethal force, they would have been impeached at the very least. Remember Congress passing that Authorization for Use of Military Force in 2001? The acronym AUMF is what passes for a declaration of war these days, and war has never been about anything except hurting people and breaking their stuff.

Kamiya posits a thought-experiment in which the 9/11 attacks never took place. Would it then be wise, he asks, to occupy Afghanistan with nearly 100,000 troops and initiate drone strikes in five countries? His answer, of course, is no. Indeed, on 9/10/2001 a majority of Americans would have vehemently disagreed with a president who made that decision.

What Kamiya may not realize is that his thought-experiment actually took place in the 1990s.

Al-Qaeda undertook an active campaign to kill Americans as well as all sorts of other people. A friend of mine lost an arm in Khobar Towers. My own MAC flight into Kuwait was diverted because of an incident on the ground that I will still not discuss. The counterintelligence team spent that entire deployment monitoring al-Qaeda cells in Jahara. We were there to watch Saddam, but the only danger we faced was al-Qaeda.

There were also the embassy bombings in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole. Al-Qaeda not only planned a series of airliner attacks across the Pacific, but made an attempt on President Clinton’s life, so it should come as no surprise that he asked the Pentagon to come up with an action plan against al-Qaeda in its Afghan bases. The Joint Chiefs advised against using ground forces. In the end, Clinton chose to shoot cruise missiles at al-Qaeda.

Moreover, Kamiya’s thought experiment resonates with the actual decisions of the Bush administration. From 2002 to 2009, Afghanistan was not the front line in the “war on terror” but a forgotten backwater. Readers will recall bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan, Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to cap troop levels at 20,000 in Afghanistan, and the ridiculous diversion of American blood and treasure into Iraq. So as long as we’re having thought experiments, here is one: suppose a different person had been president on 9/11. For the sake of convenience, we’ll call him Al Bore.

What if, instead of using American troops only as the follow-on to special forces, air power, and the Northern Alliance, President Al Bore had ordered the Pentagon to activate its Clinton-era operations plan and put the 101st Airborne on the ground around Tora Bora? What if Osama bin Laden’s corpse had been recovered in November of 2001, his cohort destroyed, and at least some of the Taliban fighters caught on their way to Pakistan by the 82nd Airborne rather than letting them all escape to Pakistan? What if troop levels had surged to 98,000 in 2002, securing the Afghan countryside from Taliban influence in 2003 rather than 2011? What if Al Bore had been faster than Bush in recognizing the utility of UAVs to find and kill militants operating in those lawless tribal regions?

And what if our notional President Al Bore had never invaded Iraq or enlarged the conflict with idiotic Axis-of-Evil speeches? But I digress.

The answer, most likely, is that we would be exactly where we are today — with troops leaving, the Taliban talking, and Osama bin Laden dead — except that we would have been here seven or eight years ago instead of reading diatribes about “endless war” today. When a writer posits that President Obama has “accelerated” the Bush war on terror, I laugh out loud because Bush’s preferred speed in the AFPAK theater was about five miles an hour.

There is an odd strain in progressive politics that sees inaction as a solution for every foreign affair: do nothing, and the problem will go away. Look how that worked for us before 9/11. Look how it worked in AFPAK from 2002-2009. Kamiya intones that America will pay a price for “playing God” with drones, but makes no estimate of the costs of inaction and makes no suggestions for better action.

And that really is the point here: a drone strike is the least bad solution for what to do about people bent on killing Americans and allies who are out of reach any other way. The Taliban understand that they are at war. Al-Qaeda understood they were at war long before most Americans understood the threat. The United States is officially at war with al-Qaeda and anyone who harbors or supports al-Qaeda — and “war” means killing the enemy by the means available.

This is distinct from the Obama administration’s outreach to all manner of Islamist organizations that are not al-Qaeda, which has the actual fans of “endless war” screeching in alarm about appeasement of the Muslim savage. Kamiya’s dissonance reaches a crescendo on this point:

(T)his isn’t World War II. We’re not fighting Hitler or Tojo, national leaders commanding huge armies and controlling vast amounts of territory and resources, but a bunch of ragged fanatics in caves. By treating these puny adversaries as if they were more formidable than they are, we’re squandering resources that would be better used trying to improve the lives of the people living in their countries. By employing the same tactics the terrorists use, we are descending to their level. In a fight against terrorism, which ultimately is a fight for hearts and minds, this is a losing proposition.

Those “ragged fanatics in caves” are in fact driving SUVs and wearing Ray-Bans. They were dangerous in 1996, and they are dangerous now, even without the benefit of panzer divisions. Kamiya ends his piece by saying that the risks of blowback cannot be quantified, but 9/11 was blowback too — and we can quantify its impact. It is quite possible to destroy al-Qaeda and bring the Taliban to terms, but not by doing nothing.

As far as hearts and minds: last year, militants probably killed more than two thousand Afghan civilians. Their minds and hearts are set on war, they do not care about collateral damage, and so long as they prosecute it against the US or its allies they will incur their own blowback. This is nothing new.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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