Why Didn't the U.S. Invade Afghanistan

Attention has been focused on the impact of Neo Conservatism at the strategic level, in reference to the Administration’s doctrine of preemption. Arguably however, Neo Conservatism has had a far greater effect at the tactical level, on how the Administration has chosen to fight the war against terrorism and specifically the campaign in Afghanistan after 9/11. This Administration decided not to launch a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan to kill or capture bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda, instead choosing to use Afghanistan as a test of Neo Conservative military theories. As a result bin Laden and much of Al Qaeda were able to get away. This was a serious blow to the war on terrorism, and our country is less safe as a result.

When President Bush came into office he brought with him a number of civilian ideologues who were proponents of a school of thought referred to as “Neo Conservatism”. The Neo Conservatives, or Neo Cons, believed that our military policy was out of date, that with the United States’ overwhelming technological and air superiority there was a new way to fight wars. Instead of relying on feet on the ground, on the U.S. Army, these ideologues believed we could use strategic air power to bring an enemy to its knees. Under this theory, we could avoid the bad publicity of body bags being brought home, and also not incur the hundreds of billions it takes to feed and arm a large army. If we could make war lower priced and safer, then in theory we could go to war more often – war could be a much more important part of the United States’ global policy. And the Neo Cons believe there is a list of countries with which the United States should go to war.

Not surprisingly, the Neo Cons met with resistance within the traditional U.S. Military, and particularly within the Army. The experiences of a failed gradual war in Viet Nam and then the overwhelming success of the first Gulf War had coalesced into a policy named after then-General Colin Powell. The Powell Doctrine held that the United States should only contemplate deploying its military in cases of critical national interest with clearly defined goals and an end strategy. If the United States did choose to use force, then the Powell Doctrine dictated that we should use massive, overwhelming force to insure we meet our goals and minimize U.S. casualties. The U.S. Military believed that it still knew how to fight wars, and that it was still typically best done with U.S. soldiers.

And then 9/11 happened. Suddenly defense policy was no longer a bureaucratic debate between the Neo Cons and the traditional Military. Afghanistan presented our U.S. Military with its most important task in decades. Concentrated in one country were an estimated 3,000 hard-core al Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, 3,000 people who had attacked our country and threatened to do so again. There was no other goal for our Military – the war on terror demanded that we get those 3,000 people. And Afghanistan presented a golden opportunity to do so – all 3,000 were in one place, in one country.

The Secretary of Defense was faced with a decision on how to proceed. Should the U.S. revert to the traditional way of fighting a war? We have the strongest military in the world – should we use it to its fullest ability? Should we flood Afghanistan with U.S. Army troops, to make sure that we as a nation had made every possible effort to kill or capture these 3,000 terrorists? Or should the Administration use Afghanistan as a petri dish to prove Neo Conservative theories, as an experiment to show once and for all what could be accomplished with minimal U.S. troops on the ground?

At this critical juncture in our history, the Secretary of Defense chose to ignore the advice of the people who actually fight wars for us, the U.S. Military, and instead chose to test an abstract intellectual concept. There was to be no massive army presence in Afghanistan – the U.S. Army would, for the most part, sit on the sidelines. Instead of invading with U.S. troops we chose to rely on surrogate troops, on the Afghani fighters of the Northern Alliance supported by our technology and air-power. During the war we deployed only 5,000 U.S. soldiers, toward the very end of the campaign. U.S. troops were far outnumbered by the Taliban, and barely even matched the troop level of Al Qaeda itself. Given a choice between deploying the U.S. Army and relying on the Northern Alliance, the Secretary of Defense chose to place the fate of our Nation in the hands of the Afghani fighters who had already been largely defeated by the Taliban.

The Afghanistan war plan was pure, naked intellectual arrogance on the part of the Neo Cons. Arrogance at this level used to be the hallmark of the Liberal intellectuals – they were sure that they and they alone knew what was best for us, and they would design our government institutions accordingly. We are still paying for the costs of their arrogance. This will be the case with these ideologues as well – their arrogance will haunt our nation for years. Under the Powell Doctrine, we would have deployed massive overwhelming force. We would have trusted that our U.S. Army was the best instrument for the task. We would have taken every precaution, we would have done everything possible that we could have done. Instead, the Secretary of Defense chose to try something that has never been tried before, and it failed. bin Laden and most of those 3,000 are still at large, and the war on terror and the security of our Nation have been dealt significant setbacks. This is the tragedy of Afghanistan – we missed a golden opportunity to strike what might have been a knockout blow to Al Qaeda.

Think of how different the U.S. would be right now if we had killed or captured bin Laden and destroyed al Qaeda. Would we have felt the need to invade Iraq? Would we feel as vulnerable as we do now? This is what the Administration, and particularly the Secretary of Defense, must answer for – a critical failure in the war against terrorism and the damage done to our national security.

Posted by at February 23, 2004 3:20 PM