Afghanistan is best known as the country where empires go to die. The Imperial Russians, the British, the Soviets (Imperial Russians part II) all saw there expansionist dreams die in the harsh geography of Afghanistan. At the turn of the century a group of fierce fighters had just about established its hegemony over the dissolute and ruined nation. They were at one time religious students called Talibs in one of the local tongues. The rest of the world came to know them as the Taliban. They were ultra-orthodox followers of a Sunni doctrine know properly as Salafism but more commonly and disparagingly know as Whabbism. It was an attempt by some Sunnis to return to the pure Islam practiced by the first Muslims just before the founding of the Caliphate. It was a heady mix of anti-imperialism, anti-modernism, and anti-Western notions mixed liberally with fundamentalist Sunni doctrine and vicious intolerance toward all other Islamic sects no matter what their pedigree. It had a deeply masculine ethos that gloried in jihad and rank misogyny. Still, after almost 25 years of war and disorder most Afghans were more than ready for a little tough love.
The Western nations were also more than happy to let Mullah Omar and others drag Afghanistan back to year zero AH. The only fly in the ointment was a guest of the government by the name of Osama Bin Laden. After Osama pulled off 9/11 the rogue state of Afghanistan became the target of military action. In very short order the USA was launching air strikes against the Taliban. But a very odd thing happened on the way to Kabul; the U.S. committed very little in the way of men and materials. Most of the fighting and dying was done by men of the Northern Alliance. For a country that was trying to get Osama Bin Laden “dead or alive” the USA was acting in oddly dilettante fashion. The USA was not even able to scrape together enough of its own troops to block Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora. After Tora Bora Bush publicly admitted that not only did he not know where OBL was but he did not care to find out. Bush had other concerns.
Those concerns centered on the person of Saddam Hussein and the country of Iraq. The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq is still surrounded by huge cloak of partisan feeling some (and perhaps most) of which was actively stirred up by Carl Rove and Other members of the Bush Political Team. In analyzing the case for and the results of the Iraq war it very difficult to approach the facts in a dispassionate manner. Still let us be fools and rush in where angles dare not tread.
The case for invasion rested almost solely on Weapons Of Mass Destruction—WMD for short. All other rationales were either secondary or mentioned barely in passing. It was only after the invasion that the rational shifted. The Bush administration was very good of sticking with the talking point that Iraq was very close to developing a nuclear weapon and quite possibly deploying it via its terrorist network. As Iraq had kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors a few years before, the U.S. accusation had a thin patina of believability. Iraq did have vast stores of chemical agents prior to the first Gulf War. It also had a very active and very illegal nuclear arms research program. Still the U.N. had for all intents and purposes ripped out the guts of both programs before Saddam tossed them out of the country. The only small chink in the U.N. sanctions régime was the oil-for-food program. Vast sums of monies from the program were siphoned off or otherwise diverted to other priorities; mainly grand and gaudy palaces for Saddam and his brutal progeny. Who could prove that some of that unaccounted for money did not go for a very clandestine WMD program?
Still it was a long way from suspicion to proof. The quest for finding the smoking gun (that could be in form of a mushroom cloud) is rightly regarded as an epic failure of U.S. intelligence. The only argument was where the culpability may lie.
What is not up for debate is that Cheney did set up a parallel intelligence apparatus that by-passed the normal bureaucratic structures of the U.S. government. It is also a fact that this apparatus delivered raw, unfiltered intelligence to the very pinnacle of the executive branch. It is further more a fact that this structure acted like an echo chamber. Time and time again intelligence operatives found themselves beating back the same bogus claims. The yellowcake uranium from Africa to Iraq story kept returning like a bad penny until it finally settled in the President’s State Of The Union Address. Bad intelligence that supported an invasion of Iraq kept getting highlighted while more sober assessments limped off to die in the middle reaches of the CIA bureaucracy. The best case scenario for the Bush Administration can be explained by a confluence of ideological and bureaucratic biases that pushed it into an ill conceived war of Choice in Iraq.
It is no secret that many of the top advisers in the Bush Administration were firm supporters of regime change in Iraq. They had signed their names on a published missive known as the Project For A New American Century. PNAC as it came to be known was well represented by V.P. Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and others. For a time it occupied a slot in the White House organizational chart as WHIG: the White House Iraq Group. No office in executive branch of the U.S. government was more instrumental in beating the drums of War and coming up with the rationalization later branded “The Bush Doctrine.”
Thus at the very beginning of the Bush Administration there was a built-in bias for the overthrow of the Iraq government by any means available. What the Administration lacked was a justification and the actual means. Donald Rumsfeld was more the willing to provide the physical means. Rumsfeld was an ardent supporter of the notion of the “New Army.” Rumsfeld was sure that breakthroughs in military technology had re-written the iron-clad rules or war. He firmly believed that speed and technology could replace flesh-and-blood servicemembers occupying a patch of ground. He had a grand theory, what he lacked was a proving ground. For Rumsfeld, Iraq was ideal in at least two ways; it satisfied his ideological bias toward overthrowing the Baathist state and it would prove the correctness of his “speed kills” war-fighting notions. As an added bonus Rumsfeld ideas helped lower the bar to invasion. His new Army and its “Shock and Awe” doctrine promised rapid results at a much lower cost in men, material and money than the more prosaic ideas of the “old” Army brass. Rumsfeld was ruthless in sweeping out any dissent in the DoD. Those who did not sing the company song were offered to seek new opportunities in the civilian sphere of employment. Rumsfeld’s DoD was a systemic enabler of the PNAC push for war.
The final piece of the puzzle was the political consideration. Carl Rove and the political shop decided very early on to use both 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq for partisan political gain. Both Bush and Cheney were more than willing to use the hammer of National Security to beat the Democrats Senseless. Republican Party stalwarts and there megaphones in the media were constantly on the attack, branding recalcitrant Democrats as “supporting the terrorists” or “offering therapy” to Osama Bin Laden. The Democratic Party looking at Bush’s sky-high approval rating crumbled before the onslaught. Bush was merciless in turning up the pressure and exploiting his advantage. His loyal Republican soldiers in the Congress forced the Democrats to vote on the use of force before the 2002 midterms. Many Democrats were placed in a damned-if-you-do—damned-if-you-don’t positions. Even when they voted for the authorization Republicans opponents were able to question Democrat’s patriotism. The short-term successes of these tactics lead to a long-term poisoning of the political waters. There is an obvious link between the successes of 2002/2004 and the Republican Gotterdammerung of 2006/2008. These will be fleshed out later.
It has been claimed that Bush and his Administration deliberately lied the nation into war. While there is a very solid prima facie case for such an accusation it may never be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. At the very least though there was a very solid troika of institutional factors that provided a huge push toward the invasion of Iraq. Against this force there was no counter-force worth mentioning. The Congress was supine. The Corporate Media, acting as the fourth estate was at best inert and at worst supported the push for war. The Corporate Media was manifestly unwilling to go against a hugely popular president and was literally more willing to indulge in flag waving.. Only the still-small voice of the left-wing Blogosphere and some progressive talk-radio stations were willing to run interference.
Before visiting the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates we must visit the second Terrorist attack that the Bush Administration failed to prevent that of the Anthrax letters. It is short layovers so do not get too worried. On October 14, 2001 barely a month after the iconic attacks of September 11th, letters contaminated with Anthrax managed to kill various US citizens. The nation, already deeply shocked by the events connected with 9/11 got a fresh infusion of fear. This time the threat was not crashing planes but tiny microorganisms. Bush wasted very little time in linking this case of Domestic Terrorism to the foreign threat and eventually to Saddam.
With his stratospheric approval ratings and with a little help from Colin Powell’s brava performance at the U.N. George W Bush was able to start a war of choice in Iraq. What started out so well for the Administration was to become the death of a thousand cuts.
Part 3 to follow, someday.