If there is one element of moral and political certainty that cements the liberal consensus more than any other, it is the complacent view that while Iraq is "a war of choice," it is really and only Afghanistan that is a war of necessity. The ritualistic solidity of this view is impressive. It survives all arguments and all evidence. Just in the last month, as the Iraqi-based jihadists began to beat a retreat and even (according to some reports) to attempt to relocate to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it still seemed to many commentators that this proved that no U.S. forces should have been wasted on Iraq in the first place. This simplistic view ignores, at a minimum, the following points:
- Many of the al-Qaida forces—most notably the horrific but now deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—made their way to Iraq in the first place only after being forcibly evicted from Afghanistan. Thus, if one did not want to be confronting Bin Laden fans in Mesopotamia, it was surely a mistake to invade Afghanistan rather than Iraq.
- The American presence in Afghanistan is not at all "unilateral"; it meets every liberal criterion of being formally underwritten and endorsed and armed and reinforced by our NATO and U.N. allies. Indeed, the commander of the anti-Taliban forces is usually not even an American. Yet it is in these circumstances that more American casualties—and not just American ones—are being experienced than are being suffered in Iraq. If this is so, the reason cannot simply be that our resources are being deployed elsewhere.
- Many of the most successful drives against the Taliban have been conducted by American forces redeployed from Iraq, in particular from Anbar province. But these military victories are the result of counterinsurgent tactics and strategies that were learned in Iraq and that have been applied triumphantly in Afghanistan.
In other words, any attempt to play off the two wars against each other is little more than a small-minded and zero-sum exercise. And consider the implications. Most people appear now to believe that it is quite wrong to mention Saddam Hussein even in the same breath as either a) weapons of mass destruction or b) state-sponsored terrorism. I happen to disagree, but just for an experiment, let us imagine that some regime did exist or did arise that posed such a combination of threats. (Actually, so feverish is my imagination that I can even think of one whose name also begins with I.) Would we be bound to say, in public and in advance, that the Western alliance couldn't get around to confronting such a threat until it had Afghanistan well under control? This would be rather like the equivalent fallacy that nothing can be done in the region until there is a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute. Not only does this mean that every rogue in the region can reset his timeline until one of the world's oldest and most intractable quarrels is settled, it also means that every rogue has an incentive to make certain that no such settlement can ever occur. (Which is, of course, why Saddam threw, and now the Iranians throw, their support to the suicide-murderers.)
It would also be very nice to accept another soft-centered corollary of the Iraq vs. Afghanistan trade-off and to believe that the problem of Afghanistan is a problem only of the shortage of troops. Strangely, this is not the view of the Afghan government or of any of the NATO forces on the ground. The continued and, indeed, increasing insolence of the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies is the consequence of one thing and one thing only. These theocratic terrorists know that they have a reliable backer in the higher echelons of the Pakistani state and of its military-intelligence complex and that while this relationship persists, they are assured of a hinterland across the border and a regular supply of arms and recruits.
So, the question for Sen. Barack Obama and his glib supporters is this: Would they solve this problem by removing the American forces from Iraq and putting the thereby-enhanced contingent there to patrol a frontier where one of our main "allies" is continually engaged in stabbing them in the back? (At one point last year, Obama himself appeared to accept the illogic of his own position and spoke hotly of the possibility of following the Taliban onto Pakistani soil. We haven't heard much of that lately. Did he mean to say that, come to think of it, we had enough troops to occupy three countries instead of the stipulated and solitary one? Or would he just exchange Iraq for Pakistan? At least we do know for sure that Pakistan has nuclear weapons acquired mainly by piracy and is the host and patron of the Taliban and al-Qaida.)
Another consideration obtrudes itself. If it is true, as yesterday's three-decker front-page headline in the New York Times had it, that "U.S. Considering Stepping Up Pace of Iraq Pullout/ Fall in Violence Cited/ More Troops Could Be Freed for Operations in Afghanistan," then this can only be because al-Qaida in Iraq has been subjected to a battlefield defeat at our hands—a military defeat accompanied by a political humiliation in which its fanatics have been angrily repudiated by the very people they falsely claimed to be fighting for. If we had left Iraq according to the timetable of the anti-war movement, the situation would be the precise reverse: The Iraqi people would now be excruciatingly tyrannized by the gloating sadists of al-Qaida, who could further boast of having inflicted a battlefield defeat on the United States. I dare say the word of that would have spread to Afghanistan fast enough and, indeed, to other places where the enemy operates. Bear this in mind next time you hear any easy talk about "the hunt for the real enemy" or any loose babble that suggests that we can only confront our foes in one place at a time.