This whole War On Terror™ thing is way old.
When it started, there were no iPods, Enron was one of the most widely admired companies in the world. And the word Bluetooth sounded to most people like a dental affliction.
This war has gone on for so long, in fact, that our war aims are no longer clear.
The Iraq war was sold to the American people as an attempt to rid the Middle East of a WMD-wielding, terrorist-nurturing dictator. Saddam's removal, it was promised, would cause a democracy to spread through the Middle East faster than crabs at a youth-group lock-in.
Our war aims, however, changed almost as soon as American tanks rolled into Baghdad. From "build a shining beacon of prosperity and democracy" in the Middle East, we quickly downgraded our goals to "hold the country together" and "stop the civil war we unintentionally started."
Today, we're focused on bulking up Iraq's army and police forces enough so that our own army can withdraw without triggering another civil war. Our overall war objective in Iraq today is literally to create the conditions that will allow us to leave.
One of the reasons a drawdown of forces is so important right now is because of our other big war, in Afghanistan.
Sentient adults may recall that in 2001, the U.S. toppled Afghanistan's Taliban regime. The Taliban were (and still are) Muslim fundamentalists who had allowed Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda to live, work and play in Afghanistan.
For years, al-Qaeda used Afghanistan as a hatchery for all manner of evil deeds – such as the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole docked in Yemen, and of course, the 9/11 attacks.
The first stage of the Afghanistan war was militarily successful. From October 2001 to January 2002, we kicked ass.
We've been losing ground ever since.
Though President Bush has long acknowledged that long-term success against Talibanism in Afghanistan required economic, political and social development, none of that materialized. Seven years after the War On Terror™, Afghanistan remains one of the five poorest countries in the world – and the poorest country outside sub-Saharan Africa.
Afghanistan's only real industry is heroin.
Though the Taliban is a bunch of nominally religious fundamentalists who oppose drug use (along with other vices such as booze, music, dancing, enjoyment, and smiling), they have harnessed Afghanistan's heroin production to fund a comeback worthy of a Rocky sequel.
Back in 2002, the Taliban controlled next-to-zero of the country. Now, the group controls roughly a third of it – and I mean roughly in both senses of the word.
The post-U.S. invasion era has also seen the rise of a homegrown Taliban movement across the border in Pakistan. Pakistan's Taliban consists of as many as 35,000 rural tribesmen.
Like their cousins just across the border in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban are trying to impose their creepy fundamentalist ways in their own country's tribal regions. They regularly carry out suicide bombings throughout Pakistan. They're also at war with the country's national army. The two movements feed off one another and, just like they did pre-9/11, continue to provide a safe haven to Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
The goal of the American war in Afghanistan right now isn't to crush Talibanism. We're simply trying to control it.
In Afghanistan, we're going to try to replicate our recent successes in Iraq by bolstering our troop presence (like the surge) and buying off "moderate" elements of the Taliban (à la the so-called Sunni Awakening in Iraq). Just as we did in Iraq, reducing violence in Afghanistan will require face-to-face, hand-to-wallet dealings with people we've described for years as terrorists.
No surge-like plan will succeed, however, unless it's accompanied by a nation-building effort that dwarfs what's been attempted since 2001.
And no amount of Oba-magic in Afghanistan will make things better unless we get our Pakistan policy in order, which I'll write about next week.
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