The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are already lost. Nothing the United States can do can yield an American victory in either place.
In all probability, both wars were lost before the first bomb was dropped or the first shot fired. They were lost because, in an era when the state is in decline, our wars on the Afghan and Iraqi states were doomed to be too successful. We fought to destroy two regimes, but what we ended up doing was destroying two states. Neither in Afghanistan nor in Iraq are we able to recreate the state, which means that Fourth Generation, non-state forces will come to dominate both places. And neither we nor any other state knows how to defeat Fourth Generation enemies.
To the degree America had a chance of real victory in either war, we lost that chance through early mistakes. In Afghanistan, we failed to bring the Pashtun into the new government, which means we remain allied with the Uzbeks and Tajiks against the Pashtun. Unfortunately, in the end the Pashtun always win Afghan wars.
In Iraq, the two fatal early errors were outlawing the Baath Party and disbanding the Iraqi army. Outlawing the Baath deprived the Sunni community of its only political vehicle, which meant it had no choice but to fight us. Disbanding the Iraqi army left us with no native force that could maintain order, and also provided the resistance with a large pool of armed and trained fighters. Washington is now making noises about reversing both of those early decisions, but it is simply too late. As von Moltke said, a mistake in initial dispositions can seldom be put right.
What is interesting is that the most powerful man in Washington, Karl Rove, who is President George W. Bush’s political advisor, has apparently figured out that the Iraq war is lost (Afghanistan is not on his political radar screen). Further, he has discerned that if Mr. Bush goes into the 2004 election with the war in Iraq still going on, and still going badly, Mr. Bush is toast. The result was the recent decision to turn the government back to the Iraqi’s sometime next summer.
Will it work? Probably not. Mr. Rove still faces two big fights, and neither will be easy. The first will be a nasty political brawl with the so-called neo-cons, more accurately neo-Jacobins, who gave us the Iraq War in the first place. Their political future is at stake in Iraq, and if we are defeated, they go straight into history’s wastebasket. They are determined to fight down to the last American paratrooper, and once they figure out that Mr. Rove wants out, they will go after him with everything they have.
The other fight will be in Iraq itself, where we will see a race between American efforts to create at least the fig leaf of a functioning Iraqi state so we can get out with some tail feathers intact and a resistance movement that is rapidly gaining strength. My bet is that, unfortunately, we will lose. Again, the root problem is that in a Fourth Generation world, once you have destroyed a state recreating it is very difficult. More, as is typical of a power facing defeat, our moves are too little and too late. By next summer, when we hope to transfer sovereignty to a new Iraqi government, it is likely to represent a frustration of the Shiites’ hope to use their majority status to create a Shiite Islamic Republic. That may deprive us, and the new Iraqi government, of the one prop we still have, a relatively quiescent Shiite population.
The upshot of all of this is that despite Mr. Rove’s belated wakening to political reality, Mr. Bush will go into the 2004 election with one of two albatrosses around his neck: a continuing, losing guerilla war, with ever-increasing American casualties, or an out-and-out American defeat, where we have left Iraq very much the way the Soviets left Afghanistan. Which is, by the way, the way we will also leave Afghanistan itself.
The neo-cons’ parting gift to real American conservatives will be President Hillary Clinton. Thanks a lot, guys.
William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.