University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Michael Desch

The United States’ military response to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan following 9/11 was morally justified. It was an act of self-defense against a dangerous Taliban regime in cahoots with the perpetrators of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But this necessary war to topple the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda has been taken to unnecessary extremes, raising doubts about the wisdom of the Obama Administration’s escalation of the war there now.

The United States should not have been surprised by the Al Qaeda attacks; Osama bin Laden and his colleagues made little secret of the grievances they harbored against the United States. Their 1998 fatwa listed their casus belli as the presence of large numbers of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia — the home of two of Islam’s holy sites, Mecca and Medina — and the long record of nearly unquestioning U.S. support for the State of Israel, which occupies Islam’s third holiest site, the Harem al-Sharif in Jerusalem.

Defensible, but problematic

Both U.S. policies — protecting Saudi Arabia from foreign attack and ensuring the survival of Israel within its internationally recognized boundaries — are morally and practically defensible. But both are, in different ways, also problematic: The Saudi regime is corrupt and repressive, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory — including Eastern Jerusalem — undermines the security of the Jewish State and imposes an unacceptable human cost on the Palestinians.

As the escalating series of attacks against two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the warship the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni Port of Aden made clear, Al Qaeda was capable of inflicting serious damage on the United States. Given that, Al Qaeda needed to be destroyed, and its host the Taliban regime had to go as well. Ridding Afghanistan of both was a necessary part of the war against Al Qaeda.

The first wrong step: The War in Iraq

Unfortunately, the George W. Bush Administration botched and cut short the military effort to destroy Al Qaeda with its decision to open a new front in the Global War on Terror in Iraq — the first unnecessary step. In the heady days of late October and November 2001, when CIA paramilitary officers and Army Special Forces combined with Afghan tribesmen to defeat the Taliban using the most primitive and most advanced weaponry in surprising synergy, some thought that the war against Al Qaeda had been won easily with the fall of Kabul.

This short war illusion should have been shattered in November 2001, when that same constellation of forces could not defeat Al Qaeda’s last stand in the redoubt of Tora Bora in the White Mountains in Eastern Afghanistan. The failure of the United States to commit substantial troops to this effort literally allowed bin Laden to escape to fight another day. In March 2002, the United States blew another chance to inflict a decisive defeat on Al Qaeda during Operation Anaconda in the Shahi-Kot Valley.

The well-spring of both these strategic missteps was the U.S.’s preoccupation with attacking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the dubious pretexts that he was aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons and that his militantly secular Ba’ath regime was cooperating with the Islamic fundamentalists of Al Qaeda.

The second wrong step: Ambitious nation-building

A second unnecessary step in the war against Al Qaeda was the decision taken by the Bush Administration in its last year, and now endorsed by the Obama Administration, to expand the goals in Afghanistan from simply trying to destroy Al Qaeda to committing the U.S. to an ambitious exercise in nation-building to prevent Al Qaeda from re-establishing a safe haven in Afghanistan. This surge in objectives is leading to a dramatic increase in the footprint of the U.S. military presence on the ground.

Nations either build themselves or they don’t get built at all; there is very little outside actors can do if the necessary domestic preconditions do not exist.

This escalation in the Global War on Terror is unwise and unnecessary. It is unwise because nation-building is among the most difficult exercises in international social engineering. Nations either build themselves or they don’t get built at all; there is very little outside actors can do if the necessary domestic preconditions do not exist. They certainly don’t in Afghanistan.

The increasing scope and goals of U.S. operations in Afghanistan are also unnecessary. The U.S. presence on the ground creates as many problems as it solves, from the “moral hazard” of doing so much that the Afghans don’t have to do anything, to the human cost caused by even the most discriminating and careful of U.S. military operations.

While the drone war in the tribal regions of Pakistan cannot completely stamp out Al Qaeda and its Talib allies, it can keep them on the run and cowering in caves. This, in turn, is enough to prevent them from going on the offensive again against the United States. It is by no means certain that Afghanistan without the United States would revert to a failed state, but even if it did, it would hardly be worse than Western Pakistan, and the United States could use its ample high-technology weapons and Special Operations Forces to continue to keep Al Qaeda on the run.

The war against Al Qaeda is both necessary and just. Unfortunately, it has been taken to two unnecessary extremes: the invasion of Iraq and the commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan. The United States would be better off, both morally and practically, if it limited its objectives to fighting just that war.

Michael Desch is chair and professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and a faculty fellow of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.