“Too Quick to Battle” was originally published in the Wall Street Journal by Matthew Hoh on January 20, 2010.
President Obama inherited three wars: Iraq, Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda. And despite all the promise of a fresh approach as he took office, and a steady stream of rhetoric since then about the need for adversaries around the world to find common ground, his administration has inherited the tendency of its predecessor to rely too heavily on military solutions to these conflicts.
The Iraq war, at least for the U.S. military, is thankfully coming to an end. After more than six years of fighting, a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces is under way and should continue, despite the sustained detonation of murderous car and suicide bombs, a fragile ethnic power balance and the apparent greater allegiance of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Tehran than to the U.S.
Last year saw 149 American service members die in Iraq, pushing the total to nearly 4,400, while the cost to our Treasury will surely reach $1 trillion by the time our occupation ends.
With these great and unrecoverable costs, the benefits of the Iraq war are as unknown as its reasons. A blend of arrogance, hubris and ignorance compelled our flailing in Iraq for many years, delivering nothing of value to the American people.
I trust President Obama moves forward ever mindful of this past folly and current uncertainty, while we wait and see whether the delicate political process in place is inclusive and firm enough to bring eventual stability and peace to Iraq.
We Need to Talk
Unfortunately, the Afghan war is not coming to an end, but rather accelerating, with troop increases that will serve as a catalyst for greater violence without providing for political resolution.
In 2001, the U.S. intervened in what was then widely acknowledged as a long-running civil war without imposing a political settlement resolving the decades of fighting. Last month, President Obama announced an almost entirely military solution without the necessary commensurate political efforts. Overtures to the Taliban for negotiations were provided; however, our conditions essentially asked for the Taliban’s surrender.
Only through an honest political process started by negotiations will there be peace, and so we must begin serious talks.
Additionally, we must realize the structure of the Afghan government, with power residing in and flowing from Kabul, is impractical in a country where power and governance have historically and effectively existed at the lowest level possible, often villages and valleys.
In response to the failed elections of last year, a grand council, or loya jirga, should be held encompassing all elements of Afghan society, to include Taliban leadership, in order to reform the Afghan government into something workable, sustainable and equitable. A process needs to begin in Afghanistan that brings the political stability required to end three decades of war, something continued military action will not accomplish. Until President Obama forces such political action, the fighting will only go on.
Defeating al Qaeda
It is the third war where President Obama will need to show the greatest political courage to lead the U.S. and the world to victory, over al Qaeda, something that can be accomplished using the appropriate resources and tactics, while remaining true to our convictions and rule of law.
Seth Jones and Martin Libicki of Rand Corp. have shown that four of five terrorist organizations historically have ended by either joining the political process or by police and intelligence efforts, rather than military action.
By all means, senior al Qaeda leadership should be killed or captured. But the notion that army brigades in Afghanistan are going to have any effect on an enemy whose most recent attack was launched by a young Nigerian who is a former resident of London, wearing explosive-laden underwear provided by a virtually run organization out of the Arabian Peninsula, is absurd. We must achieve the ideological and moral defeat of al Qaeda, as well as deny it the ability to murder. This victory is possible not with a return to post-9/11 hysteria, bombast and thrashing, but with courageous and principled presidential leadership.
None of these wars are existential threats to the United States. The U.S. triumphed in the Cold War not from supporting dictatorships in places like Iran or by fighting wars in Asia, but rather because of the inherent qualities of our Constitution. Our ideals of liberty, freedom, self-determination and open markets were the reasons we defeated communism, not small wars or the abandonment of our values and virtues.
As we move forward in 2010, U.S. interests, and so world interests, will be served best by a president who recognizes the political and ideological nature of the current conflicts and acts on that understanding to achieve lasting peace.
Matthew Hoh is a former Marine who fought in Iraq and has worked with the State Department and the Defense Department on issues in Iraq and Afghanistan .Hoh is also on the Board of Directors for Council for a Livable Word.