The cost of losing wars is more war

After meetings last week in Washington among President Obama, his generals, Secretary Clinton, and Afghan president Karzai, it is worth focusing on what it means for the United States to lose the Afghan and Iraq wars.

The meetings, we should be clear, were about Washington’s slow-motion return of power to the Taliban and its allies. Karzai knows Obama must withdraw most U.S. forces from Afghanistan to better his 2012 reelection chances and so wants to bring the Taliban into the government. Karzai is well-suited to the task; he once urged the U.S. to recognize the Taliban and agreed to be its UN ambassador. And the simple reality is that if Karzai wants to stay in a post-U.S. Afghanistan and hold a share of power he must move to the Taliban’ side.

While Karzai and his U.S. interlocutors met, Iraq had another shot of what seems a trend of steadily increasing sectarian violence. That spasm was a glimpse of what probably is on tap after U.S. forces depart. As we lose in Afghanistan, we also must recall the Iraq war is a disaster-producer that is far from spent. Even if he had WMD, Saddam was no threat to America when we invaded. Likewise, Saddam and Syria’s Bashir al-Asad were key if de facto U.S. allies in the war against the Islamists. Those fascist, secular regimes were the cork in the bottle’s neck; they kept the jihad in South Asia. When we popped the cork to destroy Saddam, we also fatally weakened Syria and so facilitated the Sunni jihad’s westward move into the Arab heartland, the Levant, and Gaza.

Thus, the Obama administration’s decision, with Republican support, is to lose in Afghanistan and Iraq. This means monumental victories for the Islamists led or inspired by Osama bin Laden. Since the Afghan mujahideen beat the Soviets in 1989, only bin Laden consistently has predicted that Islamists would have an easier time defeating the second superpower. He has argued U.S. leaders are soft, risk averse, impatient, and unwilling to use the full measure of U.S. military power. With twin U.S. defeats, bin Laden will be proven correct and many Muslims will join the jihad; as Osama said on another occasion, people follow the strong horse.

More important, the defeats will enhance bin Laden’s status as the unchallenged and prescient leader of Sunni militancy. Many of his Islamist peers damned the 9/11 attacks, claiming they would bring the U.S. military down on the Islamist movement, set it back for decades, and perhaps annihilate it entirely. And many in the U.S. corps of Islamist experts used the same line; Fawaz Gerges’s book The Far Enemy, for example, spoke for many by maintaining the 9/11 attacks and ensuing U.S. military response would make bin Laden yesterday’s news.

Today, however, we are seeing bin Laden’s peers proved wrong and most of America’s Islamist experts exposed as wishful thinkers. After 9/11, bin Laden’s response to criticism was not combative but soothing and patient. He simply said: Wait, the Americans have no stomach for insurgency, cannot stand casualties, and will lose interest if there is no quick victory. Indeed, 9/11 worked like a charm for al-Qaeda. The raids got a U.S. army on the ground in Afghanistan — an event bin Laden labored for since 1997 — and earned an enormous if unexpected bonus by allowing the pro-Israel ideologues around Mr. Bush to start the Iraq war.

By March, 2003, then, bin Laden had caused Washington to deploy two U.S. armies to Muslim lands where they are being treated by largely non-al-Qaeda insurgents to the kind of attrition that beat the Red Army. Democratic and Republican leaders now say America tried the military option and it failed. This is an absurd notion. The killing power of the U.S. military is unimaginable; we have barely scratched its surface in either war. It is more accurate to say U.S. leaders are eager to intervene and start wars, but for 50 years have refused fully to use the military Americans paid for because they fear public condemnation from the media, human-rights groups, and the so-called international community if they seek victory.

In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush and Obama administrations have never been serious about winning; and each has been supported by the party out of power. They have, for example, sent inadequate numbers of troops; put them under rules of engagement that make them targets not killers; and caused our soldier-children to die so Mrs. Muhammad can vote in rigged Afghan and Iraqi elections. In short, our interventionist leaders are happy to pay for their democracy-building ambitions with the lives of America’s young and the nation’s financial solvency.

So, it is time to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, but we must face facts. The price of military intervention is always exactly the same; if you do not irrefutably win, you will surely irrefutably lose. After 9/11, Afghanistan was a mandatory target for a short, decisive punitive military expedition; Iraq was a fool’s errand from the start. We will lose in each place because we are unwilling to win, but no one should believe withdrawal without victory will bring peace. Most wars should never be started, but once a Great Power starts one it must not be lost, especially to a weaker enemy. Losing emboldens the enemy, and today the emboldened enemy is a growing number of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims.

Our bipartisan leadership’s fatal combination of interventionism and defeatism have created an Islamist foe more dangerous today than on 9/11. More remarkable, it has made Osama bin Laden appear a master strategist, one who, it increasingly appears, is on the verge of bringing his emboldened jihadis to the cities and streets of the United States.