Was There Ever a “Mission” in Afghanistan?

Robert Gates, Defense Secretary under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, created a stir in his recently published memoirs when he wrote, “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.”

The real question about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has never changed: What was the mission?

It all goes back to George W. Bush’s conceptualization of the “war against terrorism.” He never called it a war against terrorist states. He declared war on a methodology, rather than on entities responsible for employing the methodology.

This was a convenient way to evade the real enemy. If you don’t name the enemy, then you don’t have to be seen as harsh or judgmental, something that President Bush in particular (like most Republicans) was very concerned about not doing.

Imagine such an approach in World War II. Instead of declaring war against the Nazi or Japanese regimes, the United States might have declared war against “militarism” or “imperialism.”

There’s nothing invalid about being against an irrational ideology or strategy. But if you’re going to commit troops or weapons to battle, you have to take responsibility for identifying your enemy. This is something the Bush administration never fully did. It sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, purportedly in response to 9/11, while never making the connection between these regimes and the basis for the military response in the first place.

The Taliban who once ran Afghanistan and the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein were certainly morally valid targets. But how was America actually threatened by these regimes any more than was the case prior to 9/11? No answer was ever given, because the Bush Administration (and later the Obama Administration) always proceeded as if the question had already been answered.

It’s a sensitive subject, because troops were sent to these nations, many were killed and others were badly injured in the name of “protecting America.” The competence of the troops is laudable, and deserves high praise indeed. But none of this changes the fact that America never had an explicit purpose in these wars. This made them vulnerable to the attacks of anti-American pacifists (initially Obama himself in a celebrated speech) to oppose use of American military force on principle.

Arguably, the most appropriate military response after 9/11 would have been against the regime of Iran. Iran, both before and since 9/11, has been a champion of the sort of religious fundamentalist terrorism the “war against terrorism” was intended to attack. For reasons George W. Bush never explained, Iran was never the target of the war against terrorism, even though administrations for decades have labeled it the #1 sponsor of anti-American terrorism.

A war against terrorism without attacking the biggest promoter and sponsor of terrorism? Go figure.

Obama has been no more clear on the “mission” for troops sent to the Middle East than was his predecessor. But he’s certainly clear on where he stands with Iran. He views this government of militant, violent clerics–who will very likely engage in nuclear blackmail, if not use of nuclear weapons, should they ever get them–as people with whom he can do business.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been two of America’s worst presidents. Having served as Defense Secretary under both of these presidents must have been a mind-numbing experience for Robert Gates. It’s little wonder he’s reportedly blowing off so much steam in his memoirs.


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