AP File Photo
A U.S. soldier aims his weapon at a man who a soldier had just shot in the neck as he attempted to flee down a narrow alley in a van across the street from the scene of an intense shootout on a house the day before in Mosul, Iraq, in 2003.
When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Americans were given sequential reasons for that decision. We were told that Iraq was full of al-Qaida terrorists, even though no such terrorist could conceivably have survived under Saddam Hussein. We were told that Iraq was full of WMDs or weapons of mass destruction. There was poison gas and nuclear weapons.
None of this proved to be true.
What was never explicitly said at the time was that we were invading Iraq in order to turn it into a democracy. That democracy would then be the model for the rest of Islam. The flourishing of democracy in Islam would make the Middle East a safer place for Israel. And that was the key reason behind the invasion — increasing Israel’s security.
This was not the first time that Americans had thought of the democratization of Islam. Many knowledgeable U.S. government experts on the region had seen it as worth consideration. However, in the end, based on the realities as they existed in Islam, that idea had been rejected.
Parenthetically, it is of minor historical interest to note that even when the idea was popular, Iraq was the last country in Islam thought by our experts to be susceptible to such democratization.
The lack of suitability of so many Islamic Middle East countries for democratization is part of the DNA of the region. The issues that surround regional nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism are, at least for the foreseeable future, so great as to make democratization, at best, problematic.
Nevertheless, we did commit American troops to bringing down Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In doing so, we precipitated a number of inevitabilities. Saddam was not beloved by his people. When we removed him and his supporters, we created a situation in which our troops, the “foreign invaders,” became the surrogates for Saddam’s repressive troops. American troops maintained the order. Where we thought we were involved in a liberation, we soon found ourselves in an insurgency against our presence.
The same became true as we lingered on in Afghanistan. Afghanis, who never loved the Taliban, retreated into their tribal mode and turned against us in an insurgency. All of a sudden, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we were fighting insurgencies rather than hunting terrorists, primarily because we were the foreigners.
When an indigenous population has to choose between it’s own “bad guys” and foreign “bad guys,” even though they may not actively support their own, chances are they will not help the foreigners at all. A successful counterinsurgency requires at least local passivity, and preferably some cooperation.
According to American counterinsurgency doctrine, in order to successfully deal with an insurgency, the counterinsurgents (the U.S.) must commit 25 combat soldiers for every 1,000 people in the local population. That would have required around 850,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and an equal number in Iraq, an impossible commitment for us to seriously consider.
Most countries that have dealt with terrorism believe for the reasons outlined above that terrorists should never be confronted militarily, but rather should be dealt with as a criminal matter using police, intelligence and special forces.
The decision to use the term “War on Terror” was a major mistake as it misdirected most of our counterterrorism activities.
The first thing we need to do in the Middle East is decide precisely why we are there. What is there in our national interest that should be driving our policies? We are not in the process of installing democracy in that region.
The absolute best we can logically hope for is stability through self-determination. Beyond that, it is reasonable to hope for a moderate Islam. Only a tiny fraction of Muslims are fundamentalists. With real self-determination, it is reasonable to hope that Muslims will elect moderates. And that should be our goal — the election of moderate Muslim regimes.
After a dozen years of military activity, America has little credibility in the region. Some of that credibility can be restored with the removal of our uniformed troops and the cessation of hostilities. The simple absence of drone activity would be a tremendous help.
With our troops gone and our military activities ended, we will regain the opportunity to use all the other available foreign policy tools: diplomacy, propaganda, covert action, police, liaison with indigenous organizations and economic activity.
We might even get back to the greater level of respect and admiration we enjoyed last century.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington,and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.