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Inconvenient Counterfactuals
Copper engraving from a Dutch Bible map of biblical times, Daniel Stoopendaal, c. 1714

Inconvenient Counterfactuals

Realists blame the United States for all that’s gone wrong in the Greater Middle East, but they’ve given little thought to the alternatives.

Giselle Donnelly

The tragedy and humiliation of the withdrawal from Afghanistan have solidified the bipartisan consensus that, beyond immediate revenge on al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden, America’s post-9/11 strategy for the Greater Middle East has been an unmitigated disaster.

To The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, the disaster in Kabul was the “natural result of 20 years of failed strategy.” Instead of using our military simply to fight and win wars, we waded into the impossible task of nation-building. Those on the left, meanwhile, believe that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the source of all the subsequent failure. Peter Singer, known as a prophet of warfare, wrote that the invasion, by destabilizing the region, “enabled the rise of the Islamic State, which at its height occupied a substantial slice of Iraqi territory and spread terrorism around the world.” Other critics have added that Iran was the true winner of the Iraq War.

Because of these unhappy experiences, geopolitical realism has become the zeitgeist, encompassing the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations alike—three Presidents who agreed on almost nothing else. No realist voice has been more persuasive than that of Andrew Bacevich, a former soldier and professor at Boston University and now president and chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank founded in 2019 with half a million dollars each from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the conservative Charles Koch Foundation. In addition to delivering acid critiques of past policy, Bacevich and his institute have promoted an alternative based on “realism, prudence, scrupulous self-understanding and an appreciation of the world as it is rather than as policy elites might wish it to be.”

The World as It Was

Yet the realists have been loath to address questions about the real world. Their writings about the unforeseen consequences of the Bush administration’s response to the events of September 11, 2001 are voluminous, yet they rarely sketch an alternative history of what a “prudent” policy might have been, let alone how it would have made us better off today. Lacking such a “realist’s counterfactual,” let us imagine one, giving the devils their full due, and consider it from a variety of viewpoints: Kabul, Baghdad, Tehran, Riyadh, the Greater Middle East, elsewhere around the world, and, not least, domestically in the United States.

Let us build as sturdy a straw man as possible, beginning with the fact that, beyond the feverish precincts of conspiracy theorists, the attacks of twenty years ago demanded a powerful response. When the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden and his lieutenants, an invasion of Afghanistan became unavoidable. After Christmas of 2001, when it became clear that bin Laden had survived the siege of the Tora Bora complex in eastern Afghanistan and was likely to have gone to ground in Pakistan, possibly under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence services, it was necessary to keep a substantial U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to maintain any sort of pursuit of the al-Qaeda chieftain. More, to have done so without at least a modest amount of “nation-building”—or, even more minimally, “state-building”—would have been a challenge.

But let us assume that (a) some balance of interests and power among Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and part of the Pashtun community, derived from relief at the ousting of the Taliban, might at least initially have given the green light to a U.S. footprint small enough to minimize resentments yet large enough to suppress a Taliban or al-Qaeda revival and chase after bin Laden, and (b) the Bush administration was content to keep Saddam “in his box.”

Even this best-case realist straw man, however, is a fragile creation. Consider, for example, the hoped-for balance among Afghan regional warlords: They have historically been an unstable lot, and present generations are not much different. Until this August, the most durable of them has been the Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum. Originally a commander in the Soviet-era Afghan national army, and named a “hero of Afghanistan” by its last Communist government, under Mohammed Najibullah, Dostum defected to the “Northern Alliance” of Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, under whom he had initial success, capturing Kabul. Dostum then switched his allegiance to the Islamic Party faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, based in Kunduz Province, establishing his own mini-state in the north of the country at Mazar-e Sharif but fleeing to Turkey in 1998 when the Taliban emerged victorious from the post-Soviet civil war.

Dostum returned to Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion, in time to receive the surrender of 15,000 Taliban troops at Mazar-e Sharif. He served under the presidencies of both Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, survived several assassination attempts, and has been reviled equally by U.S. intelligence and international human rights organizations. Charged with the defense of Mazar-e Sharif against the recent Taliban offensive, Dostum fled within three days.

Such regional strongmen have had the power to destabilize any countrywide coalition. They also frequently overplay their hand. Not even the duplicitous Karzai, with his generous American backing, or the presence of several thousand German troops in Kunduz, could keep the likes of Dostum permanently on his side.

The U.S. and NATO effort over two decades was exactly the “economy-of-force” strategy that realists recommend: just enough to provide a cocoon of support for counterterrorism operations and sustain the required fiction of a central state. If the United States and NATO had withdrawn this cocoon after the bin Laden raid of 2011, the Afghan collapse would likely have soon followed.

An earlier withdrawal, in 2002 or 2012, would almost certainly have had the same implications as it has now had for South Asia. Pakistan’s leaders—Pervez Musharraf in 2002, Asif Ali Zardari in 2012, and now former cricket star Imran Khan, who has declared that, with the American departure, Afghans have “broken the shackles of slavery”—have always regarded Afghanistan as part of their “strategic depth” in their existential struggle with India; Islamist terror groups have been part of their order of battle. Naturally, Delhi’s calculus is a mirror image of Lahore’s: “Our strategic interest,” says Nirupama Rao, formerly India’s foreign secretary and ambassador to the United States, is to “make sure that our borders are secure and protected from the influx of terrorist groups, and that a neighbor like Pakistan doesn't exploit the situation in Afghanistan—as it has in the past.” The “world as it was” in South Asia, where China also has strategic ambitions, is Hobbesian and remains so.

An earlier American retreat would likely have eased Iran’s strategic anxiety, as it is doing now. True, in 1998 Tehran and the Taliban nearly went to war over the murder of nearly a dozen Iranian diplomats; in theory, the interactions between the two revolutionary regimes, one Shi‘a and one Sunni, do not sound like a recipe for cooperation. But since 9/11, their common desire to get the United States out of Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East has provided an overriding common interest.

Another common interest is their antipathy to the Gulf Arab monarchies: Tehran has long wanted to count the Taliban as part of its “Axis of Resistance,” and, as an insurgent Islamist militia, the Taliban frequently follow the Iranian revolutionary playbook. They are natural trading partners, from ideological sympathy, geographical proximity, and the need to circumvent international sanctions: Iran will sell oil, and the Taliban have lowered tariffs. Iran’s imperial gaze looks mostly westward, toward the Gulf, the Levant, and Israel. Finally, China is emerging as a great-power sponsor to both Kabul and Tehran. All these tendencies arise from the strategic cultures of the Iranian and Taliban regimes, not American actions.

Conversely, the decline of American influence across the Greater Middle East strikes terror into the hearts of the Arab kings and generals who rule in the “moderate” states that are long-standing U.S. strategic partners. That is not only true now; it would have been equally true, if not more so, in 2002 or 2012. The Cold War “twin pillars” strategy, resting on the Saudi royal family and the Shah of Iran, was an unnatural, jerry-rigged construct, and the Saudis, since President Barrack Obama told them they had to “share” the Gulf region with Iran, have been hedging their great-power bets. After the Afghanistan fiasco, a long-planned meeting between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was canceled. It will likely be rescheduled; but meanwhile, a Saudi powwow with the Russian deputy defense minister went ahead as scheduled. The Saudis have also welcomed a growing cadre of Chinese advisers.

What does a “hedging” Saudi Arabia look like? Consider the long, bloody, inconclusive war in Yemen. The Al Saud dynasty, as clever, rich, and ruthless as it is, is in an inherently risky position, as are the Hashemite kings of Jordan, the emirs of the Gulf states, and Egypt’s military dictators. Their nascent partnerships with Israel, which has strategic interests that necessarily diverge from those of the United States, is not much of a substitute for America’s past presence.

Then there was the rapid disengagement of America’s European allies, especially NATO. The 2001 invocation of NATO’s Article 5, which obliges every member to respond to an attack on any other member, reaffirmed the utility of the pact in the post-Soviet era and silenced talk of European “strategic autonomy.” It also temporarily forced the Germans to confront their military weakness. Moreover, Europe was enthusiastic about contributing to the now-reviled project of Afghan nation-building; a combination of the fear of terrorism with the wish to ennoble the project by efforts like educating Afghan girls kept Europe in the fight until the very end. An early American withdrawal would inevitably have raised doubts again about the relevance of the Atlantic Alliance. Leaving in the wake of the bin Laden raid would have been particularly poisonous, making the United States appear selfish and transactional—as is happening now—and leaving our closest allies holding the bag.

The “Dumb War”

In October of 2002, President George W. Bush announced that he had agreed with Congress on a resolution to go to war against Iraq. It subsequently garnered seventy-seven Senate votes, including that of Joe Biden. On the same day, then-Illinois state Senator Barack Obama addressed a rally of Chicagoans Against War in Iraq. “I don’t oppose all wars,” Obama began. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war … based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” He repeated the “dumb war” phrase twice more, providing the headline for the central critique of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Populist conservatives like Mollie Hemingway may be reluctant to use Obama’s rhetoric directly, but they recycle the same idea.

Obama claimed to have “no illusions about Saddam Hussein.… He’s a bad guy. The world and the Iraqi people would be better off without him.” But, he added, Saddam “poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.” “Even a successful war,” he went on, “will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, and undetermined consequences.” Done without a clear rationale and strong international support, it “will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Instead, Obama advised the Bush administration to “finish the fight with bin Laden and al-Qaeda,” which he saw as a job for “effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.” Obama had nothing to say about the prospect of occupying Afghanistan: Before 9/11, U.S. anti-terrorism efforts had become a matter for law enforcement, not military action.

Obama’s arguments have assumed a quality of prescience. His speech, said James Fallows, “made him president, since it allowed him to claim he had shown better foreign-policy judgment” than his Democratic primary opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, and his Republican rival for the presidency, Senator John McCain.

But was this indeed truly sound judgment? The most obvious weakness of Obama’s case was his assertion that Saddam Hussein, “in the way of all petty dictators” would meekly climb into “the dustbin of history;” then Iraq would presumably become a normal nation. There is a rich archive of “what-if-Saddam-had-survived” literature, now overwhelming the previous “what-if-Desert-Storm-had-removed-Saddam” speculations. The fallacy of almost all this work is to consider Saddam as an unchangeable, independent variable. Speculating about the post-Desert Storm Saddam also became deeply entwined in post-2003 partisanship.

One central battlefield in this debate is that of Saddam’s attitudes toward the Salafist movement that inspired al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It was a challenge to align a secular, socialist, Arab anti-colonialist doctrine with Islamic doctrine—Sunni or Shi‘a. The Iraqi dictator, sensitive to the role of religion in his country’s politics, sought to permeate pulpits with Ba‘ath Party ideology. Saddam’s concerns increased with his military misadventures: In the wake of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, he reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Desert Storm defeat, he formally began the so-called “Faith Campaign.” While his motives probably remained generally the same, this campaign began to imitate in form the postures of the Salafist movement. The takbir, the Arabic script for “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great,” was added to the Iraqi flag. Saddam cracked down on night life and alcohol consumption. Women charged as prostitutes were beheaded. The Quran became the focal point of the educational system.

What to make of Saddam’s turn is somewhat unclear. The debate over it caught fire, during the heyday of ISIS in Iraq, between those who argued that the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation drove the rise of ISIS and those who saw the group’s roots as extending farther back to the 1990s “Faith Campaign” or even to the earlier creation of Fedayeen Saddam, a kind of imitation of the Iranian revolutionary militias. The majority view was well-captured in a 2016 article for Foreign Affairs by Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill, who had made an extensive study of the Saddam and Ba‘ath Party archives. Their research, they concluded, “has found no evidence that Saddam or his Ba‘athist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.” The documents made it “clear,” they said, that Saddam Hussein opposed Islamic extremism.

Yet, in an earlier article, Helfont had offered a more nuanced assessment: The Iraqi dictator’s dalliance with Islamism had served to “instrumentalize” that movement and turn it to his purposes, particularly his desire to rehabilitate his position after the first Gulf War. The association brought him certain successes—with, for example, the Jordanian and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had initially opposed the attack on Kuwait. At the height of the UN-imposed sanctions regime, such alliances offered almost the only promising way for Saddam to escape from his “box.”

This lens is also useful as a way of viewing the infamous case of Saddam’s outreach to Osama bin Laden, initiated by his son Uday. It resulted in a February 1995 meeting between the al-Qaeda leader and Saddam’s representatives. Each side likely saw a commonality of interests, but each, wary of the other, sought only a transactional relationship. Bin Laden wanted the Iraqis to begin anti-Saudi broadcasts and “perform joint operations against the foreign”—that is, American—“forces in the Hijaz.” There is no evidence that the initiative got very far, and when bin Laden was tossed out of Sudan and relocated to Afghanistan, contact had to be reestablished. In sum, while it is clear that Saddam remained a secular Ba‘athist at heart, he both feared Salafism and recognized its growing strength through the 1990s.

Saddam was essentially a megalomaniac: His previous “pan-Arabism” was likewise a means to his own ends. Even if Saddam could never be more than a faux-Islamist, though, his willingness to instrumentalize the movement and to be seen to stand with bin Laden is a critical factor to consider in any speculation about what the consequences would have been of leaving Saddam in place after 9/11. It casts substantial doubt on President Obama’s contention that Saddam would have faded away into history’s dustbin.

Two other factors, rarely considered by the advocates of realism and restraint, should go into any Iraq counterfactual equation. First, even had Saddam not gone to the gallows in 2006, he would be dead by now. His sons, Uday and Qusay, were not ideal successors. Both of them were viciously brutal personalities, but Uday, the elder brother, seems to have been more interested in pleasure than in politics. He was severely wounded—crippled—by as many as seventeen bullets in a 1996 assassination attempt. Qusay, who was named as Saddam’s successor after Uday’s shooting, did not command the fear or the loyalty that his father did. His most notable achievement was to snatch a billion dollars’ worth of U.S. dollars and euros from the Iraqi central bank prior to the 2003 invasion. The odds on a smooth transfer of Ba‘ath power were long.

The second, and more profound, factor is the fragility of Saddam’s polity. A nasty surprise during the post-invasion occupation—the weakness of Iraqi nationalism and the strength of ethnic and sectarian divides—was largely the result of three decades of Saddam’s rule. Both Shi‘a and Kurdish separatism and antagonism to the ruling Sunni elite were rising to a revolutionary pitch. Even if Saddam had been able to hang on through the early 2000s, it is far from clear that the Ba‘ath regime could have retained uninterrupted power. And even if the United States had not intervened through invasion, Iran would have intervened through subversion and subsidies to Iraqi Shi‘a leaders and parties. Those who make the “restraint” argument contend that Tehran’s increased influence in Iraq was largely due to American occupation, but that argument takes no account of the previous fracturing of Iraqi society. The door was already open. Regardless of U.S. policy, it would have opened wider.

Saddam-as-Saladin can only have accelerated the break-up. His posturing should be understood as an attempt not just to co-opt Salafists but to reclaim his previous position as the champion of Sunni Arab people against a tide of Shi‘a revolution emanating from Tehran. This position allowed Saddam to extract support from the Saudis and other Gulf states and even farther afield, like Deobandi elements in Pakistan. The consequences of deepening sectarian divisions in Iraq are suggested by the violence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq, or the brief but gruesome period of the ISIS caliphate beginning in 2014. Saddam may not have created or directed these emanations of Sunni paranoia, but he helped create the swamp from which they emerged and would have been pleased to instrumentalize them. The American invasion was one factor that made the Euphrates valley a frontline battlefield in the larger battle between Shi‘a and Sunni revolutionaries and monarchs desperate to preserve their power, but the effects of Saddam’s regime were at work long before the war, are still at work now, and would have been even greater had there been no invasion.

The violence and tumult in Iraq over the past decade since the Obama administration’s withdrawal also reflects the deep divides revealed in the “mission-accomplished-democracy-is-messy” years of the first George W. Bush term and only slightly healed in the 2007–10 “Surge” period. Indeed, it is very difficult to imagine a happy conclusion. Even if an American withdrawal—though, thankfully, not yet a total bug out—has opened the Pandora’s box of a regional civil war, there is no good reason to think that “restraint” in 2003 would have prevented this conflict.

Missing the Point

One unintended benefit for the Biden administration of the debacle in Kabul is that it has further postponed any reckoning with the consequences of the previous withdrawal from Iraq. As humiliating as the Afghanistan retreat has been, the greater damage was to bug out, even if incompletely, of Baghdad. The Gulf region is inherently of greater strategic importance than the Hindu Kush. And while American forces remain in Iraq and Syria and the U.S. Navy still rules the local waves, we have been demoted from kingmakers to referees in a free-for-all mosh-pit struggle in the global balance of power.

There is also the question of the effects of earlier withdrawals on America’s reputational interests and its ability to sustain the liberal international order—a figure of speech lately a subject of mockery but not long ago thought to be a historical achievement. The realists argue that a “prudent” husbanding of U.S. power, especially military power, would have not only avoided “imperial overstretch” and the sin of hubris but enhanced our international respect.

It is true that the ease with which the Taliban was dismembered and al-Qaeda put on the run was a shocking and awesome demonstration of American might. But, as of the spring of 2002, these efforts amounted to no more than a strategic raid: what in earlier times would have been described, in the spirit of Sir Francis Drake, as a “descent.” Realists and devotees of “maritime” or “offshore balancing” strategies have always been drawn to this mode of campaigning, which is not only dashing but seems to promise big rewards for minimal effort. This type of result is becoming another net strategic effect of the Iraq War. Desert Storm crippled the Saddam regime, so the satisfactions of the swift invasion of 2003 were transitory. The first Bush administration believed it had pioneered a new way of war. Not so.

History has not been kind to these concepts: They lay at the heart of Britain’s reputation as “perfidious Albion.” Raiding strategies and offshore balancing are particularly corrosive to the willingness of others to “bandwagon” in support rather than hedge against a change in the American domestic political weather. The United States has, in fact, punched above its weight for decades—maintaining a global role while spending 4 percent or less of its annual economic product on military forces, in good part by emphasizing its ideals as the source of its power. To paraphrase Colin Powell, we still can break all the china in a shop, but we have lost the willingness to put it back together. A retreat to an “America First” strategy, whether led from the right or the left, is a recipe not for a quiet life but a world of increased instability. An honest examination of the realists’ counterfactual fantasies suggests very inconvenient truths.

Giselle Donnelly, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute.

Middle EastU.S. Foreign PolicyAfghanistan