October 30, 2004

Unsung Achievements

Three years after 9/11, the fact that Afghanistan has held an internationally recognized election, and is a functioning democracy, is a stunning accomplishment for the Bush administration. Like the turnarounds in Libya and Pakistan, and budding reform movements in Palestine and Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan was a notable success of the Bush administration's much maligned diplomacy.

The story of the liberation of Afghanistan, from the planning that started the day the twin towers fell, to the recent election, is recounted by Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. in the new Weekly Standard. Well worth reading in full, the piece notes how Bush's plan for an attack on the Taliban first required a 180 degree turn in our relationship with Pakistan. Fairbanks talks about how Bush pulled that off in this excerpt:

On October 7, 2001, President Bush began his military campaign against the Taliban's Afghanistan--in the shadow of tremendous difficulties. The United States neither shared a border with Afghanistan nor could get there by sea, and no war had ever been successful without these preconditions. We had no friends, having dishonorably abandoned the Afghans who'd fought the last great battle of the Cold War for us. And Afghan history suggested a deeper problem...

...All these obvious difficulties hung over the black, impenetrable future as Bush gave the order to begin. He knew he was taking huge risks. Those who make the facile case that Afghanistan was the necessary and proper war while Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" glibly ignore the risks Bush took in doing anything in Afghanistan.

The first step in waging the Afghan war was to neutralize the enemy's allies and acquire allies and bases for ourselves. To wage war on the Taliban, it was essential not just to shift, but to reverse the alignment of Pakistan, an enormous challenge. Pakistan was the Taliban's organizer and patron, while friction and sanctions over nuclear weapons, Islamization, human rights, and democracy had distanced the United States from our old ally. Moreover, Pakistan was itself a failing state, unstable politically, with vocal and rancorous Muslim extremist groups having deep roots both in the society and in the army. American military action or excessive pressure risked shattering the country's precarious order and bringing down the military government, with the extremists poised to take over or to submerge our anti-Taliban effort in wider chaos.

By sending Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Pakistan's military boss, General Pervez Musharraf, with essentially an ultimatum--making big threats and promises, and postponing all secondary issues--President Bush was able to reverse Pakistan's entire foreign policy. Musharraf shifted in a few days from ally and sustainer of the Taliban to our ally, providing bases and intelligence, and turning over many al Qaeda leaders including eventually the planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Not since 1939 has world politics seen a reversal of alliances so sudden and stupefying.

Since the Iraq war, there has been endless whimpering about President Bush's arrogant refusal to line up allies. Somehow Pakistan is never mentioned. Pakistan was the indispensable ally to deal with Afghanistan and al Qaeda, and simultaneously the ally hardest to win. Bush won this ally. (He also won Central Asian bases and cooperation, much against the wishes of regionally dominant Russia and China.) In fact, President Bush converted Pakistan from probably the most important state sponsor of terrorism in the world to a major partner in the war against terrorism. There are incessant complaints that Pakistan's cooperation is not wholehearted, and in themselves some of these may be justified. But as so often with criticisms of established policy, proper criticism tends to omit the entire background that makes everything else possible. Any cooperation out of Pakistan at all--much less the extensive cooperation we now enjoy--is an enormous asset. That we have it is not good fortune, but the result of a titanic effort of will on the part of President Bush's team.

Posted by dan at October 30, 2004 10:46 PM