Sunday, February 19, 2006

Why Iraq is a hideously expensive distraction, Part I

Today, for better or worse, Iraq is the central front of the war on terror.

Should it be? Is Iraq the best way to spend our anti-terrorism resources? Is it making the situation better, or worse?

There is no question that we have a responsibility to the people of Iraq. Having destroyed the previous regime, we must establish a (preferably democratic and secular) government capable of ruling the country. But fixing Iraq and fighting terror are two separate objectives.

This is the first of two articles looking at the terror threat and the Iraq experience through a cost/benefit lens.

Part I: Fighting them over there instead of over here, or "What is a terrorist, anyway?"

As it relates to the war on terror, our invasion of Iraq has often been billed as "fighting terrorists over there instead of over here." But is this true?

To answer this question, we need to first define "terrorist." That word is grossly overused, confusing the issue of who we're fighting and why.

In Iraq and globally, I see three kinds of opponents:

Terrorists: These are the people behind 9/11 and other actual terror attacks -- Al Qaeda and its ilk. They are the relatively few people with the skills, money, patience, imagination and access to pull off attacks inside the United States.

Jihadists: These are people who dislike us but have limited opportunities to act on that dislike. Our invasion of Iraq has both swelled their ranks (thanks to outrage over Western/Christian occupation of a Muslim country) and provided ample opportunities to do something about it: It's far easier to slip across the porous Iraqi border and take potshots at U.S. troops than it is to get into the United States itself to launch an attack.

Insurgents: These are native Iraqis who are fighting us as occupiers, for whatever motive. They were not terrorists before we invaded, and most of them weren't jihadists, either; Saddam Hussein did not take kindly to freelancers.

Having defined our opponents, how does that apply to Iraq?

The U.S. military says 90 percent of the insurgency is native Iraqis. Right off the bat that tells us that most of the people we're fighting and killing in Iraq were not serious opponents until we invaded.

How about the remaining 10 percent that are foreign fighters? Are they terrorists?

Few people think so, and logic suggests why. Would a true terrorist -- the kind who can plan and pull off spectacular attacks inside the United States -- drop everything and head to Iraq to fight well-armed, well-prepared soldiers? Of course not. To think so you have to assume terrorists are stupid, and they're not. True terrorists will just keep on doing what they're good at: planning new and bigger terror attacks.

On the other hand, if you're a jihadist angered by the invasion of Iraq, would this be your golden opportunity to act on your feelings? Of course.

So that's whom we're killing in Iraq: native insurgents and low-level foreign jihadists, most of whom would never have shown up on our threat radar if we hadn't invaded Iraq. And in exchange for the opportunity to create enemies that need killing, we're helping to train and radicalize an entire generation of Middle Eastern men.

Meanwhile our military is overstretched. By being tied down in Iraq it is unavailable to deal with real threats, or to serve as a credible threat of force. Iran isn't exactly quaking in its shoes at the prospect of U.S. intervention, for example. What would we invade them with -- a Reserve public affairs battalion?

As far as the war on terror is concerned, then, Iraq is worse than a distraction: it is actively making things worse.

Then there's the cost. Thus far Iraq has cost more than $200 billion. So it's not just a distraction, it's a hugely expensive one.

Some people argue that Iraq isn't about terror, it's about spreading democracy. Fine; I can support the idea that we should knock down dictators and free oppressed peoples. But that raises a requirement and a question:

You have to be up-front about it. The invasion of Iraq was sold under the banner of the war on terror. If the administration had said "hey, let's spend $200 billion to knock over Saddam because he's a bad guy and we need to free the Iraqi people", they would have been laughed out of town.

How much are we willing to spend to do so? There are 27 million Iraqis. That means we've spent $7,500 per head so far bringing them democracy, never mind the cost in lives and damage to Iraqi infrastructure. The final total will be far, far higher. Democracy is valuable, but not infinitely so given limited resources. How much are we willing to spend? How many more Iraqs can we afford?

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