Brad Plumer, with his usual counterintuitive flair, argues that perhaps, given the consequences, invading Afghanistan wasn’t a good idea in the first place:
After September 11 of course, the United States had to deal with al Qaeda in the short term, no matter what happened next. I remember reading, in various European newspapers at the time, about talk of a deal with the Taliban to extradite bin Laden and his associates. That fell through. But why? Was it because Mullah Omar had married bin Laden’s daughter and wouldn’t hand over his friend? Was it because the United States wanted to go to war come what may? And if so, why?
Some reports indicated that the Taliban had agreed to extradite bin Laden to Pakistan, but the United States killed that deal. Jason Burke’s book on al Qaeda reported that after the embassy bombings in 1998, the Taliban was also ready to rid itself of bin Laden, but after Clinton ordered a missile strike on Afghanistan, the Taliban, obviously embittered, changed its mind. If that’s true, it sounds like the Taliban leadership was never thrilled with bin Laden, but had too much pride to bend to U.S. browbeating. Perhaps if an International Criminal Court had been in place in 2001, that would’ve been an acceptable compromise. We’ll never know, obviously.
Of course, perhaps the United States had good reason to turn down these offers. Afghanistan, after all, was a terrorist haven—with training camps and everything—and getting bin Laden alone might not have been enough. But is this true? Some reports suggested that most al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, circa 2001, basically existed to fight the Northern Alliance. Were they a threat to the United States? I don’t know. Moreover, would enhanced police and intelligence operations around the world, in conjunction with political pressure on the Taliban, have been just as disruptive to al Qaeda as an invasion was?
It’s impossible to know whether or not browbeating the Taliban or just backing the Northern Alliance or expanding traditional law enforcement efforts against al-Qaeda would have disrupted al-Qaeda as much as the invasion of Afghanistan did (and, according to James Fallows, it disrupted them quite a lot). But I think the more salient question is whether or not al-Qaeda’s stronger, pre-invasion operation was a sufficient threat that disruption was in order to ensure American security. And, as I have pointed out time and again, I don’t think al-Qaeda has ever in its history been a threat of a size warranting significant American response. Perhaps the war in Afghanistan could be justified in moral terms, though given that the country seems to be tip-toeing back to theocracy this line of apologia seems dubious. But there’s no way to defend Afghanistan on national security grounds.
But that’s besides the point. The most critical point in Brad’s post is the one he finds the most distasteful:
A cynic would say that, after September 11, the Bush administration needed to do something dramatic—perhaps partly for public consumption. As Thomas Friedman said, “after 9/11 the United States needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world.” There was some psychological need to smash shit up. I mean, sure I think that attitude’s sick and twisted, but it appeared to be fairly widespread. Political pressure and covert operations wouldn’t have satisfied the masses. A dramatic air war was just the thing. Any administration, Democratic or Republican, would’ve understood that, I think.
Exactly. In the words of David Cross, “Nader would have f*cking bombed Afghanistan…What did we expect he was gonna do? The planes hit and he’s gonna hole up in a Motel 8 with a bottle of Jack, just crying in a corner?” It’s irrational, but the US has a pathological need – especially after it’s attacked – to find an enemy and defeat it. It’s sad, but there you have it.