Krugman is good as usual, let me add something, though, to a bit of a cliché:
The path to this strategic defeat began with the failure to capture or kill bin Laden. Never mind the anti-Clinton hit piece, produced for ABC by a friend of Rush Limbaugh; there never was a clear shot at Osama before 9/11, let alone one rejected by Clinton officials. But there was a clear shot in December 2001, when Al Qaeda’s leader was trapped in the caves of Tora Bora. He made his escape because the Pentagon refused to use American ground troops to cut him off.
No matter, declared President Bush: “I truly am not that concerned about him,” he said about bin Laden in March 2002, and more or less stopped mentioning Osama for the next four years. By the time he made his what-me-worry remarks — just six months after 9/11 — the pursuit of Al Qaeda had already been relegated to second-class status. A long report in yesterday’s Washington Post adds detail to what has long been an open secret: early in 2002, the administration began pulling key resources, such as special forces units and unmanned aircraft, off the hunt for Al Qaeda’s leaders, in preparation for the invasion of Iraq.
According to Rand Beers, the more important move is the one Krugman vaguely alludes to in the second quoted paragraph rather than the more famous stuff in the earlier paragraph. What happened is that at more-or-less the exact same time as Bush said he was “truly . . . not that concerned” about Osama bin Laden — March 2002 — the president put his money where his mouth was by pulling special operations forces out of Afghanistan so that the units could reconstitute in preparation for their next mission — preparing the battlefield in Iraq.
This is important not just in a vague “maybe if they were around we would have had OBL” kind of way. These are the troops who have the sort of language ability and training to work with mid-level foreign leaders that make them well-suited to taking the lead on difficult tasks like helping to reconstruct a country devastated by a couple of foreign invasions and a lengthy civil war. Whether or not they would have been able to locate bin Laden is a bit unknowable. Doubtless, they would have been helpful for that. But what’s certain is that these resources would have allowed us to make much more progress toward achieving our goals in Afghanistan. To agree with what I think Atrios is saying here, after 9/11 some form of war against the Taliban was inevitable.
But by engaging in it, we undertook a real responsibility both to ourselves and to Afghans to make sure it actually achieved our main goals and that we did something to help get the country back on its feet. If you read the recent coverage, though, the situation is quite messed up. Starting in early 2002 people more-or-less forgot all about the country in favor of Iraq. Then, briefly, attention re-focused on the situation and observers were, correctly, rather worried about it. But then came and election and — poof! bang! — the media declared it all a shining success and said people who’d been raising questions about what was going on over there were all debunked fools.
But, no. In an almost exact preview of what would happen after the first Iraqi elections it turned out that the question-raisers were exactly correct and the mere fact of the election solved nothing. It was good to hold an election, and it produced some great photo-ops, but the problems are much deeper than that. But even though they’re deep problems, and even though there was probably nothing we could have done over the short term to make Afghanistan a fantatsically pleasant place to live, if you look at the absurd sum of resources we’ve poured down the drain in Iraq, it’s clear that we could have done much, much better.