Dethroning the Taliban and Saddam Hussein Were the Right Things to Do

As Peggy Noonan set off the latest round of arguments on the right between Never-Trumpers and anti-anti-Trumpers over recent political history, one critical part of Noonan’s argument has been ignored – her casual assertion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were “a historic foreign-policy catastrophe.”

Most Never Trumpers who defended those wars have ignored or grudgingly accepted the premise of the accusation, especially where Iraq is concerned. Indeed, by my count, there may be only six of us left who still recognize that liberating Iraq from Ba’athism was the right thing to do (UPDATE: Hussain Haqqani – the former Pakistani Ambassador to the US cited below, makes it seven).

We’re still right, though, and in saying otherwise, my fellow Never Trump Conservatives risk ceding the field to Trump-apologists in foreign policy.

It’s easy to look at Iraq today – with its corruption-riddled government, inefficiencies, and precarious geopolitical position between the U.S. and Iran – and assume things must have been better when Saddam Hussein kept the country off the front pages … unless one remembers that Saddam Hussein did no such thing. He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people invading Iran. Those who survived the war had to deal with purges and state terror that took at least another quarter of a million lives. It was no accident that Ba’athist Iraq was called “The Republic of Fear.”

I’m not saying human rights abuses are itself a reason to liberate a nation by force. However, those who would make that argument ignore Saddam’s repeated support for terrorism and desire to arm himself with ever more dangerous weaponry.

While the WMD issue has crowded out our collective memory, we shouldn’t forget how Saddam’s regime was trying to build ties to al-Qaeda, posthumously subsidizing Palestinain suicide bombers, and Islamicizing itself to the point where its henchmen transitioned seemlessly to al Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS. We’ve seen what ISIS has done over the last several years. Now imagine ISIS running all of Iraq, and with a $10 million North Korean missile assembly line (which Pyongyang never delivered only because of “too much American scrutiny” in the run-up to the liberation).

I would also note that within months of Saddam being knocked out of power, Libya openly renounced its WMD programs and even the mullahcracy of Iran hit pause on its own nuclear-weapons development. Quite the coincidence.

When Operation Iraqi Freedom was first launched, its critics (usually, but not exclusively, on the left) cited the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan as a reason that the Iraq war was a mistake. These days, they no longer hide behind the Afghan war, lumping them both together as errors. If anything, this should make it clear their arguments against both wars are wrong.

Afghan war critics these days try to separate the Taliban and al Qaeda, as if the former were as much a victim of the latter as the rest of us (Tulsi Gabbard most famously did this in a riposte to Tim Ryan during a Democratic presidential debate last year). For Afghans, however, this has been a distinction without a difference. As Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani noted last year:

The unvarnished reality on the ground is that al-Qaeda remains an important factor in the Taliban insurgency. The two terrorist groups are codependent allies, and their partnership endured for nearly 23 years. Currently, the Taliban serves as the primary partner for AQIS, al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, and almost all other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan.

The alliance is grounded in mutual cooperation, driven by common jihadist obligation, ideology and a shared hatred for the United States.

An estimated 300 al-Qaeda militants, embedded in Taliban units, target U.S. and Afghan forces and regard the Taliban emir as the true leader of the faithful. In many Taliban units, it is often difficult to distinguish Taliban commanders from al-Qaeda ones.

The two groups enjoy multiple layers of top-down linkages, where decision-making is centralized but military activities are mostly decentralized. The alliance is further tightened by intermarriages, and al-Qaeda members often serve as religious mentors and instructors to the Taliban fighters.

The idea that al-Qaeda died with Osama bin Laden – and with it our need to be in Afghanistan – is simply wrong. Leaving Afghanistan without the destruction of the Taliban and of al Qaeda is not “ending the war.” It is losing the war. It would also lead terrorists around the world to re-evaluate the strength of the United States. If committing a 9/11-style attack means little more than hiding out for a couple decades while America exhausts itself….

Ceding the rhetorical ground to Trump in Iraq and in Afghanistan is not only a policy mistake, but a political one as well.

One nearly universal problem Never Trump Conservatives have with Trump is his isolationism. It pervades everything he does; it is a cause and an effect of his personal ignorance of the world around him; it is a gift to enemies of freedom; and it fuels his white supremacism.

However, like all isolationists before him, he hides its darkness behind vague promises to stop “endless wars.” Any Republican or conservative critic of him (and more than a few Democratic ones) find their earlier support for liberating Iraq and/or Afghanistan thrown back in their faces.

Those of us who still believe those wars are just have some questions of our own for the president.

  • Does he still think the Taliban is worthy of an invitation to Camp David?
  • What leads him to think the Taliban and al Qaeda will cease attempting more 9/11-style attacks against us, given that you have shown them they can simply wait America out?
  • Is he hoping that his fealty to Vladimir Putin will lead him to hold back the Taliban, with whom the Kremlin has recently allied?
  • Is he saying we would be better off with an ISIS-like regime controlling all of Iraq?
  • What would he have done to prevent Saddam Hussein from underwriting suicide bombers in Israel and stockpiling missiles built with North Korean know-how?
  • What incentives would Gaddafi have had to end his own WMD ambitions without the Iraqi example?

Trump will likely respond to these questions with bluster and ignorance, but the American people deserve to have answers – or to know that the incumbent president asking for re-election doesn’t have any.

Trump’s critics have spent too long deflecting Trump’s rants about these conflicts. We should respond with a full-throated defense of our efforts to protect America, our allies, and oppressed peoples from tyrannical terrorists. It’s the right thing to do and the politically wise thing to do.

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