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Obama Broadening Afghanistan War Into 'War of Choice' and Not 'Necessity'

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, CFR.org
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 1, 2009

CFR President Richard N. Haass's latest book, War of Necessity, War of Choice, recounts his time in government, first as a National Security Council aide dealing with the first Iraq War in 1990-1991, a "war of necessity" brought on by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and then as a high State Department official from 2001-2003, when President George W. Bush launched a "war of choice," which he opposed. Haass says he is concerned that President Barack Obama may be turning the Afghanistan war into a "war of choice" too. "The U.S. goals in Afghanistan are still relatively modest, but the level of investment is getting large, the level of effort is significant. It's more than ten times, I would say, our level of effort in Pakistan. And it does represent something of a shift from what Mr. Obama inherited," he says.

In your new book you talk about the first Iraq war as being one of necessity, and the second Iraq war as being one of choice, although not a very good choice. How do you view the Afghanistan situation right now? It obviously started out as a war of necessity in retaliation for 9/11, but is it now becoming more of a war of choice?

"One could have a narrower policy of simply going after al-Qaeda."

The short answer is yes, you're exactly right. After 9/11, what the United States did in Afghanistan against the Taliban was a manifestation of the right of self-defense, and I did describe it in the book as a war of necessity. Since then, over the years, the U.S. position in Afghanistan has gotten broader, and in the most recent [Obama] administration white paper, you have the president and others talking about bringing the fight to the Taliban. So this suggests to me more than a narrow goal in Afghanistan of simply going after al-Qaeda remnants and a larger goal of essentially trying to help the central government in Kabul prevail in what increasingly looks like a civil war.

And of course President Obama justified this by saying the step up was against al-Qaeda. He kept talking about how the United States can't let al-Qaeda prevail, even though it's not clear to me the relationship between the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda right now.

As I read and reread what the administration has said about Afghanistan, I believe that what they are now doing goes beyond a narrow or minimalist policy of simply targeting al-Qaeda. They appear to have a broader effort under way to essentially neutralize or weaken or defeat the Taliban. And the reason I would say that constitutes something of a war of choice is that one could have a narrower policy of simply going after al-Qaeda. The use of military force in pursuit of this larger goal also reflects elements of choice. One could emphasize other tools of foreign policy, be it diplomacy or development.

Let me make one other point. The U.S. goals in Afghanistan are still relatively modest, but the level of investment is getting large, the level of effort is significant. It's more than ten times, I would say, our level of effort in Pakistan. And it does represent something of a shift from what Mr. Obama inherited.

And of course Pakistan is now drawn in even more. There's going to be a meeting in Washington in early May with Obama and the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss strategy. I don't know if this is a relationship made in heaven, but it's going to be tough to reconcile policies I would think.

It's an extraordinarily difficult relationship and one that has almost always been that way. I've come to think the only thing in foreign policy that's more difficult than dealing with adversaries is dealing with so-called friends. And Pakistan is evidence number one of just how difficult this can be because friends constantly disappoint one another. Each side feels let down by the other, both historically as well as in the current situation. From our point of view we're limited in what we can do because the last thing we want to do is sanction our friends. Bad situations can grow worse. On the other hand, it's not at all obvious that we can incentivize them.

And we don't want to invade them either.

To say the least. Pakistan is a country that has 175 million people. So what you're seeing is largely an effort of state-building with a little bit of intervention with the Predators [unmanned drones that have launched attacks against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan]. The real question will come if this doesn't work. Then what does the United States do? What are our options at that point? One can imagine all sorts of scenarios but none of them are attractive.

You recently made a trip to Iraq with some military fellows from the Council. Was this your first trip there in recent years?

I've been going to Iraq off and on for thirty years, but it was my first recent trip.

"To me, the goal of U.S. policy should be less to get U.S. forces out than it should be to promote an acceptable level of stability at the lowest possible cost to the United States--and that means retaining a modest level of U.S. forces in country for years to come."

Did you get any sense whether political harmony is possible?

Political harmony is imaginable but not likely. There still are multiple fault lines in that society.  Perhaps the most pronounced is now the one between Kurds and Arabs, concentrated but not limited to the Kirkuk question. But there's still the old fault lines between Sunni and Shiite, tribal fault lines, ethnic fault lines, geographic fault lines, personal fault lines, so my own sense is that at best Iraq remains a messy and troubled, divided country, punctuated by violence. There would probably be reason to be upbeat if something like the current situation becomes the new normal. And being realistic, I don't believe we can hope for much better than that.

U.S. troops were supposed to pull out of the cities by June. And there are other deadlines. Does the American military think it's safe enough to keep this timetable?

There are various timetables. There's the withdrawal from cities; there's the end of combat operations in just over a year; there's the promise of withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in just under three years. I, for one, have difficulty imagining that any of those deadlines will be met, and I'm not sure any of them should be met. To me, the goal of U.S. policy should be less to get U.S. forces out than it should be to promote an acceptable level of stability at the lowest possible cost to the United States--and that means retaining a modest level of U.S. forces in country for years to come. That ought not to be costly, and this is a price we should be prepared to pay. My prediction is that all of these timelines will probably need to be adjusted if we're going to increase the odds that the situation in Iraq does not deteriorate.

The Obama administration has started out to demonstrate it is quite different from the Bush administration by offering to have a dialogue directly with Iran. But the Iran initiative clearly runs into the concerns of Arabs and Israelis about Iran's growing influence in the Middle East. Do you think the United States should keep its focus on the Israeli-Palestinian talks, or give more focus to the Iran talks, or can you do both at the same time?

You can, and should, do both at the same time. We don't have the luxury of having a one-dimensional Middle East policy. The United States should be doing what it can to foster progress between Israelis and Palestinians, though it's hard to be optimistic about that. We should also be pushing the  Israeli-Syrian dialogue, and there I think there's actually a better chance of some progress. The United States should be engaging Iran bilaterally as well as multilaterally to deal with the nuclear question; we should be promoting a regional dialogue about Iraq. We can and need to do all these things, partly because they're important and partly because progress in one or more of these areas could actually contribute to progress in the other. So rather than these being competitive or mutually exclusive, they could actually be complementary.

Obama is going to be meeting with the Middle East negotiators--Israelis, Palestinians, and I think the Egyptians--in May. Is it time for the United States to have its own policy, or should it just listen at this point?

Sooner rather than later I would argue that the United States should articulate its vision of the principles that ought to inform a Middle East peace process, both the end result as well as the path for getting there. The goal is not to impose a formula on the parties, but it is to introduce ideas into the debate. Above all, I believe the United States needs to put forward ideas about a two-state solution, between Israelis and Palestinians, in order to hand Arab and Palestinian moderates an argument. We need to give them a reason to tell the people [that] "we have a better way" than those with the guns. And until there is a clear sense that there is an endgame that is attractive, and until it is clear that the United States will do a lot of heavy lifting to get from here to there, I don't think there's a chance that more moderate voices in the Palestinian world will prevail.

"If we had gone about this differently, and, among other things, if we had gone in with far more forces prepared to fight the kind of war we now know was waiting for us, could we have accomplished a lot more at a reduced human cost? My sense is yes, though I still think it would have been difficult given the nature of Iraqi society."

What I was struck by in reading your book was your equivocation about the most recent war. You said you were 60-40 against the war because you thought Iraq had at least some weapons of mass destruction and that if you knew then what you know now, that they had none, you would have been totally against the war.

That's exactly right, I was 60-40 against the war in 2002 and 2003, based on the premise that the Iraqis had chemical and biological weapons in hand. They clearly did not, and had I known that then, I would have been 90-10 or 100-0 against the war, but I was still against it even then. I believed then, and I believe now, that it was a war of choice, that it was not essential that we go to war against Iraq, that the United States had other options it could have employed. In particular, there were things that could have been done to shore up sanctions, but needless to say I was in the minority inside the administration.

In the book, you said you really didn't have a clear answer as to why President Bush was so strong about going to war against Iraq. Have you gotten any better answers?

My own view now is that the decision to go to war was largely based on this notion that after 9/11, the United States needed to send a powerful message to that region and to the world that it was not, as was once said by a previous president [Richard Nixon, in justifying the military incursion into Cambodia in 1970], "a pitiful, helpless giant," that the United States could go on the offensive and not simply react. And there was an added benefit in people's minds--and this was not a prediction I shared--that not only would the United States succeed in Iraq, but when it did, it would set a model that would lead to a political transformation of the Middle East. All of these people predicted--again, I did not share this prediction--that all this could be accomplished. So I believe President Bush was persuaded that attacking Iraq would essentially add very little cost, achieve extraordinary results, and send a powerful political message at one and the same time.

Was he influenced by how easily the fighting went in Afghanistan?

I believe so. In Iraq, the battlefield phase was also relatively easy. As in Afghanistan though, consolidating the victory and translating battlefield victories into enduring accomplishments is indescribably difficult.

The generals were saying before the war that they needed many more troops, 400,000 or 500,000, as they had in the first Iraq war, which was a more limited war. Do you think if they had that many more troops the insurgency would have been prevented, or was that not a real factor?

That to me is one of the most interesting questions, if not the most interesting question. If we had gone about this differently, and, among other things, if we had gone in with far more forces prepared to fight the kind of war we now know was waiting for us, could we have accomplished a lot more at a reduced human cost? My sense is yes, though I still think it would have been difficult given the nature of Iraqi society. Iraqi society has so many divisions and so many complexities. The political culture in some ways had been so distorted that I don't believe even a large, well-prepared U.S. or international approach would have found it easy going. But I do believe we could have accomplished more than we did at a lower cost if we had gone about it differently.

On the first war, there seemed to be really no debate within the administration to stop on the border of Iraq without going on to Baghdad.

No, there was virtually none. Everyone was on board, as best I know, including people such as then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. The view at the time was that we had accomplished our mission, which was to liberate Kuwait and restore its legitimate government. This was consistent with the international authorization we had received from the United Nations and with the domestic authorization we had received from Congress. It was also consistent with our desire not to decimate Iraq, because we wanted Iraq to continue to balance Iran, and it was based on our judgment that "going to Baghdad" would put us in the middle of exactly the sort of scenario the United States has experienced now over the last five years.

Although maybe at that time it would have been different?

It's impossible to play out counter-historicals; all I can say is the memos I wrote this time around bore a striking similarity to the memos I wrote then. I actually thought then that occupying an Arab society in this day and age, particularly one with the nature of Iraq, would prove to be extraordinarily difficult. I thought that was true in 1991 and I thought it was true in 2003, and I see nothing which leads me now to come to a different conclusion.

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