The Democrats all agree that the war in Iraq was a "distraction" from the larger war on terror. Now, Michael O’Hanlon of the center-left Brookings Institution examines that claim in detail. His conclusions show that claim is not nearly as solid as the Democrats would like to it be:
The United States has used about half of the Army and about one-third of the Marine Corps at any one time in the Iraq war, along with a roughly comparable fraction of the Air Force during actual combat operations (and a smaller but still considerable part of the Navy). Up to 300,000 U.S. forces have been in the Persian Gulf at a time.
Meanwhile, the United States never had more than about 25,000 forces in Afghanistan and surrounding countries and waters. It is hardly beyond the capacity of a total U.S. military of 1.4 million active troops and nearly 1 million reservists to conduct these two operations in an overlapping fashion.
He finds that there is no evidence which suggests that the US forces in Afghanstan have gone without because of our operations in Iraq. He also finds no evidence that we’ve suffered a significant loss in intelligence capability because of Iraq – indeed each time we’ve had credible evidence that there’s been al-Qaeda or Taliban activity in Afghanistan we’ve been able to strike back with full force.
Let’s say that we expand our presence in Afghanistan by double it’s current number – 50,000 troops. Would this help the war against al-Qaeda?
The answer is no. We cannot enter into Pakistani territory, which is where most of the al-Qaeda operatives are hiding. The Pakistanis have been helpful in conducting cross-border operations, but they are limited to what we can do. If we seriously wanted to get rid of Qaeda we would have to conduct major attacks against tribal regions in Pakistan – actions that would almost certainly lead to the fall of Musharraf and the very real risk of Islamic fundamentalists gaining nuclear weapons. There is no viable plan of operation for flushing out al-Qaeda in those areas without causing even worse side effects.
Furthermore, this stage of the war on terrorism is largely a war being fought by non-military means. Closing off funding sources and arresting sleeper cells helps cut off the hands of the terror masters while keeping the leaders increasingly isolated. It is this combination of military and non-military factors that has prevented al-Qaeda from engaging in another major terror attack – not as though they have tried.
While O’Hanlon argues that the war in Iraq has had some effect on the larger war on terror, he does give the Democrats some points – that our military forces are stretched thin. However, the answer to that problem is expanding our military – something that no Democrat has the political will to do.
It is clear that the argument that Iraq has somehow prevented the US from engaging al-Qaeda is unsupported by the facts. Our combination of military strength and constant vigilence at home have been effective in blocking al-Qaeda. However, given that the Democrats are generally opposed to increased military spending and equally opposed to many of the measures taken to identify and capture terrorists before they strike it is likely that the biggest distraction from the war on terrorism isn’t in Iraq – it’s coming from politicians in Washington trying to use the issue as campaign-season fodder.