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McCain's Afghan Strategic Blunder

Guest Robert Parry

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Guest Robert Parry

Only weeks after the Taliban were routed from Kabul and the remnants of al-Qaeda had fled from bases in Tora Bora, McCain took the lead in urging the Bush administration to turn its attention toward Iraq.


In a Feb. 2, 2002, speech to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, McCain said the United States and its allies needed to concentrate on overthrowing Saddam Hussein.


“The next front is apparent, and we should not shirk from acknowledging it,” McCain said. “A terrorist resides in Baghdad, with the resources of an entire state at his disposal, flush with cash from illicit oil revenues and proud of a decade-long record of defying the international community's demands that he come clean on his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.


”A day of reckoning is approaching.”


McCain’s speech, with the ambitious title, “From Crisis to Opportunity: American Internationalism and the New Atlantic Order,” laid out the aggressive neoconservative agenda that President George W. Bush would pursue in the months that followed.


Bush soon was diverting U.S. intelligence resources from Afghanistan to the new front – Iraq – undercutting efforts to track down Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other key surviving al-Qaeda leaders, who had sought refuge in the rugged Pakistani tribal areas.


By late summer 2002, the Bush administration had begun its propaganda campaign to stoke American war fever toward Iraq. In the fall, Bush stampeded Congress into approving a use-of-force resolution. One year after McCain’s speech, the U.S. military was putting the final touches on invasion plans.


On March 19, 2003, Bush fulfilled McCain’s dream by launching the invasion of Iraq, succeeding in ousting Hussein’s government in three weeks but then finding a large U.S. expeditionary force tied down by a stubborn insurgency for the next five-plus years.


Captured al-Qaeda documents make clear that bin Laden and his inner circle viewed the U.S. attack on Iraq as a welcome gift, a chance for them to rebuild their organization inside Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country where al-Qaeda had old allies in the tribal regions and historic ties to Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agency, the ISI.


Al-Qaeda’s Iraq strategy was summed up in a letter that a senior al-Qaeda leader, known as “Atiyah,” sent to Jordanian terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi in December 2005, urging Zarqawi, who was leading the "al-Qaeda in Iraq" contingent, to tone down his aggressiveness and take more time because “prolonging the war is in our interest.”


[To view this excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here. ]


Zarqawi, who spurned this advice and alienated many of his erstwhile Sunni-insurgent allies, was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006. However, the chaos that Zarqawi had helped spark, especially the brutal ethnic cleansing that drove the Sunni and Shiite populations apart, took months longer to burn out.

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