Has U.S. War in Iraq Slowed War on Terror?

Has the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein distracted the United States from more pressing matters, most notably the global war against al-Qaida?

Many top Democrats are arguing that case these days. Given that we are in a political season, people’s opinions on this question tend to follow their partisan views. Rather than simply offering a yes/no answer, it seems more useful to construct a framework for evaluating this complicated question in an analytical way.

U.S. military combat forces: After the Cold War ended, both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration redesigned American defense forces to handle two regional wars at once. Countries led by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il in North Korea became our main worries. And even though the Bush administration failed to plan for difficult postwar operations in Iraq, military leaders in the 1990s were much more prescient, designing forces that could not only win wars but secure the peace thereafter.

Of course, virtually no one anticipated war in Afghanistan before 9/11. But the war there has been a much smaller operation than, for example, war in Korea would be. Hence, prevailing U.S. defense strategy suggests that the United States should have been able to handle two wars at once.

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.

Refueling aircraft, precision munitions and other specialized assets: Even though main combat forces have been ample for both wars, there have been more serious strains on certain specialized assets.

For example, refueling aircraft and related assets such as transport aircraft were used in disproportionately large numbers in Afghanistan given its remoteness. This demand on refueling planes was by far at its heaviest in the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002—well before the United States went to war against Iraq. By the time we prepared the invasion to overthrow Hussein, most such assets had had time to return home and receive thorough maintenance.

Similarly, heavy use of precision ordnance such as satellite-guided JDAM munitions in Afghanistan largely depleted stockpiles of these relatively new munitions for a time. But again, we had the ability to replenish inventories before fighting Hussein. I know of no instance in which we could not use a precision munition on an al-Qaida target due to competing demands from the war against Hussein.

Special forces and intelligence assets: This is a more complicated issue. The United States has had to divert some special forces and intelligence assets—such as spy satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and linguists and analysts capable of deciphering what al-Qaida operatives are saying to one another—from Afghanistan to fight in Iraq. And it is possible the harm here is greater than the public record reveals, given the classified nature of these assets. But the United States still has 9,000 crack troops in Afghanistan, plenty for individual or even multiple simultaneous raids like those that have been conducted in recent months. Again, I know of no instances where insuffiicent numbers of available troops prevented the United States from acting quickly on good intelligence about the location of al-Qaida operatives.

The real limits on American effectiveness against al-Qaida are twofold. One, the United States doesn’t know where most al-Qaida members are located most of the time. Two, many are surely in Pakistan, beyond the reach of the U.S. military in any event. American law-enforcement officers have been working with Pakistanis, and have captured a couple of key al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan in the last 18 months. But the effectiveness of their efforts is mostly independent of the size of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

Finally, there is little evidence that any ally has reduced its intelligence-sharing or law-enforcement activities with the United States out of pique over Iraq policy. That anger has affected numerous aspects of allied relationships, to be sure—but not, as best we can tell, cooperation in the war on terror.

All that said, there are two important points where Democratic critics are surely right. First, because of the strain on America’s main combat forces due primarily to post-Hussein operations in Iraq, the United States has not deployed a large enough force to stabilize Afghanistan. Warlords still rule the countryside; the economy remains weak; security is poor; drug production is again rampant. Bush’s visceral aversion to nation building and his heavy use of American combat forces in Iraq, have largely prevented him from making good on his pledge in 2001 to the Afghan people to leave them with a much more stable and free country after the U.S.-led war to defeat the Taliban.

Many Muslims around the world, already cynical about the United States, see this reality as further proof of American indifference to their well-being. That reaction breeds anger, which can breed more terrorists.

Second, the mission in Iraq, which promises to last for years, risks breaking the U.S. military. Combined with operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans, and vigilance in Korea, the United States is severely straining its combat forces. That will potentially make military service of far less appeal to those men and women in active and Reserve units who are needed for an all-volunteer armed forces.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is therefore wrong to oppose the bipartisan congressional push to temporarily add several tens of thousands of troops to the U.S. military force structure. The strain on the military has not yet weakened the fight against terror, but it could weaken the national security quite dramatically in the future if it puts at risk the magnificent quality of today’s professional armed forces.

On balance, the war in Iraq has not slowed the immediate war on al-Qaida. But it may have complicated it at times here and there. More critically, it has impeded the important task of rebuilding Afghanistan and ensuring it will not become a caldron where terrorism forms. It also risks weakening America’s essential military.