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Amitai Etzioni Headshot

Maligning Biden

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Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- who presided over the failed war in Afghanistan and the failing intervention in Iraq -- claims that Vice President Biden was "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." Because of my interest in communities -- including ethnic and religious ones -- I followed particularly closely two major recommendations Joe Biden has made. I found that as far as can be determined, the United States -- and many millions of people in the Middle East -- would be much safer and better off if Biden's counsel was heeded.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the U.S. Administrator, J. Paul Bremer, acting like a czar, decided to form a highly centralized government, which he assumed would allow him to run Iraq from Baghdad. He naively believed that he could turn Iraq not only into a stable state but also into a shining democracy. In contrast, Biden strongly urged for a government "based upon the principles of federalism" and advocated for a relatively weak central government with strong Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regional administrations. (A bill Biden introduced into the Senate in 2007 to this effect was passed 75 to 23, but ignored.)

Biden's approach had much more promise because it was based on the sociological and historical reality of Iraq. First of all, most citizens' loyalty and commitment was much stronger to their confessional and ethnic communities than to the Iraqi nation. Second, historically the small Sunni minority much suppressed and abused the Shia majority. Bremer plan -- a centralized democratic model -- meant ipso facto creating a tyranny of the majority, one that turned out to be very vengeful. The Maliki government increasingly is using the governments' powers not merely to deprive Sunnis and to support death squads. If the Sunnis had been given a considerable measure of authority in the provinces where they are the majority, they would have been much better able to govern and protect themselves from retaliatory abuses.

The best evidence in favor of this argument is that, unlike the Sunnis, the Kurds were granted a considerable measure of autonomy, including the ability to defend themselves with their own militia -- and their regions were and are the only part of Iraq that is peaceful. There were next to no American and very few Iraqi casualties in Kurdish-majority areas for the last 12 years -- while more than 6,700 Americans and at least 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the other parts of the country.

Regarding Afghanistan, Biden argued repeatedly that nation-building in such a country was hopeless. And, he pointed out that that Taliban did not threaten America; al Qaeda did. The United States could beat al Qaeda with a small number of Special Operations troops on the ground supported by a drone-dominated campaign from the air, while working with local groups. Hence Biden opposed the surge.

It is impossible to prove an alternative history, what would have happened had Biden's Boots Off the Ground strategy been followed. One can, though, note that the Taliban were defeated quickly by a Biden-like approach in 2001 when the initial invasion took place. The main fighting was carried out by local groups, particularly the Northern Alliance, who were aided by some American firepower, air power and CIA operatives. Moreover, in the years that followed, large American conventional forces were found again and again to be particularly unsuited to war against insurgents, who, unlike conventional military forces, wear civilian clothing, hide in homes, and sneak across the border into Pakistan. Further, According to Bing West, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, 65 percent of al Qaeda operatives killed in Afghanistan were killed by Special Ops, CIA operatives, and drones--and rather few by the much larger conventional forces. And nation-building -- costing a half-trillion dollars -- accomplished very little.

Finally, trying to run Afghanistan from Kabul, relying on a government the U.S. fostered, proved counterproductive in a country in which tribal allegiances are even stronger than they are in Iraq.

In short, Biden seems to have been right on both counts. By contrast, Gates, who supported the Pentagon's counterinsurgency strategy centered around large numbers of conventional troops coupled with nation-building, was dead wrong.