The Diversion Myth

Ralph Peters makes a point that I’ve been making for some time: the absurdity of the notion “that deposing Saddam diverted resources from the War on Terror.”

First of all, the War on Terror is global. It can’t be confined to Afghanistan or to any other bad neighborhood. You can’t put police tape around a failed civilization. Our response must be comprehensive, our vigilance constant.

Destroying Saddam’s regime removed a government based on domestic and regional terror. Our triumph broke the fateful stasis in the Middle East, extending the possibility of democracy to 25 million people. The Iraqis may ultimately fail themselves, but even an imperfect success would prove that tyranny isn’t inevitable in the Middle East.


I have one simple question for the critics: Exactly which vital assets were diverted to Iraq from our efforts to continue al Qaeda’s destruction?

No generalities allowed. No waffling. Be specific.


The critics insist that our government’s attention was forced away from the urgent pursuit of terrorists. It simply isn’t true. The instruments of power used to overthrow Saddam were fundamentally different from those required by the cat-and-mouse game that continues on the Afghan-Pakistani border – or in the countless rat-holes around the world where our efforts don’t show up on 24/7.

What did those on the left want us to do in Afghanistan, anyway? If you go back to the autumn of 2001, you’ll find the answer is “Nothing.” Have they had a change of heart? Would they like to deploy a half-dozen Army divisions to Kandahar?

The fact is that Afghanistan and Iraq are fundamentally different and require nearly-opposite approaches. Rural Afghans truly are warriors and their xenophobia runs deeper than their petty selfishness. Iraqis (except for the Kurds) have no warrior tradition. Born collaborators, they pursue personal, family and clan self-interest.

“Resistance” to our occupation in Iraq has been petty in historical terms, the actions of the bitter few, not the grasping many. In Afghanistan, however, too heavy a hand would embitter the population and wreck any chance of building even a semi-functional state.

The War on Terror in Afghanistan is like a basketball game. You don’t want a hundred players crowding the court. It’s about strategy and agility, skill and the will to win, not raw numbers.


The other dishonest objection is that key intelligence resources were diverted from the War on Terror to the “unnecessary” toppling of Saddam.

It simply isn’t true. No experts on al Qaeda, or on Afghanistan or Pakistan, were diverted to count Saddam’s artillery pieces. Lower-skilled analysts are shifted frequently, even when there isn’t a crisis. But the artisans of intelligence stay focused.

We do have too few linguists. But that’s an inherited, bipartisan problem. And we didn’t transfer Urdu, Tajik or Pushtoon speakers from the hunt for Osama to the search for Saddam. It’s simply not the way the system works.

But the critics don’t want to know how the system works. Nor do they lend their own talents to improve it. They simply want to complain while others die.

Consider the hundreds of bona fide terrorists we’ve captured or killed in Iraq, including high-ranking members of al Qaeda. Don’t they count?

By what measure is the War on Terror failing or slowing? Suicide bombers can grab the tactical initiative now and then – no one has a solution to that challenge. But we have seized and retained the strategic initiative, the one that really counts.

If anyone really believes that our global efforts against terrorism, from Tikrit to Tijuana, are ineffective, just ask Osama.

If you can track him down.

He’s harder to find than dignity on a cable channel. Not because we’ve failed, but because we’ve kept him on the run for over two years. He once controlled an empire of terror. Now Osama lives in terror himself. He’s even afraid of video cameras.

His argument would be more effective if he had stripped the references to the comtemptibility of the Left, which really have little to do with the argument at hand. But his analysis of the diversion issue itself is spot-on.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. RicK DeMent says:

    If you are looking at “resources” as only military you might have a point. But that assumes that only the military can address the issue of terrorism. In fact, Iraq might just be the last big military move we have the political capital to make for some time to come. How do we make an argument about a “threat” now? Do we tell the world that our intelligences sources are have knowledge that there is an imminent threat? What do we tell them when they stop laughing?

    Fact is the money that we are now using for nation building could be used to train and deploy covert ops and Special Forces around the world. It could be used for strategic foreign aid, securing ports, financing the Muslim equivalent of Radio Free Europe. I could list about a jillion specific things but if you’re convinced that the war on terror is like any other war these ideas simply will not resonate.

    Dropping bombs tends to make Americans feel like something is being accomplished that other subtler, and perhaps more effective means do not.

  2. James Joyner says:


    The bomb dropping phase of the operation lasted 21 days.

    I don’t know the precise numbers, but we have deployed special ops around the world.

    Our intel on the WMD threat was precisely in line with eveyone else’s. And, frankly, if we’re financing it out of our own pocket, the reaction of others is only tangentially important.

  3. RicK DeMent says:

    The bomb dropping phase of the operation lasted 21 days.

    Of course it did, and the aftermath of nation building may well be ten years.

    I don’t know the precise numbers, but we have deployed special ops around the world.

    Nor do we know precisly if it’s enough, do you think it’s enough? But if your argument is that there is not one place in the world where special forces and blacks ops are not deployed where they might be useful due to our commitment in Iraq then I would ask how you can be sure.

    The very nature of blacks ops makes knowing this kind of thing a bit dodgy don’t you agree?

    As for our Intel some of it was in line with the rest of the world, much of it was not much better then speculation. But the fact is that Saddam was being sufficiently contained. And don’t you think that intel is an area that seems like it could do with more funding. And we are not paying for it, we are borrowing for it. But the fact is there is a lot of nation building to be done of that is the approach we are going to take that takes a lot of money. It seems like Afghanistan could do with a 80 billion dollar package as well, no? The point is that what we are proposing is mind bogglingly expensive and that’s if everything goes well. What of we put in a provisional government, pull out troops and Iraq decays into civil war? To prevent that we are going to have to keep a substantial sized force there for some time or risk a worse situation then we entered into.

    Are you really willing to argue that other needs on the terrorism front will receive all the resources they need? Are you also willing to argue that we will not need to rethink the recent rounds of tax cutting in the face of these needs? I’m just asking the question. To say that none of our needs in the war on terror are being short sheeted due to our commitment in Iraq seems to be more then a bit on the wishful thinking side.

  4. The very nature of blacks ops makes knowing this kind of thing a bit dodgy don’t you agree?

    I like the fact that Rick says we can’t know much about it–but he knows enough about it to say you’re wrong.