The Missing Link From Killeen to Kabul

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The New York Times

The Missing Link From Killeen to Kabul

The dead at Fort Hood had not even been laid to rest when their massacre became yet another political battle cry for the self-proclaimed patriots of the American right.

Their verdict was unambiguous: Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born psychiatrist of Palestinian parentage who sent e-mail to a radical imam, was a terrorist. And he did not act alone. His co-conspirators included our military brass, the Defense Department, the F.B.I., the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and, of course, the liberal media and the Obama administration. All these institutions had failed to heed the warning signs raised by Hasan's behavior and activities because they are blinded by political correctness toward Muslims, too eager to portray criminals as sympathetic victims of social injustice, and too cowardly to call out evil when it strikes 42 innocents in cold blood.

The invective aimed at these heinous P.C. pantywaists nearly matched that aimed at Hasan. Joe Lieberman announced hearings to investigate the Army for its dereliction of duty on homeland security. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, vowed to unmask cover-ups in the White House and at the C.I.A. The Weekly Standard blog published a broadside damning the F.B.I. for neglecting the "broader terrorist plot" of which Hasan was only one of the connected dots. Jerome Corsi, the major-domo of the successful Swift-boating of John Kerry, unearthed what he said was proof that Hasan had advised President Obama during the transition.

William Bennett excoriated soft military leaders like Gen. George Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who had stood up for diversity and fretted openly about a backlash against Muslim soldiers in his ranks. "Blind diversity" that embraces Islam "equals death," wrote Michelle Malkin. "There is a powerful case to be made that Islamic extremism is not some fringe phenomenon but part of the mainstream of Islamic life around the world," wrote the columnist Jonah Goldberg. Islam is "not a religion," declared the irrepressible Pat Robertson, but "a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world."

As a snapshot of where a chunk of the country stands right now, these reactions to the Fort Hood bloodbath could not be more definitive. And it's quite possible that some of what this crowd says is right - not about Islam in general, but about the systemic failure to stop a homicidal maniac like Hasan in particular. Whether he was an actual terrorist or an unfathomable mass murderer merely dabbling in jihadist ideas, the repeated red flags during his Army career illuminate a pattern of lapses in America's national security. Whether those indicators were ignored because of political correctness, bureaucratic dysfunction, sheer incompetence or some hybrid thereof is still unclear, but, whichever, the system failed.

Yet the mass murder at Fort Hood didn't happen in isolation. It unfolded against the backdrop of Obama's final lap of decision-making about Afghanistan. For all the right's jeremiads, its own brand of political correctness kept it from connecting two crucial dots: how our failing war against terrorists in Afghanistan might relate to our failure to stop a supposed terrorist attack at home. Most of those who decried the Army's blindness to Hasan's threat are strong proponents of sending more troops into our longest war. That they didn't mention Afghanistan while attacking the entire American intelligence and defense apparatus in charge of that war may be the most telling revelation of this whole debate.

The reason they didn't is obvious enough. Their screeds about the Hasan case are completely at odds with both the Afghanistan policy they endorse and the leadership that must execute that policy, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal. These hawks, all demanding that Obama act on McChrystal's proposals immediately, do not seem to have read his strategy assessment for Afghanistan or the many press interviews he gave as it leaked out. If they had, they'd discover that the whole thrust of his counterinsurgency pitch is to befriend and win the support of the Afghan population - i.e., Muslims. The "key to success," the general wrote in his brief to the president, will be "strong personal relationships forged between security forces and local populations."

McChrystal thinks we might even jolly up those Muslims who historically and openly hate America. "I don't think much of the Taliban are ideologically driven," he told Dexter Filkins of The Times. "In my view their past is not important. Some people say, ‘Well, they have blood on their hands.' I'd say, ‘So do a lot of people.' I think we focus on future behavior."

Whether we could win those hearts and minds is, arguably, an open question - though it's an objective that would require a partner other than Hamid Karzai and many more troops than even McChrystal is asking for (or America presently has). But to say that McChrystal's optimistic - dare one say politically correct? - view of Muslim pliability doesn't square with that of America's hawks is the understatement of the decade.

As their Fort Hood rhetoric made clear, McChrystal's most vehement partisans don't trust American Muslims, let alone those of the Taliban, no matter how earnestly the general may argue that they can be won over by our troops' friendliness (or bribes). If, as the right has it, our Army cannot be trusted to recognize a Hasan in its own ranks, then how will it figure out who the "good" Muslims will be as we try to build a "stable" state (whatever "stable" means) in a country that has never had a functioning central government? If our troops can't be protected from seemingly friendly Muslim American brethren in Killeen, Tex., what are the odds of survival for the 40,000 more troops the hawks want to deploy to Kabul and sinkholes beyond?

About the only prominent voice among the liberal-bashing, Obama-loathing right who has noted this gaping contradiction is Mark Steyn of National Review. "Members of the best trained, best equipped fighting force on the planet" were "gunned down by a guy who said a few goofy things no one took seriously," he wrote. "And that's the problem: America has the best troops and fiercest firepower, but no strategy for throttling the ideology that drives the enemy - in Afghanistan and in Texas." You have to applaud Steyn's rare intellectual consistency within his camp. One imagines that he does not buy the notion that our Army, however brilliant, has a shot at building "strong personal relationships" with a population that often regards us as occupiers and infidels.

In a week of horrific news, it was good to hear at the end of it that Obama is dissatisfied with the four Afghanistan options he has been weighing so far. The more time he deliberates, the more he is learning that he's on a fool's errand with no exit. After Karzai was spared a runoff last month and declared the winner of the fraud-infested August "election," Obama demanded that he address his government's corruption as a price for American support. Only days later the Afghan president mocked the American president by parading his most tainted cronies on camera and granting an interview to PBS's "NewsHour" devoted to spewing his contempt for his American benefactors.

Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and, until recently, a State Department official in Afghanistan, could be found on MSNBC on Thursday once again asking the question no war advocate can answer, "Do you want Americans fighting and dying for the Karzai regime?" Hoh quit his post on principle in September despite the urging of colleagues, including our ambassador there, Karl W. Eikenberry, that he stay and fight over war policy from the inside. But Hoh had lost confidence in our strategy and would not retract his resignation. Now he has been implicitly seconded by Eikenberry himself. Last week we learned that the ambassador, a retired general who had been the top American military commander in Afghanistan as recently as 2007, had sent two cables to Obama urging caution about sending more troops.

We don't know everything in those cables. What we do know is that American intelligence continues to say that fewer than 100 Qaeda operatives can still be found in Afghanistan. We also know that the Taliban, which are currently estimated to number in the tens of thousands, can't be eliminated. As McChrystal put it to Filkins, there is no "finite number" of Taliban, so there's no way to vanquish them. Hence his counterinsurgency alternative, which could take decades, costing untold billions and countless lives.

Perhaps those on the right are correct about Hasan, and he is just one cog in an apocalyptic jihadist plot that has infiltrated our armed forces. If so, then they have an obligation to explain how pouring more troops into Afghanistan would have stopped Hasan from plotting in Killeen. Don't hold your breath. If we have learned anything concrete so far from the massacre at Fort Hood, it's that our hawks, for all their certitude, are as utterly confused as the rest of us about who it is we're fighting in Afghanistan and to what end.

Frank Rich

Frank Rich is a staff writer for New York Magazine.  He is the author of many books, including The Great Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina.

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