The Nation That Fell To Earth

Did the U.S. overreact to Sept. 11? Niall Ferguson, one of the world's leading historians, speculates on how future generations will judge the war on terrorism--and on what it will take for America to win it

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By the fall of 2003, just two years after the 9/11 attacks, doubts had begun to creep back in. The most striking manifestation of American miscalculation was the refusal of Iraqis to peacefully embrace the nascent democracy created for them by U.S. arms. Far from abating, violence in Iraq increased over time. Part of the problem was the insufficiency of U.S. boots on the ground. General Eric Shinseki turned out to have been right that "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Trying to do the job with around 135,000--roughly 1 American for every 210 Iraqis--exposed a part of the spectrum that the U.S. could not fully dominate: the Arab street. U.S. soldiers patrolling strife-torn cities could be killed or maimed by the simplest of improvised explosive devices. Here was a new and shocking symmetry in warfare.

To make matters worse, the public appetite for the war in Iraq faded long before a real victory was achieved. Just 12 months after the original invasion--even before the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed the thousand mark--support for the war had dropped below 50%. True, new evidence came to light of the dictator's crimes against his own people. True, opinion polls suggested that Iraqis overwhelmingly preferred democracy to Saddam. But U.S. voters did not see these as sufficient grounds for risking American lives. The Bush Administration's contentions that Saddam had links to al-Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction proved groundless.

Almost as big a miscalculation was the military's failure to understand the nature of the threat to Iraq's security. At first it seemed as if the U.S.-led coalition was facing an insurgency led by Saddam loyalists, with the support of foreign terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. But increasingly what was happening in Iraq was a sectarian war between the Sunni minority and the Shi'ite majority. The country that Americans had set out to democratize had, on closer inspection, voted to break apart. A spiral of tit-for-tat massacres in ethnically mixed Baghdad and the surrounding provinces ensured that the disintegration would happen in the bloodiest possible way. By the summer of 2006, despite the successful formation of a democratically elected government in Baghdad, Iraqis were dying at a rate of more than 100 a day.

Afghanistan also turned out to be harder to control than to conquer. In the summer of 2006, fresh contingents of U.S. and British troops had to be deployed to reassert the authority of the democratic government in Kabul over outlying areas like Helmand. Whereas in Iraq the capital city was the main conflict zone, in Afghanistan the capital city was the only place under any kind of control.

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