Friday, May 07, 2004

You Say Hypothetical, I Say Nonsensical

This is the most inane piece of hypothetical history ever written (yes, I'm including this.)

Gregg Easterbrook, of The New Republic, imagines that President Bush follows the advice of Richard Clarke, among others, and invades Afghanistan shortly after taking office. However, when no evidence of an impending threat from al Qaeda is discovered, Democrats and Republicans alike turn on the President; naturally, impeachment procedures follow.

Aside from being an exercise in finger-wagging self-indulgence, the problem with this piece of fiction is that it jumps (in this case, perhaps "bounds" would be a better term) to several illogical conclusions. The first is that Mr. Easterbrook's pretend American public becomes "overwhelmingly opposed" to his pretend war following the deaths of "dozens of U.S. soldiers." Meanwhile in the real world, the American public has yet to be shown proof of the immediate threat posed by Iraq, 768 US soldiers have been lost and public opinion of the war remains divided.

Reaching even further, Mr. Easterbrook alleges that if the US had invaded Afghanistan in August of 2001, no evidence of the al Qaeda intent to strike America would have been discovered. The following is a sampling of what US forces discovered upon invading Afghanistan in November of 2001. It seems safe assume that most, if not all of it, did not materialize in the months between August and November.

1) Special Report: In the house of anthrax; Intelligence failures. The Economist. London: Nov 24, 2001. Vol. 361, Iss. 8249; pg. 1

They might start, for example, in a nondescript house in the wealthiest district of Kabul, where a Pakistani NGO called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN) once had its offices. UTN's president is Bashiruddin Mahmood, one of Pakistan's leading nuclear scientists and a specialist in plutonium technology. Last month Mr Mahmood was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and interrogated on his links to the Taliban, with whom he has had frequent contact for, he insists, humanitarian reasons. Mr Mahmood was released again soon afterwards. The Taliban has denied any "abnormal" links between Mr Mahmood and Mr bin Laden, and he himself says he has never met the man.

In public, UTN helped Afghans with flourmills, school textbooks and road-upgrading schemes. But its offices suggest that this may have been a cover for something far more sinister. According to their neighbours, the Pakistanis who lived and worked there fled Kabul along with the Taliban, but the evidence they left behind suggests that they were working on a plan to build an anthrax bomb.

An upstairs room of the house had been used as a workshop. What appeared to be a Russian rocket had been disassembled, and a canister labelled "helium" had been left on the worktop. On the floor were multiple copies of documents about anthrax downloaded from the Internet, and details about the American army's vaccination plans for its troops. The number of copies suggests that seminars were also taking place there.

One of the downloaded documents featured a small picture of the former American defence secretary, William Cohen, holding a five- pound bag of sugar. It noted that he was doing this "to show the amount of the biological weapon anthrax that could destroy half the population of Washington, DC."

On the floor was a small bag of white powder, which this correspondent decided not to inspect. It may have contained nothing more deadly than icing sugar, but that could be useful for experiments in how to scatter powder containing anthrax spores from a great height over a city, or to show students how to do this. The living room contained two boxes of gas masks and filters.

On a desk was a cassette box labelled "Jihad", with the name of Osama bin Laden hand-written along the spine. Most chilling of all, however, were the mass of calculations and drawings in felt pen that filled up a white board of the sort used in classrooms. There were several designs for a long thin balloon, something like a weather balloon, with lines and arrows indicating a suggested height of 10km (33,000 feet). There was also a sketch of a jet fighter flying towards the balloon alongside the words: "Your days are limited! Bang." This, like the documents, was written in English.

Since UTN was run by one of Pakistan's top scientists, a man with close links to the Taliban and, it is said, close ideological affinities with Mr bin Laden, the circumstantial evidence points to only one conclusion. Whoever fled this house when the Taliban fell was working on a plan to build a helium-powered balloon bomb carrying anthrax. Whether it was detonated with a timer or shot down by a fighter, the result would have been the same: the showering of deadly airborne anthrax spores over an area as wide as half of New York city or Washington, DC.

2) Alliance Says It Found School Run By a Titan of Terrorism
C. J. Chivers. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Dec 1, 2001. pg. B.1

The authorities here said today that Mr. [Namangani]'s home in Kunduz, a blue-walled compound a few blocks from the city's center, served as an academy for preparing soldiers and terrorists to export the international Islamic jihad. It emphasized incursions into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where terrorists have vowed to establish fundamentalist rule, and into Chechnya, where Muslims battled Russian troops in the 1990's and have carried out sporadic terrorist acts since.

Uzbek and American officials have said that as Mr. Namangani became a more successful terrorist and military commander, he was rewarded with money from Mr. bin Laden, whom three Northern Alliance generals said had visited the compound here on several occasions and helped underwrite Mr. Namangani's organization.

3) Al Qaeda Papers Show Efforts to Acquire Weapons --- U.S. Battlefield Gains Offer Access to Documents, Some of Them Alarming. Neil King Jr. and Alan Cullison. Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Nov 19, 2001. pg. A.12

The opening of key Taliban-held areas in and around Kabul has given U.S. officials unprecedented access to offices and training sites once run by al Qaeda. Intelligence operatives on the ground have found documents related to the group's interest in weapons of mass destruction, its organizational structure and plans for possible future terrorist attacks, said one U.S. intelligence official, who added that the last few days had opened up "a document-rich environment."

This all serves to make Mr. Easterbrook's larger point, (just because we didn't find evidence of an impending threat in Iraq doesn't mean there was no threat) look rather foolish. He compares Iraq, where plans to attack or invade America have yet to be discovered, to Afghanistan, where "plans for possible future terrorist attacks" were found quickly upon invasion. In other words, there was evidence of an immediate threat in Afghanistan, because there was an immediate threat in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Mr. Easterbrook's problem is that he's trying to write contemporary hypothetical history. Maybe something older would be more appropriate. Something like the Confederacy winning the Civil War...