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Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.

Lambson: Agree or disagree, I always enjoy your work. I think we are in absolute agreement on this one, though. Do you happen to have a clue about why we are still at war in Afghanistan? Who exactly benefits from this apparent insanity?

Bagley: I guess that we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here on the beaches of Los Angeles, which was the rationale expressed some years ago. Personally, I don't think the Taliban are the strongest of swimmers. I'm being flippant, because the only other response to the history of our 10 years of waste and lost opportunities in Afghanistan is anger. I'd rather not fume today, though I expect I will as we discuss this.

Lambson: Lost opportunities? What opportunities? I understand going after the Taliban in retaliation for allegedly harboring Bin Laden — it is bad policy to allow attacks on U.S. soil without retaliation — but last time I checked he was dead. Mission accomplished. Of course, Osama Bin Laden was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Bagley: I have a laundry list of things that should have been done at the time, but no one asked me. One would have been a national crash course to learn Mideast languages. Students eager to help America following 9/11 could have been funneled through universities on the nation's dime to learn Pashto, Arabic and Dari. By now, we would have had an army of Americans fluent in not only the languages, but the cultures of this important region as well. I remember reading how soldiers in Iraq said that an Arabic-speaker was more valuable to them than an M-1 Abrams tank. Instead of marshaling brains to attack the problem, we went with bullets.

Lambson: If you are advocating a national crash course in Mideast languages as the answer to the problems in the Mideast, I am glad nobody asked you. Of course I know that isn't your entire laundry list, but my question is more basic: Why are we intervening in Afghanistan at all, given the lack of Taliban swimming ability?

Bagley: On those rare occasions when America intervenes in another nation's affairs, it should do so with deliberation and intelligence. George Bush was already looking past Afghanistan to Iraq before the dust had even settled at Ground Zero. People long familiar with Afghanistan agree there was a window when America could have made a positive difference, but the moment passed in a rush to find things that Donald Rumsfeld could bomb (Afghanistan was disappointing, bombing-wise; Rumsfeld observed that years of war had left the country "rubble ... pulverized." Iraq, on the other hand, still had lots to pulverize into rubble).

But that is water under the bridge. We should get out now. Our continued military presence only reinforces the idea that we are occupiers.

Lambson: It all comes back to Bush with you, doesn't it?

Bagley: When Israel's top military historian says that the U.S. response following 9/11 was the most foolish mistake in 2,000 years of military blunders, I tend to listen. Martin van Creveld also said, "Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial." Monumental screw-ups and their authors should be remembered, the better to avoid similar fiascos in the future.

Lambson: When the first Bush called for an uprising to overthrow Saddam Hussein and then did not enforce the announced no-fly zone to protect the Kurds who responded, it was horrific and immoral. The invasion of Iraq ordered by the second Bush had no compelling rationale but cost lives on both sides. I am not going to defend either Bush. I just don't believe they are the cause of ALL evil in the universe. Some of it may even be attributable to Democrats.

Bagley: Foreign affairs and national security are not playing a big role in the 2012 election (see above; the forgotten soldier), but that could change rather dramatically rather quickly. I think it matters whether Romney or Obama is in office should Israel attack Iran and all hell break loose. Both men are cautious by nature, but Romney has chosen many architects of the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters to give him advice on world affairs. Just something to think about on the way to the polling station.

Last week's Top Comment goes to Digital Bath: "Ya can't spell Ryan without Ayn, and ya can't spell Romney without Money. Who scripted this movie?"

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