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A Better 9/11 Comparison

On this, the latest anniversary of 9/11, there is an understandable tendency to compare the Al Qaeda attack on American soil with the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. While the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was actually deadlier than the attack on Pearl Harbor, there is a significant difference between the two events: the latter was the work of a nation state, the former the work of a non-governmental organization. Al Qaeda is not, of course, entirely independent of nation states—it needs shelter somewhere, meaning in some nation state, especially for training and higher-level command and control structures, and it benefits from alliances with certain states, such as Taliban-era Afghanistan or Iran or, possibly, Pakistan. But it is not state-directed and even overthrowing the state that gave its leadership shelter—the Taliban-run Afghanistan—has not put an end to the organization. It has simply migrated to Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and other spots where there is not a strong government willing and able to keep the terrorists out.

This may be to belabor the obvious, but the difference between Imperial Japan and Al Qaeda is worth contemplating on this anniversary because it helps to explain why there has not been a neat and final resolution to the conflict once known as the Global War on Terror. Quite simply, it is difficult to imagine the leaders of Al Qaeda ever signing instruments of surrender as the leaders of Japan did on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. And even if, by some remote chance, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, did sign a peace treaty, it would be disregarded by many fanatics who claim to fight in Al Qaeda’s name. Al Qaeda is not a rigidly organized, tightly hierarchical structure that can impose discipline on its followers. It is, rather, a loose-knit network over which its leaders exercise only limited control.

It seems to me, then, that we need a better historical analogy to understand what happened in 2001. The analogy I propose, with some important caveats, is to the events of March 22, 1622. That was the day when Powhatan Indians staged a devastating raid on the English settlement at Jamestown, killing 347 out of 1,240 colonists—a far higher percentage of the population than died on 9/11 even if the absolute number killed was considerable smaller. The settlers subsequently carried out a bloody revenge on the Powhatans but no matter how savagely the settlers fought, peace would prove elusive. The location of the Indian Wars changed over the years: By the early nineteenth century the eastern United States had been effectively secured against Indian attack; in subsequent years battles with the Indians would be fought primarily in the trans-Mississippi West. But what did not change was the persistence of the conflict: America’s European settlers spent roughly three centuries fighting Native Americans. Only in 1890 was the frontier declared closed and the era of Indian Wars ended.

I do not mean to suggest that Native Americans were motivated by the same sort of extremist religious ideology as Al Qaeda; although some Native Americans did fall prey to religious cults such as the Ghost Dance, they were, on the whole, simply fighting admirably and understandably to defend their homes and hunting grounds from the encroachments of avaricious newcomers. Nor do I mean to suggest we are doomed to spend three centuries fighting Islamist fanatics. But the model of the Indian Wars is one that is more apt for this kind of conflict than a short, conventional war like World War II.

The Indians, after all, generally lacked strong central government; they were split into numerous tribes and these were further subdivided into clans and families, some of them in favor of peace with the white man, others in favor of war. Even moderate chiefs such as the Cheyenne leader Black Kettle (whose people were the victims of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre in 1864) had trouble controlling their headstrong warriors, and so the Indian Wars persisted for decade after decade, century after century.

Most of the armed conflicts against the Indians were hardly worthy of the name “war” in the European sense—they were more skirmishes and raids than conventional battles. So too with Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups which we are more likely to fight with drone strikes than with massive tank battles. But simply because they could not muster conventional ground forces in the European sense did not mean that the Indians were not a threat. Settler families (both Mexican and American) living on the frontier were far more terrified of an Indian raid than Americans today are of an Al Qaeda attack. Yet Al Qaeda, thanks to advances in technology, is able to inflict far worse damage on its enemies than Geronimo or Cochise could possibly have imagined.

The key to success in the War on Terror, just like in the Indian Wars, is patience and persistence. Although we can hope that the current conflict lasts a lot less than 300 years, it has already lasted longer than World War II and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Indeed, despite the losses suffered by Al Qaeda’s central organization in the 11 years since 9/11, it remains in business, while various other jihadist groups including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Dine in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban, and on and on, remain a growing danger. I don’t think the West is losing this conflict; indeed, by many indicators, it is the jihadists who are losing. But NGOs like Al Qaeda and its ilk can endure decades, even centuries, of losing and still remain a potent threat. For all of our tactical successes, such as the raid that killed bin Laden, the Long War is not going away anytime soon.


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