Commentary Magazine


Topic: war on terror

Obama’s Coalition of the Willing

The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

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The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

Not exactly George W. Bush’s Multi-National Force—Iraq, is it? But Obama certainly has a coalition of the willing. Rosen quotes Michael Doran on our bumbling assist to bad regimes: “If you want to build up a non-jihadi Sunni force that is capable of commanding loyalty from people on the ground then you have to fight Assad and push against Iran, and you push back against ISIS and Iran at the same time. If you’re just fighting ISIS then you’re building an Iranian security system in the region.”

Obama employs dangerous half measures and sells them as prudence. He narrowed the war on terror to a fight against “core al-Qaeda,” and so a potpourri of new jihad groups exploded across the Middle East and Africa. He “led from behind” in Libya, where a weapons flea market sprouted up and Americans got killed. With his new half measures in Iraq, Iranian security will be backed by American military might, which in turn aids Bashar Assad, whose Syria is also partners with a rising Russia. The United States is no longer merely creating a global power vacuum. It’s filling it back up with an alliance of our enemies.

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Obama’s Retreat and Jihad’s Rise

Back in 2012, the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism” stated that “The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the [al-Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”

In 2014, the terrorist organization stands on the brink of statehood. Not so difficult, really. The United States withdrew from the Middle East and al-Qaeda didn’t. With jihadists now taking city after city in Iraq, we’re hearing murmurs of a rising caliphate.

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Back in 2012, the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism” stated that “The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the [al-Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”

In 2014, the terrorist organization stands on the brink of statehood. Not so difficult, really. The United States withdrew from the Middle East and al-Qaeda didn’t. With jihadists now taking city after city in Iraq, we’re hearing murmurs of a rising caliphate.

Through it all, the Obama administration has bragged about its grit and wisdom. As the president told Mitt Romney in their third debate, “We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11, and as a consequence, al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated.” Responding to charges of appeasement at a White House press conference in 2011, Obama boasted: “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement.”

It would probably be more useful to ask the thousands of al-Qaeda associates who’ve been bombing and beheading their way to glory in Mesopotamia. You could also ask the Taliban five. And for good measure, you might want to pose the question to Hamas, whose political legitimacy has been given the Obama seal of approval.

Most Americans consented to our retreat from the Muslim world. It was easy to look back at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with regret as long as you ignored the alternatives. If warnings of a regional jihadist uprising were nothing more than hyped-up neocon scare-mongering, American military action looked like tragic overreach. But with that alternative no longer hypothetical, George W. Bush’s post-9/11 policies are beginning to look more like what they were: difficult but necessary initiatives aimed at stunting Islamist aggression.

Undoubtedly many Americans still think of the Great Islamist Comeback as a foreign disturbance with little bearing on their day-to-day lives. But that too requires some ignoring. Today, reports abound of terrorists plotting against the United States in Libya and the Syria-Iraq corridor. Even the Nigerian kidnapping crew Boko Haram is reportedly working on plans to hit American targets. Will Americans wait until those hypothetical concerns also become real before they accept the necessity of a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East? Al-Qaeda roared back to life with ease. Somehow the path that still remains difficult to reverse is our own.

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Obama’s Epic Incompetence (continued)

Yesterday I wrote a post about Barack Obama’s epic incompetence. Now, as if to prove my assertion, Karen DeYoung wrote a Washington Post story that begins this way:

A year after President Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.

In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”

But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.

Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others.

So you can add this to the list of Mr. Obama’s ineptness.

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Yesterday I wrote a post about Barack Obama’s epic incompetence. Now, as if to prove my assertion, Karen DeYoung wrote a Washington Post story that begins this way:

A year after President Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.

In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”

But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.

Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others.

So you can add this to the list of Mr. Obama’s ineptness.

There is something oddly impressive when it comes to the sheer scope of this administration’s failures. To have gone more than five years as president and to have almost no governing successes to point to is a standard most people, and most politicians, could not hope to attain. Yet Mr. Obama, being the historic figure that he is, decided to enter previously uncharted territory.

At some point I suppose it was inevitable that Jimmy Carter would be pushed aside when it came to incompetence. Now he has.

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FBI Confronts Reality of War on Terror

Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

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Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

Thus Comey has elected to continue making counter-terrorism the bureau’s primary responsibility. That sounds like a wise choice and it is also a brave one because it undermines the president’s attempts to make all wars–including the one on terrorism–go away. Even the very term “Global War on Terror” has been banished from the administration’s lexicon.

Reality, alas, is not cooperating. The “tide of war” is actually cresting, not receding, and in some measure (although not entirely) because Obama has chosen to pull back from the Middle East. His attempt to follow a less interventionist (though, to be sure, not isolationist) path is not reducing anti-American antagonism. It is instead giving al-Qaeda and its affiliates–not to mention the Iranian Quds Force and its affiliates–more room to operate.

It would be nice if the president, who is presumably reading the same intelligence as Comey (and even getting access to information that the FBI director doesn’t see), had a similar awakening and reversed the drastic drawdown in U.S. defense spending which puts at risk our military readiness. That, alas, seems unlikely to happen because the president is so locked into his own narrative that he is ending wars, not starting them.

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The Morality of Drone Warfare

I am all for careful targeting in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Not only is it the humane thing to do, but being accurate and precise in the application of firepower can avert civilian casualties that will only create fresh grievances and breed new insurgents. That said, there is a limit on how precise any act of war can be. Human rights organizations, which are up in arms about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, have unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled absent a stoppage of the entire drone program–which would allow terrorists to kill ever more people and commit ever more human-rights violations.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have new reports out denouncing drone strikes for causing collateral damage, and the New York Times has weighed in with a lengthy article of its own on the supposedly awful impact of drone strikes on Miram Shah, a Pakistani frontier town that is the headquarters of the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous terrorist networks in the world. The Times rather melodramatically informs us:

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I am all for careful targeting in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Not only is it the humane thing to do, but being accurate and precise in the application of firepower can avert civilian casualties that will only create fresh grievances and breed new insurgents. That said, there is a limit on how precise any act of war can be. Human rights organizations, which are up in arms about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, have unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled absent a stoppage of the entire drone program–which would allow terrorists to kill ever more people and commit ever more human-rights violations.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have new reports out denouncing drone strikes for causing collateral damage, and the New York Times has weighed in with a lengthy article of its own on the supposedly awful impact of drone strikes on Miram Shah, a Pakistani frontier town that is the headquarters of the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous terrorist networks in the world. The Times rather melodramatically informs us:

It has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts — more than any other urban settlement in the world…

While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones — and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike — is a crushing psychological burden for many residents.

Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar. Women were particularly troubled, he said, but men also experienced problems. “We sell them this,” he said, producing a packet of pills that purported to treat erectile dysfunction under the brand name Rocket.

I wonder what 1940s residents of Dresden or Tokyo would have made of the Pakistanis’ laments? German and Japanese civilians had much bigger worries than erectile dysfunction. Their cities were flattened by American bombers. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed–and that’s even before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski. A single raid, the March 9-10 firebombing of Tokyo, produced many, many times more fatalities (around 90,000 people died) than all of America’s drone strikes in Pakistan combined over the last decade-plus. There is simply no comparison, given that Amnesty International is complaining “that at least 19 civilians in the surrounding area of North Waziristan had been killed in just two of the drone attacks since January 2012.”

That is not an argument for going back to the crude carpet bombing of World War II days. Drone strikes are a better instrument for the War on Terror. But it is crazy to attack drone strikes for their supposed immorality when they are the most precise and therefore the most humane type of warfare ever waged.

One suspects that the critics would love for the United States to discontinue its strikes entirely. Then what?

The Times article makes clear that the Pakistani army is doing little to police Miram Shah: Although a large Pakistani military base is located in the northern part of town, “the soldiers are largely confined to their base, leaving residents to fend for themselves.” The drone strikes, while not a magic bullet, are thus the only effective method to prevent the Haqqanis and their murderous ilk from entirely dominating the frontier region of Pakistan, which they use as a base for exporting terrorism to Afghanistan. Are Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International seriously arguing that it is moral to let these fundamentalist killers oppress and kill people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, unopposed? Perhaps not, but that is the implication of their blinkered reports.

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Our Ambivalent Commander-in-Chief

It has been fascinating to read reaction to President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech last week. Some commentators–including me—perceived no real change in a tough-on-terror policy inherited from the Bush administration. Others thought it was a sign of retreat and even defeat. In truth there is plenty of cause to support both viewpoints.

Those stressing continuity could point, as I did, to Obama’s robust defense of drone strikes, even on U.S. citizens, and the vagueness of his calls for limits on those strikes or for revising the authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaeda and associated elements. The president did talk about ending the war on terror, but he offered no timeline for doing so, and news reports suggest that for the foreseeable future even one of the most controversial aspects of that war—drone strikes on “signature” targets in Pakistan who are not identified by name but are attacked because they look like militants—will continue.

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It has been fascinating to read reaction to President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech last week. Some commentators–including me—perceived no real change in a tough-on-terror policy inherited from the Bush administration. Others thought it was a sign of retreat and even defeat. In truth there is plenty of cause to support both viewpoints.

Those stressing continuity could point, as I did, to Obama’s robust defense of drone strikes, even on U.S. citizens, and the vagueness of his calls for limits on those strikes or for revising the authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaeda and associated elements. The president did talk about ending the war on terror, but he offered no timeline for doing so, and news reports suggest that for the foreseeable future even one of the most controversial aspects of that war—drone strikes on “signature” targets in Pakistan who are not identified by name but are attacked because they look like militants—will continue.

Those who saw a message of defeat and retreat took Obama at his word that he really does want to wrap up the war on terrorism and declare victory—something that is wildly premature at a time when we have just seen horrifying terrorist attacks in Boston, Paris, and London, among other places. Perhaps the most worrisome thing that Obama said was his wistful embrace of a pre-9/11 world when we supposedly treated terrorism in its proper proportion:

In the 1980s, we lost Americans to terrorism at our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon; on a cruise ship at sea; at a disco in Berlin; and on a Pan Am flight — Flight 103  — over Lockerbie.  In the 1990s, we lost Americans to terrorism at the World Trade Center; at our military facilities in Saudi Arabia; and at our Embassy in Kenya.  These attacks were all brutal; they were all deadly; and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow.  But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

Actually, our lack of response to those earlier terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s emboldened Al Qaeda to ramp up its violence by staging the worst terrorist attack of all time. That is not a precedent to be emulated, as Obama suggested—it is a mistake to be avoided.

The question is whether in fact Obama will take us back to the pre-9/11 policies. He may well do so in the future, but he did not so with his National Defense University speech which, significantly, contained no timeline for making such a change.

The most concrete and concerning action Obama has made in conjunction with the speech has been to limit drone strikes to targets that directly threaten US “persons” rather than “interests.” If this means the U.S. will stop targeting militants who seek to overthrow the governments of, say, Pakistan or Yemen, then this is a troubling development, given the grievous blow the U.S. and our allies would suffer if Al Qaeda-style extremists were to gain control of any country, much less a nuclear-armed state like Pakistan. But, while drone strikes have declined in recent months, they still seem to be going on at a higher level than during the Bush administration. How Obama’s decree will be implemented in practice remains to be seen. At this point, I think there is legitimate cause for concern but not for panic.

What Obama’s speech reveals more than anything else is the fundamental ambivalence that characterizes the cerebral law professor-turned-president over issues of war and peace. This is, after all, the president who surged troops to Afghanistan after a lengthy period of soul-searching but imposed a timeline on their deployment; the president who expressed willingness to keep troops in Iraq but who did little to negotiate away obstacles to a Status of Forces Agreement; the president who helped topple Moammar Qaddafi but did little to rebuild afterwards; and the president who has called for Bashar Assad’s overthrow but has refused to provide lethal aid or American airpower to Syrian rebels.

In keeping with this meme, as Peter Baker of the New York Times notes, “’Americans are deeply ambivalent about war,’ the president said in his speech, and he seemed to be talking about himself as well.”

Baker’s article reveals the long and tortuous gestation of the counter-terrorism speech, which was a compromise between Obama’s dovish instincts and the hawkish necessities of national securities urged on him by the CIA and other agencies. How those contradictions are resolved in the future is anyone’s guess, but, as Obama’s critics have rightly noted, there is something disquieting about such an ambivalent commander-in-chief.

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Rhetorical vs. Substantive Change in Obama’s Security Policy

With his address today at National Defense University, President Obama continued his pattern of trying to separate himself from the Bush administration—while largely carrying on, and even expanding, its legacy in the counter-terrorism fight.

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

But never mind: Better that Obama feign a change of course rather than actually undertake a change of course, because the course established by Bush and continued by Obama has kept us largely, although not entirely, safe since 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s welcome and robust defense of drone strikes (“our actions are effective… [and] legal”) also could have come from his predecessor’s mouth.

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With his address today at National Defense University, President Obama continued his pattern of trying to separate himself from the Bush administration—while largely carrying on, and even expanding, its legacy in the counter-terrorism fight.

Obama said, for example, that after he came into office, “we unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” Umm, actually all of that happened in Bush’s second term.

He also took a swipe at the admittedly imperfect terminology favored by Bush (deliberately and understandably formulated to avoid any mention of our actual enemy—Islamist extremists), saying “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Actually, that’s exactly what GWOT meant when used by the Bush administration: “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle” terrorist networks. Even Obama’s closing line—“That’s who the American people are. Determined, and not to be messed with”—sounds as if it could easily have been delivered in a Texas twang.

But never mind: Better that Obama feign a change of course rather than actually undertake a change of course, because the course established by Bush and continued by Obama has kept us largely, although not entirely, safe since 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s welcome and robust defense of drone strikes (“our actions are effective… [and] legal”) also could have come from his predecessor’s mouth.

Obama was particularly effective and hard-nosed in explaining why he authorized the strike that killed an American citizen, Anwar Awlaki: “When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America … his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.” Take that, Rand Paul.

There really was not much new in Obama’s speech; even his desire to close Guantanamo and transfer its detainees to prisons on the mainland has been often been expressed before—and is no closer to realization because of bipartisan opposition in Congress. He noted the difficulty of dealing with detainees who remain dangerous but cannot be convicted in a court of law—without offering any solution. All he said was: “I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.” He also genuflected toward greater accountability for drone strikes but did not endorse any particular idea such as the creation of special courts; he simply said, “I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these — and other — options for increased oversight.”

There are some real changes associated with Obama’s speech, it seems, but, like much else in the war on terror, they remain classified, murky, and imperfectly understood by those of us who are not cleared to know the inner details. The Washington Post reports, for example, that Obama has issued a new directive limiting the use of drone strikes to targets that “pose a ‘continuing and imminent threat’ to the United States” and then only in instances where there is “near certainty” of no civilian casualties. His guidance apparently also includes a “preference” for the Department of Defense to play the lead role in drone strikes rather than the CIA. It’s not clear exactly what these changes portend, since, as Fred Kaplan has previously noted, the government’s definition of “imminent threat” is wide enough to include just about any al-Qaeda operative, whether he or she is actually about to attack the U.S. or not.

My own view is that drone strikes should not decrease while the threat from “al-Qaeda and Associated Movements” (to borrow the Obama administration’s parlance) remains as high as it is today—the threat coming no longer primarily from al-Qaeda Central but, as Obama noted, from its affiliates and from lone wolves inspired by its rhetoric. But at the same time, while I believe it is dangerous to reduce drone strikes, it is also misguided to believe that they can be the sum of our counter-terrorism efforts. We need to address, as Obama said, “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia.” That doesn’t mean ending poverty, as his remarks implied, but rather effectively countering extremist propaganda and political organizing by helping moderate forces throughout the Muslim world to fight back. Unfortunately, this is an area where Obama, like Bush, has conspicuously fallen short.

Obama blandly noted that “unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria,” while conspicuously failing to note that it is his own administration’s lack of support for moderate forces—in the government of Libya and among the rebel factions of Syria—that has allowed extremists to come to the fore. Obama eloquently and rightly defended the need for foreign aid spending, but he announced no new steps to help embattled, pro-democratic forces in Libya or Syria.

Bush at least made rhetorical bows toward criticizing dictators and supporting democrats in the Middle East. Obama, in thrall to “realist” dogma, has been much less inclined to try to spread freedom abroad. Ironically, he seems to have adopted the “hard power” part of the Bush legacy while eschewing the emphasis on “soft power”—i.e., democracy promotion. That is his primary shortcoming—not, as the mainstream media narrative would have it, his support for supposedly excessive drone strikes but rather his failure to embed the drone strikes in a wider plan to promote better governance in the Middle East.

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“Knock-Off Jihadis” and Other Pests

Yesterday at a memorial service for Boston bombing victims, Joe Biden described the Tsarnaev brothers as “twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis.”

You know what they say. If it worships like a duck, radicalizes like a duck, plans like a duck, arms like a duck, bombs like a duck, and kills like a duck—it’s a knock-off.

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Yesterday at a memorial service for Boston bombing victims, Joe Biden described the Tsarnaev brothers as “twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis.”

You know what they say. If it worships like a duck, radicalizes like a duck, plans like a duck, arms like a duck, bombs like a duck, and kills like a duck—it’s a knock-off.

It would be nice if the burden of proof for receiving Massachusetts benefits was so tough. Since the only deranged systemic network that authorities have linked the brothers to is the state welfare agency, they’re just pretend jihadists incapable of disturbing Pax Obamacana.

Of course when al-Qaeda-linked groups claim credit for killing Americans these days, that too is deemed the product of inconsequential riff-raff. Jihadist all-stars Ansar al-Sharia bragged of committing the massacre at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. So naturally the administration blamed angry YouTube viewers and arrested a provocative American “filmmaker.” The State Department’s version of coming around to the truth was Hillary Clinton’s angry declaration before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January: “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”

And at this point? With another four dead Americans, these killed on Patriot’s Day in a great American city, one an 8-year-old, it makes a difference. When innocent Americans are slain in the name of an anti-American idea it demands a measure of bravery and honesty from the rest of us. Calling the suspected perpetrators “knock-off jihadists” is a pretty shabby way to dishonor the dead.

It’s also a poor way to protect civilization. No matter how many thousand bad guys you incinerate with drones, you can’t defeat what you’re too scared to speak of. Forget the words Islamism and jihad. It’s gotten to the point where the administration’s using the word terrorism is perceived as a dangerously aggressive counterterrorist initiative reminiscent of the Bush years.

Last Sunday the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said that Boston plunged us into the “era of the suspicious package.” Not very resonant, as far as historical eras go. But it does cover the ideological depth of national security thinking in Obama’s America. We’ve moved on from the unacceptable war on terror to a war on luggage. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist is another’s knapsack.

An imitation of leadership can only handle an imitation of jihad. The specter of a committed enemy would bring into focus the commitment on our side, the side of “what difference does it make?” Better to fight knock-offs and luggage than get into all that.

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The Constitution Project’s Dangerous Complacency on Terror

It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

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It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters.

Nowhere does the report offer any credit to those same officials for preventing more attacks on the American homeland. Nor does the report seriously entertain the possibility–which I think a probability–that the use of torture was related to the success in defending our homeland from follow-up attacks.

This is a sign, in my view, of the dangerous triumphalism and complacency which has taken control of the public discourse because there were no more 9/11s and because the architects of those attacks have been either captured or killed. Perhaps the Boston Marathon bombing will instill some renewed urgency into the public debate about countering terrorism, but I doubt it–bad as the Boston bombing was, it was not deadly enough to change our mindset in the way that 9/11 did.

We are feeling secure now, and in our security we are seeing a tendency, exemplified by the Constitution Project, to turn on those who were responsible for fighting al-Qaeda at a time when it appeared to be a far more potent threat than it is today.

The project’s report seeks to undo many of the steps taken to fight al-Qaeda, with a majority of its members urging that the U.S. declare formal hostilities with al-Qaeda to be over at the end of 2014 when U.S. combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan–a step that would necessitate closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and releasing or transferring its detainees. If only we could elicit a binding commitment from al-Qaeda to stop fighting us after 2014!

This measure was opposed by a minority of the panel (presumably the Republicans), but the entire group signed on to say “that the United States has violated its international legal obligations in its practice of the enforced disappearances”–otherwise known as the “rendition” of terrorist suspects begun under the Clinton administration. By calling the capture of these suspected terrorists “enforced disappearances” the panel seems to be suggesting that U.S. actions are similar to those of the Argentinean junta during its “Dirty War” which left tens of thousands of Argentineans dead.

This is only a small sampling of the problems with the Constitution Project report, which seems to be written as if the terrorist threat is over and we are now in a postwar period. The Boston bombing shows otherwise. I only hope we do not experience even more convincing refutations of our complacency anytime soon.

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part Two

As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

It should be remembered that George W. Bush punted on Iran during his second term. Bush outsourced Iran diplomacy to America’s European allies but those efforts were a complete failure. But Bush reacted to that fiasco with patience that he had not showed on Iraq. Bush not only was uninterested in U.S. action but also flatly vetoed any Israeli unilateral strikes on nuclear facilities. He appeared to conclude that adding a third conflict to the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was impossible.

Obama doubled down on his predecessor’s outreach to Iran even though he spoke of it as if Bush had never tried diplomacy. But after four years of failed engagement, he now finds himself facing the reality that at some point in the next four years he will have to choose between accepting a nuclear Iran and fulfilling his pledges never to allow Tehran to get a nuke. The Iranians may be forgiven for thinking Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon is a signal that he will never use force against them. But given the dire implications of an Iranian nuke for U.S. security, the stability of the entire Middle East as well as the existential nature of this threat to the state of Israel, it may well be that the president will have no choice but to think about attacking Iran.

Republicans may be skeptical that Obama will ever summon the will to do what needs to be done on Iran but if he does, one part of the equation that will make up that decision is the certainty that he can do so without fear that the much of the mainstream media and his liberal base will oppose him. Unlike any Republican president put in the same predicament, Obama can assess the need to launch strikes on Iran’s nuclear targets without having to worry about his left-wing constituency seeking to paralyze the country with anti-war protests or to defund the war.

If there is any consolation for Republicans in losing the last presidential election it should be this. No matter how obvious the case for force against Iran might be a President Romney would have had a difficult time uniting the country behind an effort to act to forestall the Iranian nuclear threat. The sickening hypocrisy of both the administration and the left makes it clear that if Obama were to strike Iran, he will likely have the support of both parties in a way that neither Romney, George W. Bush or any Republican could ever have hoped for.

That this is so doesn’t speak well for Democrats or liberals. Their partisan prejudices render them incapable of long supporting any war or anti-terror effort when the Republicans are in charge in Washington. Any Republican who starts a war labors under the handicap that the left will view their motives as impure and treat efforts to carry the war against the enemy by all means necessary as somehow illegitimate. Barack Obama has learned that for all of the criticism he has endured from his opponents, outside of libertarian outliers, Republicans will always salute the flag and back just about any war even when they hate the president.

Though this is something that is to be lamented, let us hope that it helps give Barack Obama the confidence to do what needs to be done on Iran once he accepts, as eventually he must, the truth about his feckless diplomatic efforts. 

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FISA Reflects Bipartisan Consensus on Antiterror Tactics

At a time when partisan gridlock in Washington threatens to send us plunging over the fiscal cliff, it is comforting to know that at least in some areas lawmakers can still reach bipartisan consensus. Not many admittedly, but there are some–such as the Senate’s vote, 73 to 23, to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as amended in 2008, when lawmakers gave their imprimatur to what had been an executive initiative undertaken by President George W. Bush to monitor potential terrorists’ communications after 9/11.

Bush had torn down the wall which had prohibited monitoring foreign terrorists’ communications with people in the U.S. absent a court order. This had become controversial when it was publicly revealed, but Congress stepped in to provide the authority needed. Now Congress has extended that authority, and in so doing, senators turned back numerous attempts by lawmakers on both the far-left and far-right to stop or water down this legislation, which is badly needed by our intelligence agencies.

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At a time when partisan gridlock in Washington threatens to send us plunging over the fiscal cliff, it is comforting to know that at least in some areas lawmakers can still reach bipartisan consensus. Not many admittedly, but there are some–such as the Senate’s vote, 73 to 23, to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as amended in 2008, when lawmakers gave their imprimatur to what had been an executive initiative undertaken by President George W. Bush to monitor potential terrorists’ communications after 9/11.

Bush had torn down the wall which had prohibited monitoring foreign terrorists’ communications with people in the U.S. absent a court order. This had become controversial when it was publicly revealed, but Congress stepped in to provide the authority needed. Now Congress has extended that authority, and in so doing, senators turned back numerous attempts by lawmakers on both the far-left and far-right to stop or water down this legislation, which is badly needed by our intelligence agencies.

This shows how, after the initial controversies over the war on terror, a remarkable degree of bipartisan consensus has been reached in favor of measures such as wiretapping, drone strikes and detentions atGuantanamo that were once highly controversial. Other measures, such as “enhanced interrogation” techniques, which could not survive popular scrutiny, have been shelved. But the fact is that President Obama has continued most of the anti-terrorism measures begun under the previous administration and he has done so with the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate. That is good for the fight against terrorism and good for the country in general.

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Five (Non-Libya) Questions for Monday’s Debate

Are you safer now than you were four years ago? That’s the most important question that needs to be answered in Monday night’s foreign policy debate. Unfortunately for President Obama, there’s ample evidence that the answer is no. His administration killed Osama bin Laden, but the war on terror is still very much alive. And while the Benghazi attack has been getting most of the attention lately, it’s just the latest symptom of a much more systematic national security problem for this administration.

Here are some questions that are indirectly related to Benghazi that would be interesting to raise at Monday’s debate. And since it’s never a good idea to ask a question at a debate that you don’t know the answer to, the answers to all of these are already known:

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Are you safer now than you were four years ago? That’s the most important question that needs to be answered in Monday night’s foreign policy debate. Unfortunately for President Obama, there’s ample evidence that the answer is no. His administration killed Osama bin Laden, but the war on terror is still very much alive. And while the Benghazi attack has been getting most of the attention lately, it’s just the latest symptom of a much more systematic national security problem for this administration.

Here are some questions that are indirectly related to Benghazi that would be interesting to raise at Monday’s debate. And since it’s never a good idea to ask a question at a debate that you don’t know the answer to, the answers to all of these are already known:

Question One: Did you underestimate al-Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula affiliate before the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attack?

Answer: Yes.

Obama’s counterterrorism advisor John Brennan surprised reporters when he referred to AQAP as “one of the most lethal, one of the most concerning” extensions of al-Qaeda at a press briefing two weeks after the attack, and noted that “They carried attacks against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia, against Saudi targets, inside of Yemen, against Yemeni as well as against U.S. targets.”

U.S. targets — and yet the Obama administration hadn’t even designated the group as a terrorist organization until after the failed attack.

“We had a strategic sense of sort of where [al-Qaeda-Arabian Peninsula] were going, but we didn’t know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here,” Brennan added. “And we have taken that lesson, and so now we’re all on top of it.” At least until the next attack.

Question Two: Did you call the Christmas Day bomber an “isolated extremist” three days after the attack?

Answer: Yes.

Despite the fact that there was already evidence that showed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been training in Yemen weeks before the attack, and despite a statement from AQAP taking credit for the attack, President Obama called him an “isolated extremist” in his first public speech on the matter.

“This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist,” said Obama.

It’s one thing for the president to say he wanted to wait for facts before making a definitive judgment on Abdulmutallab’s al-Qaeda ties. But Obama actually did make a definitive judgment — that Abdulmutallab was not affiliated with al-Qaeda, despite evidence to the contrary.

Question Three: Did John Brennan admit before the U.S. attack that al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate was capable of attacking the homeland?

Answer: Yes.

In John Brennan’s January 2010 press conference, he said the Obama administration “saw the plot was developing, but at the time we did not know in fact that they were talking about sending Mr. Abdulmutallab to the United States.” Again, if they saw the plot developing, why had they not characterized AQAP as a threat to the country? Why was Obama so reluctant to say Abdulmutallab was tied to al-Qaeda?

Question Four: Did you underestimate the Pakistani Taliban’s ability to attack the homeland prior to the Times Square bombing?

Answer: Yes.

The administration was caught flat-footed by the 2010 failed Times Square car bomb attack, which was carried out by a terrorist tied to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Until then the TTP was not widely regarded as a group that was capable of carrying out an attack on U.S. soil.

And yet after the attack, Brennan told Fox News that the TTP was a significant threat that was “almost indistinguishable” from al-Qaeda.

Question Five: Did you miss warning signs in 2009, when CIA officers were killed in a suicide attack by a double-agent?

Answer: Yes.

Seven CIA operatives were killed when a fake informant working for the Pakistani Taliban blew himself up inside a U.S. base in Afghanistan. A subsequent investigation found numerous red flags and intelligence breakdowns, including one CIA officer who had been warned about the informant weeks in advance, but hadn’t passed on the information. The investigation said that CIA officials may have ignored warning signs because they were desperate to find someone who could lead them to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The U.S. can’t have eyes everywhere all the time, and there is always the possibility that a plot will be missed. But all of these incidents show that the Benghazi attack wasn’t an isolated lapse. The Obama administration has a pattern of intelligence breakdowns and missing clear signs prior to an attack. It also has a pattern of downplaying threats that may be politically harmful.

This isn’t just a critique of past failings. There are implications here for the future. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote yesterday: “Biden said [at the vice presidential debate] the U.S. would know if the Iranians had begun to manufacture a warhead. But the U.S. didn’t know its ambassador in Libya would be assassinated. It didn’t know that the World Trade Center would be attacked. American intelligence doesn’t know a lot of things. Such is the nature of intelligence. Biden’s sanguine approach to weaponization suggests either that he strayed far from Obama administration policy, or that the White House is more relaxed and confident about stopping Iran than it should be.”

Can we rely on the Obama administration — the same administration that overlooked the threat from AQAP, dismissed the threat from the Pakistani Taliban, and ignored the multiple attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that led up to the 9/11/12 attack — to have a clear grasp of the Iranian nuclear threat? Preventing an Iranian bomb means that we’ll need to rely heavily on intelligence, something the Obama administration has not had a great track record of gathering, processing, or acting on for the past four years.

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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.

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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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Guess Who Won’t Leave Afghanistan When We Do

Here’s something you might want to keep in mind while celebrating the U.S.’s pending withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. From Tom Joscelyn at the Weekly Standard:

There is evidence that al Qaeda is already using Afghanistan (once again) to plot attacks against the West.

Earlier this month, for example, Spanish authorities announced that they had broken up a three-man al Qaeda cell that was plotting terrorist attacks on one or more targets. The cell had been trained in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Investigators added that the men had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is headquartered in Pakistan, and had attended the LeT’s training camps inside Afghanistan as well.

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Here’s something you might want to keep in mind while celebrating the U.S.’s pending withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. From Tom Joscelyn at the Weekly Standard:

There is evidence that al Qaeda is already using Afghanistan (once again) to plot attacks against the West.

Earlier this month, for example, Spanish authorities announced that they had broken up a three-man al Qaeda cell that was plotting terrorist attacks on one or more targets. The cell had been trained in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Investigators added that the men had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is headquartered in Pakistan, and had attended the LeT’s training camps inside Afghanistan as well.

After the United States helped push the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, American indifference to the fate of the that country turned immediately into neglect. A decade later, we went into Afghanistan because the ruling Taliban were hosting and protecting the terrorists behind 9/11. In 2014, we’ll leave Afghanistan—Taliban, al Qaeda plots, and all—because “it’s time for nation building at home” is a catchy slogan.

Must we really learn this lesson again? Mark Twain said famously that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. He was wrong; it repeats itself.

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Changes on the Global Battlefield

News that the CIA had foiled yet another attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb U.S. airliners using some sort of new “underwear bomb” further confirms the big shift that has occurred in terrorist circles during the past decade: al-Qaeda “central,” based in Pakistan, has gotten less and less important even as its fellow travelers and affiliates have gotten more sophisticated and dangerous.

AQAP is at the forefront of these off-shoots in trying to attack the American homeland, but it is hardly alone–the Pakistan Taliban, a group sympathetic to al-Qaeda but not formally allied with it, was also discovered trying to attack Times Square with a car bomb. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq piled up carnage on a level undreamt of by other terrorist groups–so much killing that even Osama bin Laden thought it was counterproductive because most of the victims were fellow Muslims. AQI now appears to be expanding its sphere of operations into Syria.

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News that the CIA had foiled yet another attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb U.S. airliners using some sort of new “underwear bomb” further confirms the big shift that has occurred in terrorist circles during the past decade: al-Qaeda “central,” based in Pakistan, has gotten less and less important even as its fellow travelers and affiliates have gotten more sophisticated and dangerous.

AQAP is at the forefront of these off-shoots in trying to attack the American homeland, but it is hardly alone–the Pakistan Taliban, a group sympathetic to al-Qaeda but not formally allied with it, was also discovered trying to attack Times Square with a car bomb. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq piled up carnage on a level undreamt of by other terrorist groups–so much killing that even Osama bin Laden thought it was counterproductive because most of the victims were fellow Muslims. AQI now appears to be expanding its sphere of operations into Syria.

This is symptomatic of the ability of jihadist groups to adapt and survive on a changing global battlefield where certain avenues of attack may be closed off to them (it seems unlikely anyone will ever again hijack an American airliner with a box cutter), but other opportunities are presenting themselves, especially as political turmoil spreads across the Middle East. Jihadist groups are parasites that breed in areas where no lawful authority is established; thus it is not surprising to see them operating in places like the tribal regions of Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.

We will see more threats from this direction in the future, which is why it is imperative that the CIA and Special Operations Forces continue their drone strikes and commando raids to keep the terrorists off balance. The “global war on terror” may have been banished from the official lexicon under the Obama administration, but in the field it continues to be waged with ferocity as great as ever–on both sides.

 

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