What We Got Right in the War on Terror
On May 1, 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs put one bullet through the chest and one through the head of Osama bin Laden—nine years, seven months, and 20 days after al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people in the name of Islam. Historical eras are rarely framed as neatly as this. Though not precisely a decade after 9/11, the secret mission in Pakistan on May 1 was close enough to impose some poetic shape on the period in which the United States first fought back against Islamist terrorism.
Within minutes, discussion of Bin Laden’s death was dominated by a term not common to war-making or foreign policy, but one crucial to wellness and pop-psychology spheres: closure. “New Yorkers have waited nearly 10 years for this news,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It is my hope that it will bring some closure and comfort to all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001.” New York Senator Chuck Schumer sounded a similar note: “This at least brings some measure of closure and consolation to the victims and their families.” Across the Hudson, in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie commented on the “extraordinary sense of closure” brought about by the killing.
The “closure” meme soon spread beyond the realm of tristate politicians. “Former U.S. President Bill Clinton says Osama bin Laden’s death is an opportunity for closure,” reported Reuters the next day. Pundits and correspondents were also on the same page. “Osama bin Laden’s Death Brings Closure” read the May 2 headline of David Paul Kuhn’s opinion article on the agenda-setting website realclearpolitics.com. Wire stories from overseas outlets, such as France’s AFP, declared, “Bin Laden’s death brings closure.” Mental-health experts were brought before national television audiences to explain the psychological implications of killing the most wanted terrorist on the planet. During a primetime segment on CNN Headline News, above a digital banner reading “Emotional Reactions to Bin Laden’s Death,” a news anchor asked her guest, a clinical psychologist, “Do you believe in closure?”
It is telling that much of the discussion concerned the nation’s feelings. To be sure, the emotional response to 9/11 has helped define the past decade—thousands dead who were loved by tens or hundreds of thousands in turn, a sense of national vulnerability to foreign attack entirely new for Americans to grapple with, and the immortal bravery of the passengers and crew of United flight 93. Perhaps we could have done without the psychobabble, but the fact that we discussed the killing of Bin Laden as a means of providing a national catharsis is evidence of a notable American achievement. We could afford to concentrate on the state of our psyches—rather than the fear of instant reprisal—because American policies and actions had kept the homeland safe from attack for a decade.
Over the course of the 10 years, American authorities foiled more than two dozen al-Qaeda plots. Those averted tragedies were not foremost on the minds of revelers who gathered to celebrate Bin Laden’s demise on May 1 at Ground Zero, Times Square, and in front of the White House. But if a mere few of the plots had materialized, those spaces might not even have been open to public assembly.
Not only have U.S. authorities managed to keep America safe from al-Qaeda for a decade; by the time he was killed, Osama bin Laden was barely a leader. Among the items recovered at his compound in Abbottabad were some recent writings, in which the former icon lamented al-Qaeda’s dramatically sinking stock and pondered organizational rebranding as a possible antidote.
His growing insignificance as a global player was not the product of chance. The marginalization of the world’s principal jihadist was the result of audacious American policy—indeed, the most controversial and hotly debated policy undertaken in the wake of 9/11. In the words of Reuel Marc Gerecht writing in the Wall Street Journal, “the war in Iraq was Bin Laden’s great moral undoing.” In his desperate attempt to drive American fighting forces out of Mesopotamia, Bin Laden sanctioned a bloody civil war in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. The carnage failed to repel the United States, but in the end, the countrywide slaughter of Muslims proved too much to bear for al-Qaeda’s own one-time and would-be supporters. The “Sunni awakening” that helped transform Iraq was an awakening out of al-Qaeda jihadism, and the blow it delivered to Bin Laden’s ambitions was stunning.
After the turnaround in Iraq, the landscape of the Muslim world suffered even greater changes—with ordinary Muslims rising to revolt against Persian and Arab tyranny, not against American hegemony. As Fouad Ajami has written: “The Arab Spring has simply overwhelmed the world of the jihadists. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, younger people—hurled into politics by the economic and political failures all around them—are attempting to create a new political framework, to see if a way could be found out of the wreckage that the authoritarian states have bequeathed them.”
It was the Freedom Agenda of the George W. Bush administration—delineated and formulated as a conscious alternative to jihadism—that showed the way. Indeed, the costly American nation-building in Iraq has now led to the creation of the world’s first and only functioning democratic Arab state. One popular indictment of Bush maintains that he settled on the Freedom Agenda as justification for war after U.S. forces and inspectors found no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The record shows otherwise. “A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East,” he said before the invasion, in February 2003. “Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both.”
And something of the kind has come to pass. “One despot fell in 2003,” Ajami has said. “We decapitated him. Two despots, in Tunisia and Egypt, fell, and there is absolutely a direct connection between what happened in Iraq in 2003 and what’s happening today throughout the rest of the Arab world.”
Thus, there are three intertwined achievements that have proved to be the dispositive features of American success in the war on terror: formulating the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East, reversing the course of the war in Iraq, and establishing a national-security apparatus to foil multiple terrorist attacks. It is no coincidence that they are also the most controversial foreign policies America has implemented since the Vietnam War.
September 11 was a hinge moment in American history. The attacks plunged the nation into a full-scale war against non-state entities. Any adequate American response had to break with previous approaches in previous conflicts. War could not be waged on parties inside states in the same way it had been waged on states themselves. Prisoners captured on a battlefield in a country not their own and with no interest in following the rules of conventional war could not be handled as they had been. Getting the edge on Islamist terror would mean fundamentally rethinking our approach to both the blunting of deadly threats and the shuttering of the political hothouses of the Middle East in which such threats thrive.
The adoption of these unprecedented and uncompromising means of war inspired animated debate in the United States. In fighting the war on terror, we have been told, America has become—depending on the accuser—either too dismissive or too enamored of democracy. Some on the left think our national-security apparatus undermines our defining ideals. On the right, outraged voices condemn our naive enthusiasm for helping to secure liberty for Muslims abroad, calling it a form of multicultural self-sabotage. After civil war seized post-invasion Iraq, critics from across the ideological spectrum denounced our misguided effort. The fits and starts and frustrations of the war decade have this one thing in common: we have done battle in an age when spectacular setbacks appear to provide irrefutable evidence of our own baseness and incompetence—a few years before drab good news arrives to refute both expert opinion and common knowledge.
The arguments that we have prosecuted the war on terror immorally and ineffectually are important, and deserve the respectful hearing they have received, even if many of those arguing these points have resorted to launching the most abject slanders and accusations toward those who believe the war on terror is just and has been fought honorably. To be sure, not everything the United States has done in the war on terror has been correct. Far from it. As Winston Churchill said, “War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” In the fight against Islamist terrorism, American blunders have come in all shapes and sizes, and in truth there are few small wartime miscalculations. This is especially so in an age of instant global headlines.
We continue to suffer for our biggest mistakes. Concerning the failure to catch Bin Laden and make serious efforts to nation-build early in the Afghanistan war, inaccurate intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons, and the Pentagon’s ill-preparedness for the Iraqi insurgency, there can be no absolution. These errors have cost the country tragic sums in money, credibility, and life. They also set our efforts back precious years.
But these blunders, great as they are, have not undone America’s outstanding accomplishments. Ten years ago, the most delusional optimist among us would not have predicted the irrelevancy of Osama bin Laden or a decade without another al-Qaeda attack, let alone a democratic Iraq and a transformative explosion of antiauthoritarianism in the Middle East.
Nor do American achievements in this war mean we are in a position to quit the fight. The notion that America achieved closure with Bin Laden’s killing suggests to some, perhaps even the occupant of the White House, that the war on terror has had its decade and the United States can now move on. “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” said Barack Obama this summer as he announced a sizable drawdown of troops in Afghanistan for the fall of 2012. The suggestion that our work is done has traction only because resolute American action at home and abroad have provided a sense of security so pervasive it now goes unquestioned.
The United States has fallen prey to false comfort in the past. So before we submit to the siren song of closure, we would do well to recall that that is exactly where this war began—and our retaining some genuine measure of security has been the result of thinking and acting more boldly than we have in generations.
2. Defining the Threat
When the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, America was savoring the final moments of its post–Cold War repose. President George H.W. Bush had described reality after the Cold War as “a world quite different from the one we’ve known,” one in which countries “East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony.” Bill Clinton had called it “a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom.” Not only had the United States enjoyed a decade as the uncontested global hyperpower, but the very notion of tensions among great powers had undergone a cheerful reassessment. As Robert Kagan wrote in The Return of History and the End of Dreams, “The modern democratic world wanted to believe that the end of the Cold War did not just end one strategic and ideological conflict but all strategic and ideological conflict.”
Why fight when democratic capitalism was already the victor? The best way to open a closed political regime, well-meaning democrats believed, was through trade. Ideological wars were obsolete. In retrospect, back in 2001, we were relatively blissful, our news dominated in the weeks before the attacks by a missing girl in Washington, D.C., and a New York City publicist who had driven her SUV into a bunch of people outside a nightclub. There was, in the attacks of 9/11, a rebuke aimed at all Americans. “Who did you think you were,” history asked, “to have decided your world was threat-free?”
As the dream disappeared, some inapposite answers to that question emerged, particularly on the left. Less than two weeks after the attack, the late Susan Sontag wrote in the New Yorker, “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” She went on:
“How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others.”
Sontag summed it up for an entire class of people: America was guilty, ignorant, and cowardly. Our good years may have been a dream, but a bad one. We had gone too long without a reminder of our wickedness. Pax Americana was always a sham. And globalization was just a new form of neo-imperialism. This was the earliest and most thorough voicing of the America-has-dirty-hands argument that is still the default position of today’s progressives.
Sontag came under withering assault in those days, because Americans in overwhelming numbers were unnerved not only by the attacks themselves but by what those attacks said about the mass murderers who designed them.
The 9/11 attacks were a manifestation of a fascistic strain of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. It is accurate to assert that al-Qaeda attacked us because it disagreed with U.S. policies. But as its disagreement sprang from a fascistic, theocratic moral and political framework, that explanation hardly satisfies. Here is one that does: “This war is fundamentally religious…. Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels, for the enmity is based on creed.” That was Osama bin Laden speaking to Al Jazeera soon after 9/11. Here is another bit of exposition from the man responsible for the attacks: “Every Muslim, from the moment he realizes the distinction in his heart, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians. This is part of our belief and our religion.”
The war on terror is also more than a fight between a fanatically ascetic strain of Islam and a supposedly corrupt and godless West. The seeds of the threat America faces were sown long ago by the forces of history. Islam is one of the world’s great religions, but it was also a great power, one that has suffered a lengthy and painful decline. “For the past 300 years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the rise of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa,” wrote the great Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, “Islam has been on the defensive.” Since then, “there has been a rising tide of rebellion against the West’s paramount standing, and a desire to reassert Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness.” In Bin Laden’s eyes, reclaiming Muslim greatness meant establishing Taliban-style governance throughout every land that had ever been under Muslim rule and bending infidels worldwide to Muslim will.
Again, clarity comes from the source of the attacks. Three weeks after 9/11, Al Jazeera ran a video of Bin Laden declaring, “What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years.” In some sense, Islamist terrorism is the assertion of great-power nationalism in slow motion. It is for this reason that Muslim support for al-Qaeda is not limited to adherents of Wahhabism or similarly austere sects of Islam. According to a landmark Gallup poll conducted in 2005 and 2006, al-Qaeda enjoyed the support of fully 100 million Muslims worldwide.
A necessarily abbreviated timeline brings to light the key humiliations that Islam, as a world power, has suffered in the last century. In 1916, the West divided a once great Ottoman Empire. In 1967, Israel delivered a stunning and unexpected military defeat to Egypt. In 1990, American forces—including women—came to Saudi Arabia to rescue Kuwait (and the Saudis) from Saddam Hussein. These affronts were determinative for men like Bin Laden. And for decades before 9/11, radical Islamists had been trying to advance their interests on the Middle East chessboard.
Israel’s defeat of Egypt in the Six Day War inspired an Islamist awakening in that country that produced, among other notable terrorists, al-Qaeda’s former No. 2, and now No. 1, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. In 1979, the world endured Islamism’s most dynamic year. Extremist Shiites scored a major victory by overthrowing the Western-backed shah of Iran. Radical Islamists seized and temporarily held the mosque in Mecca. And when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December, the Hindu Kush immediately became jihad central. In 1981, Islamists assassinated Anwar Sadat, who was viewed by many Muslims as a traitor to the faith for signing a peace treaty with Israel.
The many pre-9/11 Islamist terrorist attacks against the United States and American interests include Hezbollah’s suicide attack that killed 241 Marines in their barracks in Beirut in 1983, Hezbollah’s multiple bombings (beginning that same year) of the American embassy in Beirut, the World Trade Center bombing attempt of 1993, the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000.
To rehearse the whole list is to lose sight of the swamp for the alligators; by 2001, jihadist terrorism was much more than the sum of its attacks. Before 9/11, successive American administrations had answered terrorist attacks on a case-by-case basis. Particularly egregious acts, such as the 1998 embassy bombings, might inspire a flurry of cruise missiles, but there was no comprehensive strategy to combat radical Islam. Al-Qaeda’s mass-casualty attack on targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., meant the case-by-case approach was no longer an option. It was finally clear that Islamist terror was not just an ideology but a global network, incorporating governments, clerics, financiers, NGOs, and scholars. Al-Qaeda itself had become something of a shadow-nation, with a sophisticated bureaucracy and military training camps that churned out thousands of new jihadists each year.
Terrorism had become a necessary element in the regional political order. For generations illiberal kingdoms and autocratic republics had shackled the Muslim body politic but unleashed the fevered Islamist mind. With legitimate avenues of political redress hopelessly barred, only religious extremism provided an available channel for voicing widespread discontent. Islamist terrorists had become either patricidal offspring, as was the Muslim Brotherhood in relation to autocratic Egypt; cherished sons, as was Hezbollah to Iran; or torn spawn, as were the Taliban to Pakistan and al-Qaeda to Saudi Arabia.
Understanding that the growth of Islamic extremism was the result of a lack of political freedom was the first real intellectual accomplishment of the Bush administration. In a September 20, 2001, address before Congress, Bush proclaimed that “this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world.” That was an ambitious objective for a wounded country in crisis-response mode. But Bush saw the promotion of democracy in the Islamic world as the best hope for inoculating Muslims against terrorist ideologies.
Future jihadists could not, Bush and his people knew, be deterred by the threat of annihilation alone. To the contrary, Bin Laden stretched Koranic teachings on martyrdom during holy war into the understanding that suicide attacks on innocents would yield an eternity in paradise with 72 compliant virgins. Thus, the prospect of death in the service of jihad would not deter, but motivate, a would-be terrorist. For America, this meant that ideas would have to do battle where deadly weapons were useless. Democracy would be offered as an opportunity to effect change in this life, beside the offer of jihad as transport to the next.
On September 20, 2001, Bush addressed Congress and all America tuned in. By the end of the speech, everyone listening knew we had entered a new age. “All of this was brought upon us in a single day,” the president said of 9/11, “and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.” As for what would come next: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been defeated.” American intelligence operatives were already en route to Afghanistan.
3. Combating the Threat
Bush unveiled the most consequential element of what would come to be known as the Bush Doctrine during his Oval Office speech on the evening of September 11. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” he said. This critical departure from the status quo reflected a new paradigm. Throughout the Cold War, Western countries had not done much about the extensive and intimate relationships between governments and terrorist groups. Threats were deemed to have come primarily from enemy states. If they employed bands of sympathetic terrorists to do some jobs and their own secret forces to do others, it mattered little in the bigger picture. In the decade after the Soviet Union fell, there was no need to rethink this understanding. The old enemy states had melted away.
The new paradigm reflected the recognition that jihadist organizations could act on their own to advance their own interests. Some, such as Hezbollah, still worked for states, such as Iran. But others, notably al-Qaeda, conducted their own foreign policies entirely. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda resembled that of sympathetic landlord and well-paying tenant. Among the Taliban, opinion was mixed regarding al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities. It wasn’t that the fascistic retrograde regime had any moral qualms about bringing violent death to nonbelievers. It was that there was little, from their perspective, to be gained from provoking the United States. While Bin Laden had declared war on America, the Taliban were somewhat more content to rule their repressive fiefdom unmolested.
That difference in perspective vanished entirely at the most critical juncture. Days after 9/11, the Bush administration asked senior Taliban officials, both publicly and through back channels, to hand over Bin Laden or face an American attack. But as Taliban leader Mullah Omar explained in a Voice of America radio interview: “We cannot do that. If we did, it means we are not Muslims, that Islam is finished.”
And so the United States launched a brilliant and innovative campaign to topple the Islamist government that was providing al-Qaeda with a safe haven. According to the then deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, military leaders presented Bush with a standard air-power-based Afghanistan plan. “We’re not going to do it that way,” the president responded. “We need to send a whole new message, that we are serious about this.”
With the cash-bought assistance of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, CIA officers helped place clandestine Special Forces teams on the ground. The Special Forces, in turn, guided American air strikes on the Taliban. The “whole new message” sent was one of unimaginable mastery of modern warfare. Air strikes with laser-guided munitions were so accurate and lethal that the Northern Alliance was convinced the United States possessed an invisible death ray. When that rumor leaked to the Taliban, some surrenders followed. “Instantly you could see the guys bend over,” one U.S. sergeant later said. “They put their guns down, they took their cloaks off, and they started marching in, in single file right up into the middle of our perimeter, because they knew that it was over if that death ray was coming out.”
Before the year was over, the Taliban was deposed, some 5,000 Islamist fighters were killed, 20 jihad training camps were toppled, surviving al-Qaeda members were wounded and dispersed, and Hamid Karzai’s American-backed interim government had international legitimacy.
Those who, still today, suggest there is real affection between the Taliban and the Afghans they rule would do well to read this New York Times report Dexter Filkins filed from an Afghan town in November 2001:
In the 12 hours since the Taliban soldiers left this town, a joyous mood has spread. The people of Taliqan, who lived for two years under the Taliban’s oppressive Islamic rule, burst onto the streets to toss off the restrictions that had burrowed into the most intimate aspects of their lives. Men tossed their turbans into the gutters. Families dug up their long-hidden television sets. Restaurants blared music. Cigarettes flared, and young men talked of growing their hair long.
Did al-Qaeda expect such an overwhelming initial response from the United States? What, after all, did Bin Laden think he was going to accomplish strategically by killing thousands of innocent Americans? About this, respectable opinions differ.
Michael Scott Doran, writing in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, claimed, “Osama Bin Laden sought—and has received—an international military crackdown, one he wants to exploit for his particular brand of revolution.” According to this strategic interpretation, Bin Laden actually wanted the United States to come into the region, guns blazing:
America, cast as the villain, was supposed to use its military might like a cartoon character trying to kill a fly with a shotgun. The media would see to it that any use of force against the civilian population of Afghanistan was broadcast around the world, and the umma would find it shocking how Americans nonchalantly caused Muslims to suffer and die. The ensuing outrage would open a chasm between state and society in the Middle East, and the governments allied with the West—many of which are repressive, corrupt, and illegitimate—would find themselves adrift.
Bin Laden was not quite so brilliant a strategist. He had a talent for operations designed to spotlight their mastermind as an instrument of Allah’s will. But what strategic effect these operations were meant to produce beyond such beatification—and the scoring of a blunt point against the enemy—was not always clear. In the late 1980s, Bin Laden established his own band of Arab fighters in Afghanistan and led them on preposterously daring missions of little strategic value against the Soviets. His 1990 request of the Saudis—that they let him lead his group of jihadists in a fight to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait—was another quixotic plan. Bin Laden had a penchant for suicidal odds, mass casualties, grueling fights, and outsize symbolism. Unlike Muhammad, on whose life he modeled his own, Bin Laden had no genius for military matters or statecraft. The point of 9/11 was that it was a spectacular and deadly high-profile blow. And an accumulation of such blows would cause a feeble and frightened America to alter its policies in the Muslim world, or even accept defeat.
The assertion that Bin Laden hoped to bait the United States into overreacting is undone foremost by the many accounts of his own words and thoughts on the matter. In the 1990s, he famously described America as a “paper tiger.” His evidence included the U.S. troop withdrawal from Lebanon after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle in which U.S. Rangers were overrun in Somalia and the subsequent American retreat, and the largely symbolic cruise missile attacks in revenge for al-Qaeda’s bombing of American embassies in Africa. He was aware, moreover, of the defeatist Vietnam Syndrome that shaped popular American perceptions of war.
Bin Laden had little doubt the United States would avenge 9/11 in the largely ineffective fashion that had characterized American policy. He reportedly laughed off warnings of overwhelming American retaliation. Even as it became clear that the United States was going to respond to 9/11 with something more potent than a barrage of cruise missiles, he gave no credence to the notion of America as a formidable war machine. On October 3, Bin Laden sent a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in which he wrote, “A U.S. campaign against Afghanistan will cause great long-term economic burdens which will force America to resort to the former Soviet Union’s only option: withdrawal from Afghanistan, disintegration, and contraction.” The irony here is pungent. In the end, the Soviet Union was forced out of Afghanistan because the United States provided arms and training to Afghan fighters.
Osama bin Laden’s colossal strategic misjudgment serves to highlight the Bush administration’s strategic courage. Analysis like Doran’s was compelling, and it was fairly commonplace in those days. Among left-wing pundits, it took on the color of a dire warning: by bringing war to Afghanistan, they said, America would play right into al-Qaeda’s hands. But the diminished state of the Taliban and al-Qaeda at the end of the initial campaign in Afghanistan demonstrated the opposite: Bin Laden was wholly unprepared for the American response he elicited.
For all this, the opening campaign in Afghanistan was marked by two tremendous failures.
First, Osama bin Laden survived the American assault in the mountains of Tora Bora and fled to Pakistan. It is likely that he was struck in battle and suffered injuries to the left side of his body. But escape he did, and there are no points earned for a near miss of such enormous consequence.
What could be learned from the first big American blunder in the war on terror? The consensus of those charged with getting Bin Laden in the snowy mountains of northeast Afghanistan is that the United States did not commit enough resources to finish the job. As Peter Bergen writes in his comprehensive history, The Longest War: “The Pentagon’s reluctance to send more soldiers to Tora Bora arose out of a combination of factors: fear of offending the Afghan warlords in eastern Afghanistan; worries about replicating the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan; concerns about the difficult terrain; and an unwillingness to take casualties.” Sensible concerns, all—especially at such an early stage of the war and after such stunning success elsewhere in Afghanistan. But it is clear that Bin Laden’s escape resulted from an American reluctance to let go of old models and standards. This wouldn’t be the last time the U.S. effort would have benefited from a heavier military footprint and a more sophisticated understanding of how to integrate troops into foreign populations.
The second blunder of Afghanistan had even more to do with shortsightedness and an inability to break with the past. It wouldn’t be evident for another five years, but the Taliban would make an enormous comeback. The American failure to institute a comprehensive counterinsurgency and nation-building approach allowed the Taliban to exploit the ongoing weaknesses at every layer of the anemic Afghan state. It is well known that when Bush took office, he opposed nation-building. During the Clinton years, humanitarian military action in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti was famously branded “a branch of social work” by the foreign policy analyst Michael Mandelbaum. It would take some dispiriting years before Bush recognized that in the war on terror, nation-building was not a matter of quixotic do-goodism, but quite simply the difference between victory and defeat.
4. The War at Home
Those in Washington who found themselves charged with the astonishingly heavy burden of keeping America safe within its own borders would undergo crucibles of their own. As John Yoo, part of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during Bush’s first term, has written, “the ‘front’ in the war on terrorism would soon move from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the cells of Gitmo and the federal courtrooms.” And that is more or less where it would stay.
The domestic polices of the war on terror have been so successfully mischaracterized that the mere mention of terms like Guantánamo Bay, rendition, and enhanced interrogation produces a reflexive cringe of patriotic shame. In truth, no American approach to the detention and interrogation of terror suspects would have satisfied the liberal press and the activist left, just as there could never have been a domestic security regime that would have satisfied the embattled libertarian right. Reinhold Niebuhr noted ruefully in 1952 that “we take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.” In the United States—a nation of laws founded on individual liberty—such “morally hazardous” actions will always elicit outrage from one party or another; and that is as it should be. The line between free and not free becomes fuzziest in emergencies.
Yet the most authentic verdict on the soundness of our national-security apparatus comes not from the media elite or the anti-TSA mobs, but from the American people as a whole. And to Americans kept safe these 10 years, the propaganda storms on the left and right have proved to be little more than white noise. We know that Americans accept as necessary the measures taken since 9/11 because, in our representative democracy, these measures have enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support—and we’re yet to see a political campaign with mudslinging accusations that a candidate was too committed to the war on terror. It is telling that after years of liberal objections to military tribunals for unlawful enemy combatants, the prospect of trying 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a New York courtroom inspired a wholesale pushback from New York’s Democratic leaders. Such is the political reality of national security.
The Patriot Act, which allows for the freer flow of information between the CIA and the FBI, was passed on October 25, 2001, by a Senate vote of 98 to 1 and a House vote of 357 to 66. In May 2011, the most recent extension of the Patriot Act passed the Senate 72 to 23 and the House 250 to 153. We no longer feel as threatened, so the level of support is not as high as it was six weeks after the attacks. But it is still, relatively speaking, overwhelming.
Interestingly, the official post-9/11 case against America-the-human-rights-abuser was a flop from the start, and it was the weakness of that case that set activists on a more drastic—and more damaging—course. At a December 2001 congressional hearing, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Attorney General John Ashcroft on American policy regarding military tribunals and other new initiatives. Democrats such as Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, Ted Kennedy, Charles Schumer, and Russ Feingold found themselves stunned when their assertions that the United States was on a dangerous course elicited a ferociously effective counterattack. The most trenchant refutation came when Ashcroft produced a recovered al-Qaeda training manual in which detained terrorists are advised to lie about abuses so as to exploit the American system of legal protections. As Jeffrey Toobin described the scene in the New Yorker, the Democrats “looked almost physically diminished by Ashcroft’s performance.”
This had two important results. First, legislative opposition to the domestic war on terror was shut down, which gave both Bush and elected politicians the ability to claim they had gotten tough, and the opposition’s demise opened an enormous market opportunity for legal activists and their media supporters. Second, without facts to marshal against the Bush administration, opponents built a case largely on agitprop theatrics and the cartoonish demonization of administration figures. Note that in Toobin’s version, Democrats were not undone by the simple truth of what Ashcroft produced; rather, they were defeated by his “performance.”
The truth exposed by Ashcroft ended up accelerating the activist assault on American detention policies. That assault focused on the U.S. facility at Guantánamo Bay. American forces in Afghanistan had captured hundreds of men they deemed too great a threat to let go; they posed a unique problem, as they were not citizens of Afghanistan and their own native countries had no interest in taking custody of them. And so it was determined they should be housed as prisoners of war in a unique facility—an American military base on foreign soil (ironically, the soil of an American enemy, Cuba). Once those prisoners had been transferred to Gitmo, they commenced lying about abuses and their cause was taken up at once. The first to jump into the breach was Michael Ratner, a leftist lawyer who had previously defended Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. (The American Civil Liberties Union would follow after Ratner softened the field.) Ratner eventually sprang his original three clients; afterward, one of them refused to take a lie detector test regarding his tales of Gitmo abuse and another admitted that he had been through an al-Qaeda training camp.
There exist many poisonous fruits of anti-Gitmo activism. An intelligence assessment released by the Director of National Intelligence’s office at the end of 2010 found that of the 598 detainees released from Gitmo, one of four was either suspected of or confirmed as “reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer.” There was no political benefit to be gained by the issuance of such a finding, which took place during the Obama administration, which would have preferred every piece of available evidence it could get its hands on in its quest to close Gitmo.
One former detainee, Said Ali al-Shihri, released in 2007, went through a Saudi Arabian jihad rehabilitation program before becoming al-Qaeda’s deputy leader in Yemen. Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, a close associate of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, said upon being released, “I want to go back home and join my family and work in my land.” Instead, he became a high-ranking Taliban soldier. Ibrahim Shafir Sen, a Turkish prisoner at Gitmo, told an interviewer after being released, “Ninety percent of the soldiers at Guantánamo wore skullcaps. They all had Jewish names. There were also 15 rabbis in Guantánamo that we counted. At least one rabbi was present during interrogations.” He was subsequently arrested in Turkey for being the leader of an al-Qaeda cell.
But as Gitmo was not being attacked on the basis of fact, it could scarcely be defended with factual evidence. Any wild tale told by a detainee, like the absurd stories of Koran desecration published by Newsweek and later retracted, gained instant credibility. When the verifiable—and verifiably punished—prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib facility was revealed in 2004, the anti-Gitmo crusade got a massive but wholly immaterial boost. The real case of a few rogue sadists working as prison guards in Iraq served as evidence of official Bush policy at Guantánamo Bay; the false association was so pervasive as to constitute a mass delusion.
And so, by the time of the 2008 presidential election, not one, but both leading candidates had promised to shutter Gitmo. Indeed, Barack Obama made it his first order of business as president to sign an executive order closing the Guantánamo Bay facility. That this has proved impossible, despite the prodigious heaping of moral instruction with which he announced it, is perhaps the single best defense of Gitmo we have yet seen.
Part of the charge against military tribunals for unlawful combatants asserts that al-Qaeda detainees are due the full rights articulated in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. This is a matter of willing reality to be something other than it is. Al-Qaeda members fight under no flag, wear no country’s uniform, and are not themselves signatories to the Geneva Conventions. What’s more, in 1977 there were two updates to the Geneva Conventions that added protections to non-state organizations during warfare—updates the United States refused to ratify expressly to deny terrorists the same securities granted those fighting for their countries.
Perhaps the greatest victory for the anti-tribunal movement was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Boumediene v. Bush decision, which essentially granted unlawful enemy combatants the protections of habeas corpus. This is a lesson in the value of sheer tenacity. For Boumediene v. Bush effectively undid the Court’s own 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision, which said the military tribunals judging the Gitmo prisoners would be legal once the executive branch came to an agreement with Congress concerning their enactment. That agreement was reached. Then the Court overruled itself. Even now, though, the matter of actual habeas corpus trials for detainees remains in a state of suspended animation—because there are few reasonable courses of action other than the one the Bush administration pursued.
Attempts to normalize the domestic aspect of the war on terror and turn it into a criminal matter to be handled by the conventional court system have mostly backfired. On November 17, 2010, a New York jury acquitted al-Qaeda agent Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani of the murder of 224 people in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He was convicted—just barely—on one count of conspiracy. The Obama administration’s push to make Khalid Shaikh Mohammed stand trial in a Manhattan federal courtroom was greeted with such absolute outrage that it was shelved completely.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s mission to discredit the Bush administration’s domestic efforts in the war on terror has been lackluster at best and embarrassing for him at worst. He tasked the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) with investigating John Yoo and his fellow official Jay Bybee for writing supposedly unethical memos regarding enhanced interrogations. A review of the office’s efforts by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis vindicated Yoo and Bybee and condemned the OPR for sloppiness. In 2009, Holder appointed prosecutor John Durham to investigate the possible mistreatment of 100 detainees at the hands of the CIA. In July 2011, the Justice Department announced that it would continue with the investigation in only two cases in which prisoners died in custody. Looking into the other 98, it determined, “is not warranted.”
Moving beyond the destructive political theater, an extraordinary set of facts emerges that puts the entire controversy into perspective. The facts are these:
The United States has foiled more than two dozen al-Qaeda plots. American officials have used enhanced interrogation techniques on a total of 28 detainees. One of these was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who went from stonewalling interrogators to revealing lifesaving intelligence. That intelligence also led to the capture of more than a dozen terrorists, including Iyman Faris, an al-Qaeda soldier inside the United States, and the single-named Hambali, who perpetrated the 2002 bombing of two nightclubs in Bali. More than this, the enhanced interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi revealed the identity of Osama bin Laden’s courier. Surveilling that courier brought U.S. Navy SEALs to Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
If the despised National Security Agency wiretapping program—whose existence was exposed by the New York Times in the most reckless and irresponsible act of investigative reporting of our time—had been in effect before 9/11, we might have learned of those attacks before they were launched. And if something like the Patriot Act had been in place to allow for the flow of information between the CIA and the FBI, we might have been able to act fast enough to stop them.
As a matter of intellectual housekeeping, it is worth noting the following: for the high dudgeon about rendering terrorists to other nations, that was a policy first, and repeatedly, implemented by the Clinton administration. For all the outrage about waterboarding and the supposed moral stain it placed on the country, Bush ended the interrogation technique in 2003 after it had been used on three—three—suspects. And despite the way Democrats used civil-libertarian outrage over NSA wiretapping, the Patriot Act, and Guantánamo Bay to partisan advantage in the blowout elections of 2006 and 2008, all three policies are still used by the Obama administration.
Incensed civil libertarians on the right, for their part, also fail to acknowledge some extraordinary facts. The TSA pat-downs, no-fly lists, travel restrictions, and legislation aimed at stopping would-be terrorist attacks have in fact worked. Strict airport rules preventing passengers from flying with various items have stopped terrorists from using those items and forced them to resort to more unreliable methods. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to ignite his “underwear bomb” in part because he was using PETN, a tricky plastic explosive not previously used for such operations.
Provisions in the Patriot Act do allow for the tracking of certain chemical purchases, such as hydrogen peroxide and acetone. This has led some civil libertarians to scoff at the ineffective “criminalization of beauty products.” But, in fact, U.S. authorities successfully tracked the hair-bleach purchases of Najibullah Zazi, the al-Qaeda recruit nabbed before he could pull off a spectacular bombing attack on New York City subways. A politically healthy discussion about the domestic war on terror should have been a fact of public life for the past decade. The slew of new policies enacted after 9/11 raised important issues. It is possible to hold the following three propositions in our minds at the same time:
1. America’s post-9/11 national-security architecture is effective.
2. As Americans, we are right to be concerned by the larger and more invasive intelligence superstructure that these policies entail.
3. This larger, more invasive superstructure does not automatically mean the abandonment of our values or the forfeiting of our way of life.
That no widespread discussion along these or similarly sober lines has ever occurred is the 9/11 legacy that belongs exclusively to left-wing activists and civil-liberties fetishists. That no second al-Qaeda attack has hit the United States is the legacy of an administration that took its responsibilities more seriously than its opponents did theirs.
5. The Centrality of Iraq
I began this article with a daring proposition: the prosecution of the war in Iraq was central to the efforts against al-Qaeda. The common riposte—Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda’s strike on the United States on 9/11—is all well and good as a debating point over a dinner table, but it has nothing to do with the deeper argument.
Iraq was always more fundamental in al-Qaeda’s thinking than was widely understood. Telling evidence of this is found in Osama bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of war against the West, translated by Bernard Lewis in the pages of Foreign Affairs. The “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders” listed three main offenses against the Islamic world for which the perpetrators would be made to pay. America’s Iraq policy constituted the core of the first two charges:
First—For more than seven years the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples…. Second—Despite the immense destruction inflicted on the Iraqi people at the hands of the Crusader-Jewish alliance and in spite of the appalling number of dead, exceeding a million, the Americans nevertheless, in spite of all this, are trying once more to repeat this dreadful slaughter.
The “occupation” was the basing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which was undertaken with the Saudi government’s express permission. The “fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples” refers to the first Gulf War, in which the United States pushed Saddam’s regime out of Kuwait. That effort came with the blessing of not only the Saudis but also with that of the Kuwaiti government and even with the sanction of a few Islamic jurists in the region.
Arabia, or what we now call Saudi Arabia, and Iraq are the two most important lands in Islamic history. They are, respectively, the first and second epicenters of early Islam’s most productive periods. Mohammed’s connections to Mecca and Medina (in Arabia) are well known, but, as Lewis notes, Iraq was “the seat of the caliphate for half a millennium.” It is no wonder, then, that Bin Laden listed his grievance involving Israel last, as a kind of add-on: “Third—While the purposes of the Americans in these wars are religious and economic, they also serve the petty state of the Jews, to divert attention from their occupation of Jerusalem and their killing of Muslims in it.” Note that even this complaint cites the conflict of the first two and notes America’s “eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest of the neighboring Arab states.”
During the most trying times of the second Iraq war, detractors who were not part of the progressive antiwar alliance expressed longing for the foreign-policy prudence and wisdom—the calculating realism—of the first President Bush. He understood, they argued, that the United States would suffer militarily if it exceeded its original mandate to push Saddam out of Kuwait and attempted to unseat him. In other words, Bush the elder knew enough to spare America the hell that Bush the son would invite by going into Iraq. But in reading Bin Laden’s declaration of war on America, it becomes clear that the first President Bush was not realist enough. It was precisely in these realist policies that Bin Laden found an expedient for jihad.
There is not and never was a traditional realist detour around the American showdown with Islamist terrorism. The failure of realism to grasp the nature of the new threat to America was central to Bush the son’s revision of his father’s foreign policy. Before an audience of West Point graduates in June 2002, George W. Bush gave voice to the doctrine of preemption: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we have waited too long.” The weapons of mass destruction the United States mistakenly believed Saddam to possess justified a preemptive attack, and his regime’s repulsive record and continued illegal conduct violating the terms that allowed him to remain in power constituted a long overdue case for war on grounds of international law.
The bill for our realism had finally come due, and we were to pay heavily, although it didn’t seem so at first. Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003. Coalition troops took Baghdad in a dazzling three weeks. But in May, the Coalition Provisional Authority set up to administer post-Saddam Iraq made two disastrous policy decisions that would give an opening to the forces of anarchy. Paul Bremer, the American administrator, issued an order removing about 30,000 senior Baath Party members from their posts. Then, under the same de-Baathification program, he issued another order putting a half million Iraqi soldiers and intelligence professionals out of work. This new army of unemployed leaders and fighters came mostly from Iraq’s ruling Sunni minority. They were well aware that the sectarian power balance was turning against them and in favor of the country’s long-suffering Shia majority. The beginnings of the Iraqi insurgency gained strength, particularly around Baghdad, at once.
Meanwhile, the forces of jihad were focusing their efforts on ensuring that the American expedition in Iraq came to disaster. A Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi entered northern Iraq with a small group of fighters in 2002. In 2003, his group bombed the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which sent the UN packing, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Zarqawi would soon be named leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
He had a bottomless talent for the unthinkable. Zarqawi was a snuff auteur. He regularly recorded his beheadings, bombings, and IED attacks on video for immediate viral distribution on the Internet. Zarqawi’s depraved campaign would forever taint the American effort, no matter what reversals came to pass. Before long, the Iraqi insurgency and the Iraqi jihad fused. It was an extraordinary object lesson in the political and cultural maladies of the Middle East. It was also an unprecedented nightmare, as Americans were fighting a well-connected, suicidal, ex-Baathist-jihadist hybrid enemy.
Zarqawi’s next stroke of evil cunning was to incite a Shia-Sunni civil war. His organization set about bombing Shiite targets in order to elicit retaliations on Sunnis. Then Sunnis, so the plan went, would embrace al-Qaeda as their protectors. It worked. By 2006, approximately 3,000 civilians were being killed each month. That year, the CIA estimated that some 1,300 foreign al-Qaeda members had come to fight in Iraq.
Few U.S. policymakers were willing to admit the extent of the chaos, and even fewer had any idea what to do about it. On the Shia side, death squads proved to be as bloodthirsty as their Sunni counterparts. The Iranians backed the demagogic and murderous Moktada al-Sadr; his Jaish al-Mahdi army attacked coalition forces in devastating battles in Najaf, and Sadr himself became a charismatic political hero among Shiites.
Iraq would not be rescued from the brink when its rescue finally came after three years of horrific war; the brink had already become a distant memory by then. The first break came when Sunni sheiks in Anbar decided they’d had enough of the al-Qaeda killing. In 2006, their anti-jihad “awakening” began. This made the Sunnis and the coalition forces natural allies. Their cooperation proved invaluable, and Zarqawi was soon tracked down and killed. The American-backed Sunni army that became the Sons of Iraq would boast of 100,000 members within three years.
Also, in 2006, following a model that had worked in a town in northern Iraq a year earlier, the United States began to station troops in small outposts in the dangerous area of Ramadi, so that they could more effectively protect the local population. Until then, American forces spent most of their time in enormous fortified forward operation bases, where they scarcely understood the day-to-day concerns of locals. The move into the population not only enabled better protection, but it yielded better intelligence on al-Qaeda once trust was established between troops and locals. The partnerships in Ramadi, and others like it, proved uniquely effective. Once neighborhoods were made safer, the “build” phase of a “clear, hold, and build” strategy would proceed, paving the way for progress on things like schools and utility service reconstruction. This was, by definition, the nation-building that the Bush administration had hitherto eschewed.
American debate about a surge in troops and a wider application of the new strategy began in earnest. A combination of think-tank scholars, military commanders, and some Pentagon officials started to flesh out various versions of a troop-increase plan and a counterinsurgency strategy to go with it. At the end of 2006, the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual was published. Partially the work of General David Petraeus, it laid out the counterinsurgency doctrine that would change Iraq. It was focused on the population and encouraged amnesty for former enemies interested in cooperating. It was, finally, a way to handle the asymmetrical challenge of the fight.
Counterinsurgency is daring, complex, and often counterintuitive. To a war-weary country, it was a near-impossible sell. The mainstream media and the Democratic establishment were opposed. Around the same time that the field manual was released, the congressionally mandated bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, came out with its own plan. It was a blueprint for timed withdrawal. The idea was to increase U.S. troop levels temporarily in order to “stand up” Iraqi forces to the best of our ability and then get out of the war within two years. President Bush disagreed. In January 2007, he announced a surge of 20,000 soldiers (the number would eventually reach 30,000) and made Petraeus ground commander in Iraq.
Polls showed that most of the country thought the surge was bad idea. In hindsight, the most important opposing voice was this one: “I am not persuaded that the 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there,” said then Senator Barack Obama. “In fact, it will do the reverse. I think it takes the pressure off the Iraqis to make the sort of political accommodations that every observer believes is the ultimate solution to the problems we face there. So I’m going to actively oppose the president’s proposal.”
The results of the proposal rejected so soundly by Obama and his ilk were nothing less than astonishing. Al-Qaeda was hurled on the defensive, as better intelligence led to increased Special Forces raids. Thousands of terrorist operatives were killed or captured. And because of the foreign al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, intelligence gathered there proved crucial to the war on terror beyond the country’s borders. In Iraq, “the numbers of Iraqi civilians dying in sectarian violence began a sharp decline,” wrote Peter Bergen, “from a high of around 90 every day in December 2006 to single digits two years later.” As al-Qaeda in Iraq was crushed, the appeal of Shia death squads waned. This allowed Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to degrade Sadr, ordering Iraqi troops to take him on in a crucial fight in Basra. Over time, diminished violence on both sides allowed for a degree of political reconciliation previously unthinkable.
The two most important American achievements in Iraq cannot be measured in captured terrorists or Iraqi policemen. The first is that the United States came face-to-face with the very worst al-Qaeda could muster and, against all odds, prevailed. Not only did America prove not to be the paper tiger its enemies had counted on, but those enemies were thoroughly discredited among their potential supporters. The war that was supposed to break America’s back broke al-Qaeda’s instead.
The second great achievement is the establishment of the first Arab Muslim democracy. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Although Iraq’s people had gone to the polls three times in 2005, waving purple fingers proudly in a display that supported the notion they wanted normal lives as free citizens, Iraq’s first unquestionably successful election took place only in January 2009. A mere five months later, a rigged presidential election in neighboring Iran sparked a wave of democratic passion that country had not seen since the establishment of the Iranian Republic. Just as Iran helped sow the seeds of discord inside Iraq (and continues to try to do so), so did the successful democratic expression of popular will inside Iraq sow the seeds of expectation in its neighbor, with bloody consequences for the Persian people—and with reverberations that hit Tunisia 18 months later.
Meanwhile, as the noble call for representative government continues to be heard by Muslims around the region, let us not forget that the one existing democratic country among them is the successful American project in Mesopotamia.
6. The Second Decade
That the larger and potentially more enduring and revolutionary impact of our Iraq effort is only now changing the region makes it plain that we are nowhere near done with the war on terror. It will require a committed American effort to keep the countries of the Arab Spring on a democratic course. The last 10 years have seen an intellectual battle royal in the Middle East, with democracy slugging it out alongside secular tyranny and brutal theocracy. The Arab Spring is an opportunity to deliver knockout blows to the last two. But if we don’t take advantage of this pregnant moment, the region’s poisonous ideological parties will surely regain their footing.
In Afghanistan, continued American commitment is even more desperately needed. The dangers now manifest there due to our previous failures could set the stage for another 9/11. There is no greater threat to the United States than a reconstituted Taliban presiding over Afghanistan. They will once again harbor al-Qaeda because the two groups share a deep and abiding religious bond. Perhaps Americans tune out at the mention of the abstruse-sounding Haqqani Taliban network. But they might not if they understood that its leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, fought like a brother alongside his dear friend Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s. A premature American withdrawal is scheduled to leave Haqqani in place next year.
No terrorist plot of global significance over the past 10 years is without its ties to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. It is only with the kind of protection and freedom of movement that the Taliban offers that al-Qaeda can plan and carry out world-altering attacks. After years of American neglect, the Afghan surge was implemented and has just started working to clear the Taliban from neighborhoods in the South. With next year’s scheduled drawdown of all 30,000 surge troops, we will be unable to do the same in the crucial Haqqani-controlled east. If the Taliban could be defeated with drone strikes alone, we’d already have begun a full drawdown in order to let the machines win for us. But it won’t work now, and it won’t work in a year.
The question to ask today is not whether we believe in closure. What matters is whether our enemy is as ready to call it a day as we are. “This clearly is a defeat for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and the start of the return of the Taliban, [its leader] Mullah Omar, and an Islamic sharia state,” said one senior Taliban fighter in response to Obama’s drawdown announcement. “We can’t believe that in the short time of 10 years, the Taliban are forcing the superpower of the century to pull out its troops.”
To a holy army avenging a centuries-old wrong, 10 years is a short time. To a superpower interrupted in the comfort of its unipolar moment, the same 10 years has been an endless, fraught, and painful decade. Indeed there is today a sense among some Americans that the fighting of the last decade was, finally, unnecessary—that it somehow could have been avoided, and that our winding down now will bring an overdue peace. If that delusion prevails, we will have circled fully back to our pre-9/11 state of vulnerability.
But we’ve made more valuable use of these years than our enemy has. As a fighting nation, we have learned precious lessons. In Afghanistan and Iraq we have gained the essential skills for counterinsurgency and nation-building. We have witnessed the power of democracy to transform populations long suspected of being immune to the beauty of consensual governance. At home, we have learned that our own democratic republic can enjoy its unparalleled freedoms and still remain safe from attack. We know that no grotesque ideology, no matter how ruthlessly defended, is a match for American power inspired by American ideals.
President Obama is wrong. For to confirm these truths at such great cost is “to nation-build at home.” It is to make a stronger country, a safer country, and one that need not succumb to the deadly temptations of an illusory peace.