Every commemoration of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 reveals our confusion. Eight years after 9-11, we are still asking ourselves too many questions, and in those questions are embedded the reasons the war has gone on so long.
Who is this enemy and why do they want to harm us, many ask. If you can’t define the enemy, you cannot defeat him.
Where are we this year in the confrontation with the forces that caused us harm and want to defeat us? Are we making progress in the war against the “terror forces;” are we far from victory; how much more sacrifice will it cost us to get to the other side?
Rarely over the past eight years have we received good clear answers. Our debate was hopelessly disabled by large segments of our own political establishment, which advocated exaggerated apology; our public perception was outmaneuvered by the Jihadist propaganda worldwide. For years any clear identification of the enemy, its ideology, its strategies and how to counter them has been lacking.
In no conflict throughout history were people still confused about the threat eight years after hostilities began. For America, neither WWI nor WWII had lasted half that long. And in those wars we not only achieved victory in that time, but we knew long before that — with crystalline precision — who our foes were and what we had to do to defeat them.
Unfortunately, in the years after the 9/11 war began, most academic and some media elite and, most recently and stunningly, top advisors on national security continued to affirm that Jihad is just some Islamic equivalent of yoga. Despite the mobilizing Presidential speeches of earlier years in this conflict, the bureaucratic machine didn’t fight this war; in fact it pushed it to fail and eventually crumble.
And with the change of administrations, though policy and execution levels are at last united, their goal is to cease the combat, not win the war. In short, it is bleak, but it is not yet over and this is why:
If we analyze how the United States responded to the attacks of 2001, evolved in its campaigns overseas, debated its own perceptions of the conflict domestically and managed its own homeland security over the last eight years, we are forced to conclude that what has taken place in the very big picture was this: Since 9/11, the US dislodged two tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Historians will judge the validity of toppling Saddam’s regime at that time, or also the strategy of not resuming the pressure against Assad and the Ayatollahs all the way once we began the Iraq campaign. This was the history of the two first years of the “war.”
Since then, American efforts and sacrifices entered the stage of stalemate: fighting al Qaeda in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle and the Taliban in the peripheries of Afghanistan; gaming Iran and Syria’s regimes in Iraq and Lebanon; widening the hunt for Jihadists in several countries; chasing after “homegrown” cells inside the homeland; and Presidential escalation of the rhetoric against Islamist ideologies.
Between 2003 and 2008, the War on Terror was more of an “in-the-trenches” conflict: pushes here and there, from one side and the other. Lebanon was freed from Syrian forces in 2005 without bullets or dollars, but Hizballah counter attacked with both and took back most of its lost terrain by 2008. Somalia’s successive Jihadists uprisings split the country and now no one is winning. In the vast African Sahel, al Qaeda’s clones seized positions, retreated and came back: the jury is still out. In Sudan, US efforts identified Darfur as genocide — a humanitarian victory of sorts — but Khartoum is solidly backed by influential petrodollars regimes: no salvation was accomplished.
In Iraq, the successful surge weakened al Qaeda, but since 2007 Iran’s role wasn’t contained any more by Washington. In Pakistan, the Taliban went on the offensive and, as of last year, the new government went on the counter offensive: neither side is winning.
The risks though are near catastrophic: A Jihadist victory in Islamabad would create the first al Qaeda nuclear state. In Afghanistan, a similar scenario is pinning NATO down, but not offering strategic victories to the Taliban. In the homeland, unprecedented spending aimed at securing the infrastructure but cells continued to mushroom, the age of homegrown Jihadists falling to younger and younger generations dramatically. Luckily the country was not hit for eight years, but mutant Jihad is spreading.
So, under the Bush Administration we had two years of U.S. thrusts overseas and five years of trenches warfare on a global scale. Was it a success? Bringing down the Taliban was a move of necessity; removing Saddam was militarily successful but its regional follow ups regarding the Baath and the Khomeinists failed.
The dichotomy within the U.S. government regarding the so-called War on Terror had caused strategic shortcomings. Later, we understood that the American offensive was slowed and halted by the combined forces of appeasers and oil lobbies and by the sheer fear of wider war.
In short, winning an ideological war over the Jihadists was the only clear path to reach success anywhere worldwide, including in Afghanistan and Iraq and also at home. But that is precisely where the Bush Administration failed to fight and was thus paralyzed, causing a five years long “trenches war” where we spent endlessly and got nowhere beyond the targets reached by 2003.
Historians will most likely discover that the regional forces fearing the expansion of democracy in their midst, were pushing back against U.S. efforts perhaps more so than the fighting Jihadists on the battlefields. We were defeated in a war of ideas they have launched and were crumbled from the inside by the interests groups feeding from Petro Jihadism. It would be useful to analyze the pitfalls of the Bush led War before beginning to address the Obama led disengagement.
After less than a year, the Obama administration is sounding retreat in Iraq. We will withdraw regardless of Iran and Syria’s counter moves, or at least that is the plan.
There will be no “meddling” in Iran’s democracy struggle and Washington will "hope" the Ayatollahs won’t set off the nuclear mushroom: Less likely other plans are envisaged.
In Lebanon, bureaucrats will eventually talk with Hizballah. In Gaza, the U.S. will sometimes engage Hamas.
There will be no Darfur campaign, and we will seek the Taliban, while we will call them “the good ones” for a dialogue in Afghanistan-Pakistan. In short, the U.S. War on Terror is over, but the Jihadists war on democracies will go on. Inside this country, we will be increasingly calling Jihad “Yoga” and there will be more and more “Yogists” rising among us.
This is no prediction of doom, but a rational, mathematically grounded projection of where we will be going from where we are now. I am not prescribing how the changing directions from offensive, stalemate and retreat will affect the nation’s future. That is a matter American citizens will have to decide on in the next benchmarks of choices they will have to make.
On this 9/11, it is important for the public to realize where history stands, from a very high altitude. More important is transparency. The American people needs to be informed accurately as to what are the options if it wants to pursue the struggle or if it wants to ignore it at their peril. The rest is details.