WASHINGTON — Two months and a day before 9/11, terrorism expert Larry C. Johnson published “The Declining Terrorist Threat,” a New York Times op-ed decrying the fact that “Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism,” when, in reality, “the decade beginning in 2000 will continue the downward trend” in lethal terrorism.
A decade later, Osama bin Laden is dead and the old chorus of pre-9/11 complacency has returned. The war on terror is over — yet again, it seems. Bin Laden was but “a distraction,” writes Peter Beinart, and the war on terror “a mistake from the start.” 9/11 was nothing more than “an isolated case,” argues Ross Douthat. And “bin Laden was always the weak horse.”
The new post-bin Laden dispensation is that the entire decade-long war on terror was an overreaction — as shown by the bin Laden operation itself, which, noted one critic, looks a lot like police work, the kind of law enforcement John Kerry insisted in 2004 was the proper prism through which to address the terror threat.
On the contrary. The bin Laden operation is the perfect vindication of the war on terror. It was made possible precisely by the vast, war-like infrastructure that the Bush administration created post-9/11, a fierce regime of capture and interrogation, of dropped bombs and commando strikes. That regime, of course, followed the more conventional war that brought down the Taliban, scattered and decimated al-Qaeda and made bin Laden a fugitive.
Without all of this, the bin Laden operation could never have happened. Whence came the intelligence that led to Abbottabad? Many places, including from secret prisons in Romania and Poland; from terrorists seized and kidnapped, then subjected to interrogations, sometimes “harsh” or “enhanced”; from Gitmo detainees; from a huge bureaucratic apparatus of surveillance and eavesdropping. In other words, from a Global War on Terror infrastructure that critics, including Barack Obama himself, deplored as a tragic detour from American rectitude.
It was all not just un-American, now say the revisionists, but also unnecessary.
Really? We could never have pulled off the bin Laden raid without a major military presence in Afghanistan. The choppers came from our massive base at Bagram. The jump-off point was Jalalabad. The intelligence-gathering drones fly over Pakistan by grace of an alliance (unreliable but indispensable) forged with the U.S. to fight the war in Afghanistan.
Even the war in Iraq played an (unintended) role. After its rout from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda chose the troubled waters of Iraq as the central front in its war on America — and suffered a stunning defeat, made particularly humiliating when its fellow Sunni Arabs rose up to join the infidel Americans in subduing it.
Bin Laden declared war on us in 1998. But it was not until 9/11 that we took him seriously. At which point, we answered with a declaration of war of our own, offering the brutal, unrelenting and ferocious response that war demands and that police work prohibits.
Including, bin Laden’s execution. It’s clear there was no intention of capturing him. And for good reason. Doing so would have been insane, gratuitously granting him a second life of immense publicity on a worldwide stage from which to propagandize.
We came to kill. That is what you do in war. Do that in police work — and you’ve committed murder. The Navy SEAL(s) who pulled the fateful trigger would be facing charges, not receiving medals.
You want to say we’ve now won the war? Fine. It’s at least an arguable proposition. After all, the war on terror will end one day and we will return to policing the odd terrorist nutcase. I would argue, however, that while bin Laden’s death marks an extremely important inflection point in the fight against jihadism, it’s far too early to declare victory.
Now, it is one thing to have an argument about whether it’s over. It’s quite another to claim that our reaching this happy day — during which we can even be debating whether victory has been achieved — has nothing to do with the war on terror of the previous decade. Al-Qaeda is not subsiding on its own. It is not retiring from the field, having seen the error of its ways. It is not disappearing because of some inexorable law of history or nature. It is in retreat because of the terrible defeats it suffered once America decided to take up arms against it, a campaign known as the war on terror.