Some wars are lost in a matter of moments, others stretch on indefinitely. The defeat in Afghanistan crept up silently on the national consciousness and even though we are negotiating with the Taliban, the “D” word is hardly used by anyone.
According to Obama, there really isn’t a war, just a mission, and the old mission is now becoming a new mission, and the missions, all of them, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, have been successful which is why we are wrapping them up, except that we aren’t really. And that’s about as clear as the message from the big white building with the neatly mowed lawn out front gets, except for the part about how its occupant singlehandedly parachuted into Pakistan, killed Bin Laden, and then stopped off for some curry and a humanitarian award.
Had McCain won in 2008, we would no doubt he hearing a lot about the “D” word and the quagmire in Afghanistan. But the “Q” word doesn’t really get mentioned either. No war has been lost. Only a mission is ending. And missions, unlike wars, can be defined in so many creative ways that it’s hard to know what to make of them. It’s easy to tell when a war has been lost, but a mission can never be lost, only renamed. And renaming is what Obama did to the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. Those wars weren’t lost; they’re only hiding out in the history books under new names and identities.
And when the mission is finally over and Karzai’s government collapses, its ministers absconding to Paris and Pakistan with suitcases full of stolen aid dollars, what comes next?
The old conflict aimed at denying Al Qaeda one base of operations had been outdated a few years after it began. That was something that Bush instinctively understood and that his critics have only slowly become aware of. Al Qaeda is not a country or an ethnic group. It is a religious vanguard that was always meant to serve as the core of an international Islamist terrorist movement. That function had been fulfilled long before an old man watching porn in a covert compound with no authority over anyone except his many wives was finally put down the hard way.
Al Qaeda, like the Communist Party, can arise anywhere. It rose in Iraq, in Somalia, in Mali, in Syria and in countless other places. Like Burger King, the franchise possibilities are endless and the brand name recognition is universal. And unlike Burger King, you don’t even need to pay for the privilege of using the name. Set off a few bombs or kill a few foreigners and watch the money start rolling in from the fat sheiks of the oil-swollen Gulf who have never slit the throat of anything larger than a goat, but like having their own terror armies.
Obama has no clue what to do about any of that. Obama at War is really a dumber Bush at War, rehashing Bush era ideas and tactics with completely botched implementations. With Kabul in the rear-view mirror, all he has left is Bush’s policy of targeted drone strikes on terrorist leaders. The only other foreign policy idea that the Obama crew brought to the table, aside from ending the support for the dictators, which ushered in the Arab Spring and the Islamization of the region, was to avoid ground wars and focus on limited drone strikes and intelligence operations.
The targeted strike approach was largely borrowed from the Israeli playbook. Like Israel, the United States is relying on saving some lives and weakening the terrorist infrastructure by taking out a few leaders here and there. Israel’s targeted strikes on Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders never ended the conflict, but aborted more than a few terrorist plots by killing the bomb-makers and planners who were making them happen.
The actual conflict did not end. Neither did the attacks. Rather than shooting soldiers, Israel was shooting officers, because shooting soldiers required extended ground engagements and occupations that had become politically untenable. The United States has embraced the same strategy for the same reasons using technology that came out of Israel. But it hasn’t given much thought to what comes after that.
The failure of the targeted strikes and arrests of terrorist leaders led Israel to pursue a physical separation through barriers and fences. The terrorists compensated for that with rockets and shelling. That led Israel to develop the Iron Dome, a defensive anti-rocket system. The suicide bomber, once ubiquitous, became a rarity, but the attacks have grown more powerful as the terrorists used the territory that they gained through Israeli withdrawals to deploy heavier long-range weapons that can reach major cities.
If the United States follows this same pattern of withdrawal and fortification, then eventually there might be a Fortress America guarded by anti-missile systems against Pakistani, Iranian and Egyptian nukes.
Israel withdrew from physical territories opening the way for a Hamas takeover of Gaza. Obama withdrew from geopolitical territories, announcing in Cairo that the United States would no longer support the undemocratic dictators of the Muslim world unless they had oil. Hamas, or its parent organization, took over Egypt. Across the region, Islamist regimes rose and American allies fell. The Islamist winners of democratic elections turned into dictators leaving the United States in the awkward position of supporting new dictators.
What’s the next step? It doesn’t appear that there is one. Geniuses like Brennan only thought as far ahead as draining Muslim anger by rewarding political Islamists while using drone warfare to decimate violent Islamists. Not only is this distinction mostly imaginary, but the rise of political Islamists has made for more Al Qaeda takeovers and more work for the drones in North Africa.
Both Bush and Obama largely missed the point of September 11, which is that it matters less how many training camps Al Qaeda has in some desert where there are more drugs and RPGs than people, but how many operatives they have in the United States. The terrorist attacks carried out by Al Qaeda in America all required that their operatives either be in the United States or have permission to enter it. The truly dangerous training camps aren’t in Mali or in Afghanistan; they are in Jersey City and Minneapolis. The easiest way to stop the next Al Qaeda terrorist attack is to end immigration from the Muslim world.
That is not a position that any presidential candidate is likely to run on any time soon. And yet after Afghanistan, the United States might find that it has no choice but to slash immigration from the more explosive parts of the world.
In Israel, it was Rabin who stated that Gaza had to be taken out of Tel Aviv and who began the construction of the West Bank security barrier because he realized that terrorism would destroy the peace process. An American Rabin may well be a liberal who is forced to realize that the only way to avoid constant conflicts with the Muslim world is to begin cutting off the flow of Muslim immigrants to America.
For now the drone war remains a clumsy fallback position. As long as there are no major terrorist attacks, the limited drone strikes are enough to satisfy most Americans. But when one of the Al Qaeda franchises begins poring over blueprints of a major American landmark and another September 11 follows, then the question that has been held in abeyance after Afghanistan will suddenly reappear. “What do we do now?”
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