A month after the lightning strike on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a number of broader lessons are coming into focus.
1. Pakistan is neither friend nor foe. Since 9⁄11, there has been a debate in Washington over the dysfunctional Pakistani government, with one side arguing that Islamabad is doing its best to rein in its unwieldy intelligence service and military, and the other arguing that the Pakistani government is complicit in what its intelligence operatives do—and what its military won’t do.
That debate was settled by SEAL Team 6, which did not find bin Laden hiding in some remote cave on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In fact, he was in a mansion just yards away from the Pakistani military academy. It’s simply impossible to believe that Pakistani military and intelligence personnel in the area—or government officials in nearby Islamabad—were unaware that the most wanted man on earth was living next door.
Sadly, this wasn’t the first time Pakistan has let its American allies down since 9⁄11. For example, a shadowy wing of the Pakistani intelligence service has coordinated Taliban operations against the NATO-led stabilization force in southern Afghanistan for years. Pakistani soldiers have surrendered from time to time rather than fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. Likewise, the Pakistani government has ceded vast stretches of the country’s laughably misnamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas to enemy forces. And Pakistani troops have fired on NATO helicopters operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.
At some point, winning the broader war will demand tough decisions in Islamabad—and perhaps recognition in Washington that Pakistan is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
2. Afghanistan is no longer the central front of this war. Reasonable people can disagree about the need to continue the nation-building effort in Afghanistan. On one side, there is growing sentiment in Congress to declare victory and bring the troops home. With more than 1,580 American troops killed, $444 billion spent and nearly a decade of commitment fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, America has already made an enormous sacrifice and built many of the institutions necessary to enable Afghanistan to resist the impulses to jihadism.
On the other side, there are the ghosts of 1988, when the Red Army was defeated in Afghanistan and America stopped caring about this broken land—until September 11, 2001.
Whether we declare victory now or stay on until 2014, it does seem the battlefront is shifting:
• Osama bin laden, after all, was in Pakistan and had been there for years; the jihadists are striking at the Pakistani government at will and control parts of the country.
• Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda is increasingly the epicenter of al Qaeda activity. Rep. Jane Harman, an expert on intelligence issues, warns, “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.” In fact, the past 30 months have seen a series of Yemen-linked terror attacks and near misses.
• Likewise, lawless Somalia provides an ideal environment for al Qaeda and its kindred movements. U.S. forces have struck terror targets in Somalia repeatedly since 9⁄11, including special ops assaults in 2009, missile strikes in 2008, airstrikes and Naval attacks in 2007, and backing Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006.
• Finally, we should keep an eye on Saudi Arabia. Even though the U.S. withdrew virtually all its forces from the kingdom in 2003, the U.S. is helping build, equip and train a 35,000-man security force to protect Saudi oil facilities, the largest of which was targeted in a failed al Qaeda attack in 2006. If the jihadists hit the Saudi oil fields, we will long for the days of $4-per-gallon gas.
3. Winning will take time. We know that bin Laden is dead. But “bin Ladenism” is not. Those inspired by bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, as the 9⁄11 Commission warned in 2004, “will menace Americans and American interests long after Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured.”
The hunt for bin Laden is instructive in this regard. It began long before 9⁄11. In fact, it was in 1996 that the CIA created a special unit devoted solely to tracking the terror mastermind. Two years later, after the twin embassy bombings in East Africa, the United States officially announced its war on bin Laden and his terror network. Noting that bin Laden had “publicly vowed to wage a terrorist war against America,” President Clinton launched scores of cruise missiles at bin Laden’s bases in Afghanistan and at facilities with purported links to al Qaeda in Sudan. “Our battle against terrorism,” Clinton predicted, “will be a long, ongoing struggle.”
How long? In 2001, Admiral Michael Boyce, then-Chief of the British Defense Staff, compared the battle against terrorism to the Cold War, warning that the post-9⁄11 campaign of campaigns “may last 50 years.”
Just as the death of Stalin didn’t end the Cold War, bin Laden’s death didn’t end the war on terror or clear the breeding grounds of terror.
4. Unilateralism is not a four-letter word. Contrary to the campaign rhetoric or the media mantras, the Bush administration did not “go it alone” in Iraq or Afghanistan. But President Obama did in Pakistan, and he was right to do so. However, it’s ironic that the president chose this course of action. After all, as a candidate Obama strongly criticized the Bush administration for acting unilaterally, alienating allies and launching military operations without UN permission.
In other words, the bin Laden strike failed to meet any of the standards Obama placed on his predecessor. It was not authorized by the UN. In fact, it has drawn strong criticism from some allies in Europe and the Middle East; some observers have even condemned it as illegal. It infuriated and humiliated the Pakistani government, which was notified of the operation only after U.S. forces had left Pakistani airspace. And it was completely unilateral. Pakistani forces didn’t even participate in the operation, which, it pays to recall, happened just miles outside their capital city. In fact, contingencies were in place for the U.S. strike team to fight its way out of Pakistan, against the Pakistani military.
This is not to criticize the operation, but rather to highlight two important truths. One, high-minded campaign rhetoric has a way of evaporating when confronted by real-world crises. Two, sometimes the only way to address a threat is through unilateral action. In this instance, the exigencies of speed and timing made UN pre-approval impossible; Pakistan’s duplicity made involving the Pakistani military and intelligence services risky; and the U.S. military’s unique capabilities made allied involvement unnecessary.
5. The war on terror really is a war. Some bristle at the “war on terrorism” phraseology, which took root during the Bush era. For instance, the Obama administration initially encouraged use of “overseas contingency operations” instead. Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.
We cannot defeat “terrorism,” the critics argue, because it is a condition or method. Hence, a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst. Yet the civilized world has, in the past, defeated, marginalized or consigned to history uncivilized behavior and methods. “Terrorism,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, “must become as obsolete as slavery, piracy, or genocide.”
Truth be told, the Bush administration itself struggled with what to call its post-9⁄11 campaign. Almost three years after 9⁄11, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked, “Are we fighting a global war on terror? Or are we witnessing a global civil war within the Muslim religion…Or are we engaged in a global insurgency by a minority of radical Muslims?”
The answer to each question is yes, which means the language of war is appropriate. And it seems Obama now agrees. In his address announcing the strike on bin Laden’s compound, Obama tellingly used the word “war” eight times.
To be sure, the war on terror enfolds far more than military operations. Intelligence agencies, law enforcement, trade and development, homeland security and diplomacy play important parts as well. However, these are supporting parts because al Qaeda and its kindred movements have defined this as a war, and wars are waged by military forces.
We can quibble about what to call the thing we’re in the midst of—a war on terror, a global guerilla war, a worldwide police action—but one thing is beyond debate: The jihadists know they are at war with us. In 1996, bin Laden called on his foot soldiers to focus on “destroying, fighting, and killing the enemy until…it is completely defeated.” In 1998, he declared, “To kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it.” For good measure, he added, “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.”
That became clear on 9⁄11, when al Qaeda’s war reached our shores. Even if that was the jihadists’ high-water mark—and let’s hope it was—they are not drug dealers, mobsters or scofflaws. They remain tenacious military adversaries. The desire by some policymakers to approach global terrorism as a criminal matter—or worse, to dismiss this as something short of war—is counterproductive. As former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White has argued, “We plainly need more comprehensive measures and, most especially, a strong and continuing military response.”
If indictments and prosecutions were effective at combating terrorism, the World Trade Center would still be standing. It pays to recall that the man behind the 1993 attempt to take down the World Trade Center was arrested (in Islamabad) and then imprisoned—and that bin Laden was indicted in 1998. That didn’t stop him from waging war on the West, but SEAL Team 6 did.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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