Capstones: The End of the Post-Post-9/11 Era

By Alan W. Dowd

September 3, 2014

The war on terror, we were assured, ended sometime between the president’s inauguration in 2009 and Osama bin Laden’s elimination in 2011. “The president does not describe this as a ‘war on terrorism,’” then-Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan explained in 2009. Instead, “We are at war with al Qaeda,” he said, adding, “You can never fully defeat a tactic like terrorism.” Then came what President Barack Obama and his advisors viewed as validation of their approach: the killing of bin Laden. The president used the success of SEAL Team 6 as a springboard into what can best be described as the “post-post-9/11 era.” With “the tide of war…receding” and “core al Qaeda” “on the path to defeat,” the president explained, it was time “to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Yet terror’s war on civilization went on. And it returned to the headlines with a vengeance this summer: massacres in Kenya, mass-kidnappings and mass-murder in Nigeria, rocket attacks and abductions in Israel, bombings in Pakistan, coordinated assaults against Afghanistan’s main airport, IED attacks in Yemen, beastly killings across Syria and a jihadist takeover of northwestern Iraq, which brings us to ISIS.

ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—is an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq—the jihadist group defeated by the U.S. surge in 2007-08. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk calls ISIS “worse than al Qaeda,” and for good reason. This is an organization that imprisons children as young as eight, employs crucifixion and other brutal forms of torture, uses rape as a weapon and beheads civilians.

The rapid rise of ISIS is an unintended—though not unpredictable—consequence of a policy that misunderstood the interconnected, metastasizing nature of jihadism and misread the takedown of bin Laden as a strategic victory, rather than a tactical success. If President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” was too broad, we now know President Obama’s war on “core al Qaeda” was far too limited.

To reposition the United States for victory in the long war against jihadism—and salvage his own foreign policy legacy—President Obama needs to make five difficult course corrections.

1. Recognize that America is at war
The Bush administration used the term “global war on terrorism” as an umbrella for post-9/11 military operations. The phrase was always imperfect and controversial. We cannot defeat terrorism, critics like Brennan countered, because it is a tactic or a method. Hence, they argued that a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst.

Yet the civilized world has defeated or otherwise marginalized certain tactics and methods. Historian John Lewis Gaddis points to slavery, piracy and genocide. Moreover, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded, “Calling this struggle a war accurately describes the use of American and allied armed forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.”

To be sure, the war on terror enfolds more than military operations. Intelligence, law enforcement, financial systems and diplomacy play important parts. However, these are supporting parts because ISIS, al Qaeda and their kind have defined this as a war: En route to transforming parts of Iraq and Syria into a self-described caliphate, ISIS massacred 1,700 Iraqi soldiers; executed 510 Shiite prisoners; turned Iraq’s U.S.-supplied tanks and artillery against Iraq; and executed an American citizen. ISIS leader Bakr al-Baghdadi directs his fighters to target Shiites, “apostate” Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis and Christians for eradication. A recent ISIS statement warned Americans, “We will drown all of you in blood.”

Baghdadi is simply following bin Laden’s lead. In 1996, bin Laden urged his guerilla army “to kill the Americans and their allies…do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.” That became clear on 9/11—when this war reached our shores.

For all its flaws, President Bush’s sweeping war on terrorism succeeded at shifting the front overseas, putting the enemy on the defensive and forcing the enemy to expend its resources on survival.

We can quibble about what to call the thing we’re in the midst of—a war on terror, “a long, twilight struggle,” a civil war within Islam, a global insurgency—but one thing is beyond debate: The enemy knows it is at war with us. This is a tenacious military adversary that seeks not coexistence or the settling of grievances, but the dismemberment of civilization.

2. Understand that the war won’t end soonWhen President Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes against bin Laden’s bases in Afghanistan in 1998, he declared, “Our battle against terrorism will be a long, ongoing struggle.”

How long? In 2001, Admiral Michael Boyce, then-Chief of the British Defense Staff, concluded that the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns “may last 50 years.”

In other words, we should think of this in the same manner we came to understand the Cold War—a lengthy, ideological-political-military struggle against a determined, transnational foe. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission warned that those inspired by bin Laden and his al Qaeda network “will menace Americans and American interests long after Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured.”

The president didn’t seem to grasp this in 2011. But with bin Laden’s heirs vowing to raise their flag over the White House and threatening U.S. allies from Baghdad and Amman to the shores of Europe, the Commission’s warning has been proven right.

3. See the world as it is
“Using the state of core al Qaeda in Pakistan as a gauge of the movement’s strengths (or weaknesses) is increasingly anachronistic,” a RAND study concludes, adding: “Salafi-jihadist groups…have started to resurge in North Africa and the Middle East.”

That’s putting it mildly:

  • There are 41 jihadist-terror groups in 24 countries today—up from 21 in 18 countries in 2004.
  • ISIS now numbers 17,000-plus fighters and controls an area about the size of Maryland. This didn’t happen overnight. In January 2012, Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan warned that without U.S. support, jihadist groups in Iraq “could regenerate.” In summer 2013, Iraq began asking for help against ISIS. In February 2014, McGurk said ISIS’s operations are “part of a strategic campaign…to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state.”
  • ISIS “will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially…a nonexistent border,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey explains.
  • Yemen is under assault from al Qaeda, and al Qaeda was involved in the deadly attack on a U.S. ambassador and his protective detail in Libya.

All of this makes the president—who this year compared the group now known as ISIS to a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms”; who ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. stabilization forces from Afghanistan, seemingly oblivious to the fact that such a course of action failed in Iraq; who last year demanded that Congress “refine and ultimately repeal” the post-9/11 war authorization—appear badly out of touch.

4. Pay attention to Iraq

Iraq is not a mess because America intervened in 2003. Rather, America intervened in 2003 because Iraq was a mess. When the coalition entered Iraq, as the late Fouad Ajami observed, they found “a country wrecked and poisoned.” As Gen. Ray Odierno recalls of his early-2003 arrival in Iraq, “What I underestimated when I got there was the societal devastation.”

But for President Obama, Iraq was always a mistake to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained, which explains his strong predisposition to withdraw U.S. troops from the battered country. The mess Iraq has always been explains why so many policymakers advocated keeping a backstop contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq as an insurance policy. Without such a stabilizing force, they knew Washington would have less leverage over Maliki and far less capacity to keep a lid on jihadist relapses. And they feared Iraq was not ready to stand on its own.

Whether or not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a front in the war on terror—as President Bush and

Congress, President Clinton and his defense secretary, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair concluded—or to be avoided as a “dumb…rash war”—as President Obama concluded—Iraq undeniably is a central front in the war on terror today.

One caveat about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and terrorism: In a sense, 9/11 changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as Gaddis concludes, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt on WMDs responsible? The Bush administration’s answer to each question was “no.” This is how 9/11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how Washington dealt with Moscow throughout the Cold War.   

August 2015—just eleven months from now—will mark 25 years America has been wrestling with Iraq. What President Obama failed to grasp when he withdrew U.S. forces in 2011 is that Iraq isn’t a problem to be solved, but rather a problem to be managed. That may sound disheartening, but it pays to recall that America still has troops in Germany, Japan, Korea, Kuwait and Kosovo. Such is the burden of being a superpower with a conscience.

5. Remember that history can repeat itself

This isn’t about vindicating or rehabilitating the Bush administration’s far-flung war on terror. It’s about protecting U.S. territory, interests and allies. But don’t take my word for it.

Calling ISIS “sophisticated…dynamic…strong… organized,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says Baghdadi’s jihadists pose an “imminent” threat to the United States. “This is an organization,” Dempsey bluntly adds, “which will eventually have to be defeated.”

If you doubt this, consider what Baghdadi told his U.S. guards while being held at a prison camp in Iraq in 2009: “I’ll see you guys in New York.”

Those are especially sobering words 13 years after 9/11.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose