World

The End of an Era or the Middle of the Long War?

A U.S. honor guard stands next to a metallic model of the World Trade Center during an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 11, 2011. (Stringer/Reuters)
Strategic perspective on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Imagine how short would be the tenure of the speechwriter who gave President Biden a speech on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 honoring the sacrifices of the last 20 years but also exhorting the nation to persevere for another 20 or 50 years in the war against terrorism. President Biden, like his two predecessors, took steps that he thought would disengage the U.S. from the grip of the struggle; the three presidents offered a series of false choices (“nation-building at home,” “leading from behind,” “America first,” “forever wars”) about that struggle that encouraged the body politic to wave it away. After all, what elected politician wouldn’t want the 9/11 terrorism era brought to a tolerable conclusion on his watch?

And yet, from a strategic perspective 20 years after the tragic attacks of 9/11, that is exactly the sort of speech the president or other national leaders should give on this anniversary. A call not to arms or even to duty, but a call for a perspective that can offer the American public some insight into how the United States can put those attacks and the 20 years since into a meaningful context. The president needs to offer guidance and even hope, rather than just mourning, honoring, and memory.

My own life is oddly bound up with the 9/11 attacks. In the years before the attacks, I was a military futurist working on a government commission that warned in 1999 of catastrophic terrorism against the homeland. In 2000 I spoke on a PBS Frontline Future of War special about Osama bin Laden, suggesting that the future would look more like Mogadishu 1993 than Desert Storm 1991.

And yet, on the day of the attacks, I was a newly minted downtown New York financial executive two blocks from the Twin Towers, as unprepared as anyone for the nature and mode of the strike. A few years later, I was a senior U.S. official with a political-military portfolio dealing with the U.S. response to the attacks that took me to terrorism hotspots in Afghanistan, Iraq, the southern Philippines, Lebanon, and many other places.

There are many such personal stories of 9/11 and its aftermath, most more profound and certainly more tragic than mine, that have played out over the past two decades. Hundreds of thousands of American lives, and many millions more away from our shores, were greatly affected.

Three thousand lives were lost that day in the U.S. In the 20 years since then, al-Qaeda attacks on civilians in Africa, Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, and Asia have killed over 1,100, and other Islamic terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its affiliates have claimed several thousand more civilian lives in attacks outside of the territories they control. In 2020 alone, close to 400 civilians were murdered by Islamic terrorists in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Over 7,000 U.S. service members have died in the military operations the U.S. undertook wholly or partly in response to the 9/11 attacks — and many more have been wounded or scarred in other ways. Hundreds of thousands of civilians who were in the countries that became war zones after 9/11 have perished or been displaced. A Brown University study estimates the cost of the global war on terror, including the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be $6.4 trillion in U.S. expenditure and 800,000 lives lost.

Thirty-nine al-Qaeda detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay 20 years on. For their part, since 9/11, al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups have abducted and held hostage more than 1,200 Western citizens — about 250 of them Americans. Most of the British and American hostages ended up being killed in captivity, less so citizens from other Western nations. Some women, such as U.S. aid worker Kayla Mueller, were forced into sex slavery. Other hostages were treated with respect and even hospitality by their captors. Of the handful of U.S. or allied troops who were taken prisoner by their opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost all were recovered or returned after captivity; more were captured and executed without captivity. ISIS conducted a large and strategic campaign of abduction, particularly of local women for wives for ISIS fighters, and also of foreigners — a dozen of whom, mostly reporters and aid workers, were executed on camera for propaganda purposes. ISIS is also reported to have systematically killed thousands of civilians and hundreds of local combatant prisoners, some with spectacular cruelty.

So how are we to put all this and the 20th anniversary of 9/11 into strategic perspective? Max De Pree, the great writer on leadership, once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” What is our strategic situation and how do we see and understand it? Are we winning? Are we done? What does “winning” or “done” mean, anyway?

President Biden wanted to define the reality of this anniversary as representing an end to the wars spawned by 9/11, in particular bringing the curtain down on U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Presidents Trump and Obama had much the same ambition. After all, Osama bin Laden is long dead, with almost none of his stated war aims realized and his network largely disbanded or disrupted. Surely, on this 20th anniversary, reality is “we are done.”

As the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan has shown, we may be done with the wars on terrorism, but they are likely not done with us. Instead of a neat ending to a wrenching and inconclusive intervention in the country that harbored and abetted the 9/11 terrorists, we have an Afghanistan that is instead returned to the very same hands of the anti-American Islamist regime that we went there to displace — but in possession of our arms. A terrible irony. In a cruel twist, a Taliban spokesman recently denied any connection between Osama bin Laden and 9/11.

Ending our involvement in the country was a seductive political goal, but it was a strategic error by the current and last two presidents to let sentiments become their strategy. Ending “forever wars,” or “bringing the troops home,” are slogans, not a strategy for dealing with Islamic terrorism or fractured and dangerous states in the Middle East and Central Asia. To make of such sentiments a coherent strategy requires one to assert that any efforts that involve American forces of any size or disposition on the ground in that part of the world are doomed, wasted, counterproductive, and irrelevant to U.S. interests anyway.

President Biden has made statements to this effect in the past few weeks, declaring that the future of Afghanistan is not a matter of U.S. national interest and reminding us that the place is “the graveyard of empires.” In other words, there simply is no U.S. strategy involving a military presence that is either necessary or possible to deal with what is now likely to become the world’s most potent sponsor of anti-American Islamic radicalism and terrorism. In Biden’s words are shades of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s 1950 speech excluding Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia.

This approach is painfully wrongheaded. On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, I would hearken instead to the words of Winston Churchill in late 1942, when he tried to define strategic reality for the public and his allies after the British victory over Rommel at El Alamein. Trying to place the long-sought-after victory in the context of the full trajectory of the war, Churchill famously said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

That definition of a strategic reality may not fit where the U.S. is in what many military strategists call “the Long War” against Islamic terrorism. We know the beginnings of this long war are in the Islamic Revolution in Iran, with its hostage-taking but most especially with the 1983 suicide truck bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Using that starting point, the 9/11 attacks happened at about the halfway point of our encounter with Islamic terrorism to date. As we don’t know “the end,” and progress in the struggle seems particularly set back by the events of August in Afghanistan, it is not easy to place where we are in Churchill’s formulation.

But for presidents and other leaders, even when unable to grasp the full trajectory of a long conflict, there are still lessons to be learned about strategic leadership and persistence. Twenty years after the advent of the Cold War, we were near its height in tension and still another 20-plus years from its conclusion. And yet during it, while the policies of various administrations differed greatly, the U.S. maintained its bipartisan commitment to a robust global-leadership role and forward-deployed forces until the danger to America and its allies had passed.

One could apply this perspective to almost any long conflict throughout history — with their periods of sharp violent activity, interludes of inactivity, and phases of uneasy and temporary peace. From the Peloponnesian Wars to what historians will increasingly view in retrospect as a single World War (1914–45), we might be wiser to view the 20th anniversary of 9/11 through this type of strategic lens.

There are likely to be more manifestations of Islamic terrorism, spurred by both our activity and our inattentiveness, but especially the latter. Al-Qaeda in Iraq operated with success against the U.S. and its allies until the U.S. military surge in 2007. The power vacuum left by the U.S. departure from Iraq in 2009 and the disintegration of Syria gave rise to ISIS, which at the height of its power held about a third of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq. By December 2017, after concerted efforts by the U.S. and many other opponents, ISIS had lost 95 percent of its territory, including its two major strongholds, Mosul (Iraq’s second-largest city) and the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Since 2017, there have been hundreds of attacks worldwide on civilians by one Islamic terrorism organization or another, claiming many thousands of lives. So, the threat related to that which visited our shores 20 years ago is still very much active. And the threat also takes many other forms — in particular, Iranian sponsorship of Shiite terrorism in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, among other places. The chief victims being overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. Add to this the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISIS in all its forms from the African Maghreb to Central Asia, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic Jihad in Egypt, Abu Sayyaf in Indonesia and the Philippines . . . and the list sadly goes on.

This does not mean that we should default, as some prominent historians and strategists have suggested, to as broad a strategic context as a “trial of 1,000 years,” or another chapter in an East–West struggle going back to the gates of hell at Thermopylae, or a facet of the “clash of civilizations.” That does not help guide strategy or policy. Rather, the context for us to understand is that the beginnings and end of this conflict are rooted in a combination of U.S. (and European) foreign-policy choices in the Islamic world, and the fractured political order of modern Islamic states and societies, as my late friend and scholar of the Middle East Fouad Ajami maintained.

The essential difference between long-term conflicts of many different phases and short conclusive wars is that in the former the essential dynamics — be they geopolitical, social, economic, cultural, religious, or dynastic — that gave rise to these conflicts in the first place remained unsettled or unsolved. The phenomena that fuel long-range conflicts may change and shift over time — in their modalities, locales, personalities, and strategic impact — but the fundamental reasons for the conflict can be alive enough after, say, 20 years to give at least one side a reason to keep fighting. Victory, however defined by either side, is not yet at hand.

I fear it is just so in our conflict with Islamic terrorism and fanaticism. The dynamics that led — since the time of Palestine Liberation Organization–sponsored terrorism, in the early 1970s — to the attacks of September 11, 2001, are all still present in some form, and perhaps even exacerbated, today, 20 years later.

Twenty years after 9/11, our president and other leaders should be reminding Americans of the profound good that has been accomplished over the past two decades in keeping the country safe and helping many others abroad. But the president should also be steeling his countrymen for a prolonged encounter with, and battle against, militant Islamic groups who aim, as in bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa, to kill Americans. The battle itself is being waged on our behalf by a very small and professional all-volunteer force who exercise their craft and their profession on foreign soil. They prefer to play “away” games. The ones at the tip of the spear, as John Paul Jones famously directed, “intend to go in harm’s way.” Their lives and efforts are not to be wasted, but neither is our military to be pitied or sheltered — as the president implied in his speech of August 31. These military professionals are not seeking to end these deployments if the national-security interest calls for keeping some pattern of them going. We must drop the greatest-generation sentiment of “bring the troops home” while at the same time ensuring that their employment overseas is done with great prudence and discrimination.

Our leaders have done a poor job of preparing the American public to understand the phenomenon of a continued global threat to U.S. national security that is best deterred with a robust, forward presence. Our political leaders must articulate, as some members of Congress have, the relatively low cost of having a high-impact/low-footprint set of deployments around the world (including in Afghanistan) to guard against terrorism and protect American interests. And the public needs to be given the rationale for periodic high-impact/high-footprint deployments in advance of their happening.

Churchill famously told his countrymen in wartime, “I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil, and sweat.” Our leaders don’t need to ask anything approaching that sacrifice of the American public. But a concerted campaign to explain and support the need for and benefits of a robust and forward-deployed strategy to counter Islamic terrorism for the foreseeable future would be a very fitting observance of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks

John Hillen, a former assistant secretary of state, is the James C. Wheat Professor in Leadership at Hampden-Sydney College’s Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest, and a member of the NR, Inc. Board of Directors.

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