The Corner

National Security & Defense

When 17 Years of War Aren’t Enough

Military personnel salute during the National Anthem during the September 11 observance ceremony at the Pentagon, September 11, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

There are those who mark this terrible day not just in memory of the fallen and to honor the heroism of the first responders but also to lament the launch of a seemingly endless war. We are still in Afghanistan. American soldiers are still dying in that godforsaken land. Can’t we just end this war?

No, we cannot. The terrible events of 9/11 and the long, tortured history of counterterror operations since then have taught us two painful lessons.

First, when terrorists enjoy safe havens, the risk of dramatic terror attacks skyrockets. It doesn’t matter if that safe haven is in a backwards nation on the other side of the globe. When terrorists have time, space, and funding to plan attacks, they grow exponentially more dangerous. One of the worst aspects of the Obama withdrawal from Iraq — combined with the rise of ISIS — is that, for a time, a strong jihadist force controlled territory, gained access to resources, and used those assets to increase the pace of terror attacks and plots abroad.

Indeed, if you look at the Heritage Foundation timeline of terror plots and attacks in the United States, you’ll see a huge spike after ISIS’s blitzkrieg across the Middle East. It’s not just that victorious jihadists had the resources to launch attacks, they also enjoyed the success to inspire additional jihadist recruits. Denying safe havens should be the cornerstone of any counterterror strategy.

Second, wars don’t end when only one party wants to stop fighting. It’s a stubborn fact that we don’t have the ability to stamp out jihadist ideology, and so long as the ideology exists, their will be a threat. That threat can wax and wane depending on a number of factors, and it doesn’t presently merit large-scale, post-9/11 intervention, but it still exists.

Why does the war continue? Not because our nation loves war but because our enemy — though weakened — still exists and still seeks to kill Americans. The obligation of national self-defense is permanent, and if enemies try to strike this nation, then the conflict must continue so long as the threat lasts. Otherwise, retreat doesn’t represent peace but instead merely grants our foe a much-needed reprieve. We’ve been at war a very long time, and it’s very much worth debating proper strategy and tactics, but our fundamental resolve cannot flag — no matter how long we fight.