Follow-up September 2006

Can We Still Declare Victory?

Yes. James Fallows explains why the foiled airline bombing plot actually strengthens the argument for declaring victory in the war on terror

Nearly every one of the military, counterterrorist, and intelligence officials I interviewed for my “Declaring Victory” story in the current Atlantic said that attacks on the United States and Europe would continue to be attempted – and that sooner or later one of them would succeed.

That is: It was not because they failed to imagine news like that of the last few days from London that so many said it was time to declare an end to the “war on terrorism.” It was precisely because they could imagine exactly this news – and worse.  As I reported in the article, the result of thinking about exactly what works, and what doesn’t, in the long-term effort to minimize a terrorist threat, was a conclusion that the United States could best ensure its safety by saying that the “war” period of the anti-terrorism struggle had come to an end.

How can this be? Consider the three main points of the argument in “Declaring Victory”:

First: “Al-Qaeda Central,” the organization that planned and carried out the devastation on 9/11, has been severely disrupted by U.S. and allied activities. Its leaders are in hiding and on the run. Many of their lieutenants have been captured or killed. It has lost its haven in Afghanistan and has not replaced the training sites and face-to-face meeting opportunities it had there. Its leaders cannot easily communicate orders to operatives or transfer money without being tracked down. All measures show that its brutal tactics have cost it support in the Arab and Islamic world.

The news of the last few days confirms rather than undercuts this argument. Western agencies had never successfully penetrated al-Qaeda before 9/11. Now, it appears, they have. The British apparently had the current plotters under surveillance for a sustained period. A recent analysis from the “Stratfor” group pointed out, “Al Qaeda’s defining characteristic has always been its ability to maintain operational security. If that has been compromised, then al-Qaeda’s importance as a force has diminished greatly.”  The London arrests demonstrate this weakened importance.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent of The Atlantic. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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