Follow-up: "Can we still declare victory?" (August 11, 2006)
Yes. James Fallows explains why the foiled airline bombing plot actually strengthens the argument for declaring victory in the war on terror.
Interviews: "Endgaming the Terror War" (August 8, 2006)
Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States. In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden mocked the Bush administration for being unable to find him, for letting itself become mired in Iraq, and for refusing to come to grips with al-Qaeda’s basic reason for being. One example: “Contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom, let him explain to us why we don’t strike, for example, Sweden?” Bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”
Perhaps al-Qaeda’s leaders, like most people, cannot turn a similarly cold eye upon themselves. A purely realistic self-assessment must be all the more difficult for leaders who say that their struggle may last for centuries and that their guidance comes from outside this world. But what if al-Qaeda’s leaders could see their faults and weaknesses as clearly as they see those of others? What if they had a Clausewitz or a Sun Tzu to speak frankly to them?
This spring and summer, I talked with some sixty experts about the current state of the conflict that bin Laden thinks of as the “world jihad—and that the U.S. government has called both the “global war on terror” and the “long war.” I wanted to know how it looked from the terrorists’ perspective. What had gone better than expected? What had gone worse? Could bin Laden assume, on any grounds other than pure faith, that the winds of history were at his back? Could he and his imitators count on a growing advantage because technology has made it so easy for individuals to inflict mass damage, and because politics and the media have made it so hard for great powers to fight dirty, drawn-out wars? Or might his strategists have to conclude that, at least for this stage of what they envision as a centuries-long struggle, their best days had passed?
About half of the authorities I spoke with were from military or intelligence organizations; the others were academics or members of think tanks, plus a few businesspeople. Half were Americans; the rest were Europeans, Middle Easterners, Australians, and others. Four years ago, most of these people had supported the decision to invade Iraq. Although they now said that the war had been a mistake (followed by what nearly all viewed as a disastrously mismanaged occupation), relatively few said that the United States should withdraw anytime soon. The reasons most of them gave were the need for America to make good on commitments, the importance of keeping the Sunni parts of Iraq from turning into a new haven for global terrorists, and the chance that conditions in Iraq would eventually improve.
The initial surprise for me was how little fundamental disagreement I heard about how the situation looks through bin Laden’s eyes. While the people I spoke with differed on details, and while no one put things exactly the way I am about to here, there was consensus on the main points.
The larger and more important surprise was the implicit optimism about the U.S. situation that came through in these accounts—not on Iraq but on the fight against al-Qaeda and the numerous imitators it has spawned. For the past five years the United States has assumed itself to be locked in “asymmetric warfare,” with the advantages on the other side. Any of the tens of millions of foreigners entering the country each year could, in theory, be an enemy operative—to say nothing of the millions of potential recruits already here. Any of the dozens of ports, the scores of natural-gas plants and nuclear facilities, the hundreds of important bridges and tunnels, or the thousands of shopping malls, office towers, or sporting facilities could be the next target of attack. It is impossible to protect them all, and even trying could ruin America’s social fabric and public finances. The worst part of the situation is helplessness, as America’s officials and its public wait for an attack they know they cannot prevent.
Viewing the world from al-Qaeda’s perspective, though, reveals the underappreciated advantage on America’s side. The struggle does remain asymmetric, but it may have evolved in a way that gives target countries, especially the United States, more leverage and control than we have assumed. Yes, there could be another attack tomorrow, and most authorities assume that some attempts to blow up trains, bridges, buildings, or airplanes in America will eventually succeed. No modern nation is immune to politically inspired violence, and even the best-executed antiterrorism strategy will not be airtight.
But the overall prospect looks better than many Americans believe, and better than nearly all political rhetoric asserts. The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.
“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents. Kilcullen, who as an Australian army officer commanded counter-insurgency units in East Timor, recently served as an adviser in the Pentagon and is now a senior adviser on counterterrorism at the State Department. He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).
“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.
“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”
Since 9/11, this equation has worked in al-Qaeda’s favor. That can be reversed.