On the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, the fourteenth year of a war that began with the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians, it is very difficult to say that the enemy is losing.
They’ve suffered losses, to be sure, beginning with the defeat of al-Qaeda’s trained killers at the hands of ordinary Americans in the Battle of United 93. They lost their safe haven in Afghanistan, and the regime that would have supplied them with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Osama bin Laden is dead, and he died badly. A great many terror plots have been foiled over the past fourteen years.
Battles and campaigns are short- and medium-term affairs. Wars are won over the long term. Wars are always contests of will. They don’t end when every single enemy soldier is dead. Not even in their most feverish murder dreams did bin Laden and his slimy crew think they could kill every single American in the world. That was never their objective.
What was their objective? Bin Laden’s declarations of war said the most important duty of his followers was “pushing the American enemy out of the holy land.” He knew this could never be accomplished with a military campaign, for not even the most deranged Islamist thinks their “armies” would last longer than a few hours against the forces of the West. (A caveat should be inserted here for those Islamists, such as ISIS, with a mythological belief that ultimately the “crusaders” will be drawn into a single apocalyptic battle where they are defeated by Muslim forces… but that’s theology, not strategy. You’ll notice ISIS isn’t exactly eager to line up its troops outside the city of Dabiq and invite the U.S. Army to a fair fight.)
Bin Laden wrote of an “imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces,” which meant his battles would have to be fought by “fast-moving light forces that work under complete secrecy” – in other words, terrorists. His ultimate objective, however, was comparable to what every military commander in history has aimed for: the destruction of the enemy’s will to fight. War always begins and ends as a political decision. For better or worse – it might be more accurate to say for better and worse – political will is distinct from military prowess and fighting spirit. Most defeated enemies sign their surrender documents while a few fiery officers beg them to keep fighting.
Short- and medium-term battlefield successes are a means toward achieving victory, not the end. Politics, including ideology and religious fervor, can give a weakened enemy strength to keep playing cards… or cause a strong nation to back away from the table before the game is over. The sinister genius of terrorism lies in the understanding that strong and prosperous nations have more to lose, and a lower threshold for pain. Bin Laden and his successors have always rallied their troops by pointing out signs of weakness and decadence in the political entities they have targeted, which make the strength of the free world’s military forces less important over the long term.
Is the enemy losing? Where do they stand with regard to bin Laden’s stated objectives after fourteen years of a war only they consistently remember they’re fighting? He had a few specific locations in mind that aren’t free of “crusaders” or “Zionists” yet, but he was more broadly speaking of pushing America out of the Middle East, isolating Israel, and strengthening the hand of militant Islam. Those projects are coming along quite well for the enemy. In fact, they could reasonably proclaim themselves on the verge of major strategic victories.
Al-Qaeda isn’t looking so hot these days, but that’s mostly because they’re getting their asses kicked by their even more feral successors in ISIS. Granted, al-Qaeda would probably be in much better shape if America and her coalition partners had not denied them a safe base in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and deprived them of an alliance with the Sunni war machine in Iraq.
But al-Qaeda is not the sum total of the Enemy. One of the reasons the Enemy is doing well over the long term is that our political system has difficulty even seeing it clearly. How can you fight what you cannot see? President Bush came the closest to clarity among our leaders, in the year after 9/11, but his vision blurred over time. The less said about who the Left regards as their true enemy, the better.
This war was never destined to end with the death of Osama bin Laden – look back at how our current, utterly foolish President so loudly declared he had won a final victory by killing bin Laden and “decimating” his gang, waving aside the Enemy’s other legions as a mere “junior varsity” team of no great concern, struggling to save his re-election campaign by pretending Enemy action in Benghazi was merely the action of an incoherent mob driven mad by a YouTube video. This war didn’t end with the fall of Saddam Hussein, either. It would not end with the decisive defeat of al-Qaeda (especially if ISIS does the decisive defeating) or the eradication of the Taliban.
There could not be a relatively swift and crisp ending to this war, in the manner of World War II, because the Enemy is not as clearly defined, and we are not fighting the same way. Islamic fascists have never suffered a defeat comparable to what we inflicted upon Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.
They have never been hit the way we hit the Axis. There would be far fewer intact cities in the Middle East today if we had, and many more dead, including civilians. The West wanted to fight this war a different way. As a political strategic decision, we determined that the Enemy could be defeated by neutralizing a few key resources, such as Afghanistan and Iraq; persuading other nation-states to back away from supporting them; introducing our ideology of freedom, tolerance, compassion, and peaceful competition to compete with their hellish militant theology; and constructing defensive barriers that would prevent terrorists from carrying out deliberate attacks against our civilians.
Can anyone honestly look at the Middle East today and say this strategy is working well?
There have been successes, to be sure. The status report is mixed, fourteen years on. But the Enemy is closer to reaching his objectives than we are.
One year after 9/11, the Enemy was mostly living in caves, while nervous nation-state allies debated how much surreptitious support they could get away with providing. Today, the Enemy has a functioning terror state sprawled across Syria and Iraq. ISIS has a piece of Libya, too, and much of the rest is divided between other Islamist gangs that must be viewed as rival factions of the Enemy’s war machine. Libya is dangerous now. It is an important part of the migratory wave overwhelming Europe.
One year after 9/11, President Bush described the Enemy as an “Axis of Evil,” with Iran – then and now, the world’s worst sponsor of terrorism – explicitly named as a major element. Today, President Obama is actively subsidizing Iran’s activities, and has formally surrendered in the struggle to keep them from developing nuclear weapons. The closest thing to a World War 2-style surrender ceremony in the war that began on September 11, 2001 will arrive when Barack Obama signs his deal with Iran.
One year after 9/11, there was talk of surgically cutting the Enemy’s ideology out of the Middle East like a cancer, and replacing it with something resembling the American tradition of government. Today, the Enemy’s ideology is stronger than ever, while the principles of American government are weaker than ever. Our ideology is in worse shape than theirs, both here and abroad.
Our system of government has been deformed beyond recognition. We’re the ones who have been made to sacrifice our principles, in part because domestic stress from the Iraq War reshaped our politics. Many Americans are now willing to compromise even their freedom of speech, in order to accommodate the Enemy’s strict laws. (A Muslim who doesn’t think sharia speech codes should be enforced upon non-Muslims with violence is not part of the Enemy… but is also not one of the Muslims our left wing seeks to appease, when musing that maybe free speech should end where those speech codes begin.)
One year after 9/11, we said we’d never allow terrorist murders on our soil again, and compromised our liberty and privacy in various ways toward that end. A Rip van Winkle from 2000, awakening after a long nap, would be astonished by the security theater in airports these days. Counter-terrorist efforts have yielded many successes, and there is a reasonable debate to be had over how many of the impositions on liberty and privacy were truly necessary to achieve them… but we still have terrorist attacks. Terrorist recruiting is a major problem, because the Enemy’s ideology is strong, and finds too many receptive ears among alienated people in the Western world.
On the other hand, our recruiting efforts have a nasty tendency to end like President Obama’s “moderate Syrian rebel” force – a few dozen guys trooping into the Syrian war zone, to be promptly kidnapped by al-Qaeda, with nothing but a little embarrassed foot-shuffling as the official response. Our ideology has takers on the Enemy’s turf, but are they committed and numerous enough to change the politics of very many nations?
One year after 9/11, we had considerable strategic and diplomatic influence across much of the Middle East. Today, we have much less. Unappetizing but cooperative regimes are gone, replaced by either forces loyal to the Enemy’s ideology, or regimes that now have less reason to trust the United States. Russia and Iran are on the verge of ejecting America from the region almost entirely. Some Sunni states that were once useful now see us as de facto allies of Iran – which is not a fan of the specific gang that hit us on 9/11, but is very much part of the axis President Bush described.
A few years ago, President Obama blustered about making Bashar Assad in Syria pay for crossing a chemical weapons “red line”; now Syria is a race to see whether Russia and Iran can help Assad secure final victory, or if ISIS will knock over the regime and absorb the bulk of valuable Syrian territory into the Islamic State. The United States is largely irrelevant to the outcome at this point. Our strongest ally on the ground is the Kurds, and they are growing more than a little exasperated with us. The only question for us to answer is how many Syrians we’ll resettle in America.
Did you imagine, in the months after 9/11, that fourteen years later you’d be watching massive Muslim populations colonize Europe? Western political elites have almost given up on the very notion of borders and security – they’re likely to smear and undermine anyone who takes those issues seriously. The Enemy is still very big on securing and expanding its borders, and not just the ever-shifting borders of the Islamic State. The story of non-Muslim populations across much of the Muslim world since 9/11 has been one of persecution and exodus. Our ideology of tolerance doesn’t seem to be taking hold the way we wanted it to.
Muslim population transfers would be less of a strategic concern if the Enemy was losing this long, bitter war. They’ve suffered losses, but they’re not losing.