We're Not Winning the War On Terrorism

One year later, things aren't much better.


Item: In June, The New York Times published an extraordinary article on its front page—extraordinary, because it featured a series of anonymous government officials making the kind of statements previously found in pacifist journals and isolationist Web sites. As a result of the Afghan campaign, they argued, Osama bin Laden's semi-centralized terror network was now more dispersed, more decentralized, and more deadly. It was active "from North Africa to Southeast Asia," and was probably responsible for recent terrorist attacks around the world, including a car bomb that exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Karachi, Pakistan.

"Al Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps," one official told the Times. "What we're seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come."

Item: In July, after six months of close collaboration between American and Philippine troops, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced that Abu Sayyaf—a Moro Muslim rebel group allegedly linked to bin Laden and undeniably responsible for a series of kidnappings and brutal killings—had been defeated. The U.S. echoed this assertion, declaring the operation a success and announcing that it would be pulling out most of its troops.

A month later, one unit of the allegedly defeated army kidnapped three Indonesian sailors. Another band seized six Filipino salespeople, beheading two of them and holding the others for ransom. In the town of Patikul, the heads of two Jehovah's Witnesses were left in a public market, next to a bloodstained note. "This is what will happen to those who do not believe in Allah," it read.

Item: Here in the U.S., FBI boss Robert Mueller has declared that suicide bombings on American soil are "inevitable." Vice President Dick Cheney has said that terrorists "will inevitably" acquire weapons of mass destruction, and "will not hesitate to use them." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have issued similarly fatalistic warnings.

The Fog of War

Wars aren't the sort of thing you can tally up on a scorecard, especially wars whose ultimate goals are more political than military, wars fought against a dispersed group rather than a state, and wars with no easily recognized markers of victory. It gets worse when you consider how tough it is to get reliable information about what's going on in the field—a hard enough problem for America's military and intelligence agencies, but worse still for ordinary civilians who must contend with the deliberate disinformation flooding in from both sides.

It doesn't help that the enemy is so poorly defined—not just by those who claim we are fighting terror itself or some comparably unfathomable abstraction, but even by those who attempt to speak clearly about just whom American soldiers are meeting on the battlefield. The prisoners detained indefinitely at Guantanamo, for example, are regularly described as "Al Qaeda and Taliban," as though the two groups were identical and their partisans interchangeable. To this day, hardly anyone—maybe no one—knows how many of the men locked up in the Pentagon's Cuban enclave were in on terrorist plots like 9/11, how many merely fought for the former Afghan government, and how many are tribal soldiers who happened to be allied with the Taliban on the wrong day. And these are captives taken in the theater of the War on Terror that looks the most like an actual war: the invasion and partial conquest of Afghanistan. Elsewhere, fierce arguments rage over whether Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are allies in the struggle or our craftiest enemies, if not both. Even the phrase "Al Qaeda" is misleading: It properly refers to Osama bin Laden's operation to finance Islamist groups, but now seems to encompass an entire network of terrorists who received his money. These cells are not a hierarchy with Osama, or anyone, at their head, and thinking of them that way dangerously misstates the problem.

Given all that, it may seem foolhardy to try to say just who might be winning this global melee. But I'll stick my head in the guillotine and hazard an answer:

1. The terrorists aren't necessarily winning, but

2. neither are we.

In fact, if we limit our analysis to the war goals that most Americans share—destroying the Islamist terror network and protecting the homefront against further attacks—we're in pretty bad shape.

Destroying Al Qaeda

The enemy in this war has been defined so broadly as to take in everyone from Colombia's coke-trafficking guerillas to the starving Stalinists of North Korea. But the chief goal is to break up the network that actually appears to have been responsible for the attacks of last fall. In September 2001, bin Laden's forces were based in Afghanistan. In September 2002, they are widely believed to have regrouped in Pakistan, though this—like all factual claims about the war's progress that cannot easily be checked by an English-speaker living in North America—has been hotly disputed, as has the question of whether bin Laden has survived with them.

Set that aside. The most important question is not whether Al Qaeda has more or fewer training camps, more or fewer fighters, more or fewer channels of communication—not unless "fewer" means "virtually no." From the terrorists' point of view, the question is whether they have captured the allegiance and imagination of the Muslim world. Almost certainly, 9/11's demonstration of American vulnerability has vastly increased the confidence and popularity of fanatics around the globe, and the subsequent overthrow of a stone-age government did little to settle the score.

That doesn't mean the legendary Arab Street, or its counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia and the Far East, is more willing to rise up against insufficiently Islamic overlords and install a Taliban-style theocracy. On that level, bin Laden's crew has mostly failed. For all the sympathies they've mustered in parts of the Muslim world—in sections of Afghanistan, pilgrims visit the graves of Al Qaeda fighters for their reputed healing powers—the Revolution is clearly behind schedule.

The trouble is, there's a difference between being unable to convert a fifth of the world to your cause and being unable to muster further operations against the West. Al Qaeda is more a loose network than a single corporate entity; in the annals of officially designated enemies, it is more akin to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy than to the Communist Party. Furthermore, its operations do not necessarily require a lot of manpower.

We also know that its defeat in Afghanistan has not been matched by similar losses in the Philippines and elsewhere—and for that matter, that the fall of the Taliban has in no sense meant that Afghanistan itself is subdued. The new "coalition government" has little authority outside the cities, and within them it is contending again with fundamentalists hostile to Western liberties.

It is also true that governments in both the West and the Muslim world have arrested terrorist conspirators, and that there are surely covert operations afoot whose details we do not know. But to the extent that we can fathom what's actually going on outside our borders, we don't seem to have gotten very far.

Protecting the Homefront

If the situation abroad is troubling, the situation at home—i.e., where the aforementioned English-speaking resident of North America doesn't have to rely on other people for all his information—is downright disturbing. When Cheney, Mueller, and the others declared that further terrorist attacks were inevitable, they may have been exaggerating—perhaps Al Qaeda will get its hands on a weapon of mass destruction, and perhaps it won't. But they were basically right.

This is not because the terrorists are especially wily fellows. (We are speaking, after all, of a group whose recruits apparently thought it wise, while preparing to hijack four airplanes, to brag about their plans to some lapdancers in a Florida strip bar.) It is because, on almost every level, the "security" measures passed in the last year have been, at best, time-wasting jokes—and at worst, dangerous diversions.

The proposed reorganization of American intelligence has floundered in bureaucratic warfare, with entrenched agencies more interested in protecting turf than protecting American lives. Part of me can't blame them for this—after all, they're merely emulating the behavior on display at the top. The Bush administration's ass-covering response to questions about its failure to foresee the attacks are matched only by the behavior of Democrats so bent on scoring political points that they won't extend their investigations to the Clinton years. A healthy institution learns from its errors; an unhealthy one hushes them up.

The worst offender is probably the FBI, a bureau so wary of embarrassment yet immune to shame that its best agents have found themselves going to the media rather than their superiors with news of how leads that might have stopped 9/11 were not pursued.

But a special honorable mention should be granted to the new Department of Homeland Security, which immediately attempted to exempt itself from whistleblower protections. It's hardly unusual for a bureaucracy to put its own health above its stated mission, but it's rare for one to indicate its priorities so early in its life.

Meanwhile, the new federalized airport security force turns out to be the exact same airport security force as before, with a different signature on its paychecks. Humiliating searches and nutty confiscation policies have disarmed law-abiding citizens (not to mention G.I. Joe dolls) without giving us any reason to believe committed terrorists could not smuggle real arms aboard a plane. (Undercover agents have managed to slip fake weapons past security in almost a quarter of their tests since 9/11.)

If security at airports is overly intrusive, security elsewhere is schizoid. Guards are everywhere, to the point where undercover cops are stationed at Rosh Hashona services, yet any remotely creative person can conceive of ways to do serious damage, real or symbolic, in cities across the country. If one-man terrorist incidents like the July 4 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport have been rare, most of the credit should not go to the police, or even to the impressive acts of civilian self-defense that brought down Flight 93 and later stopped a would-be shoe-bomber. It should go to the fact that so few people in the United States are willing to engage in mass murder to begin with.

Everything Else

It's impossible, of course, to reduce this conflict to breaking up Al Qaeda and defending the homefront. Almost everyone with an agenda has tried to tack it onto this war, some more successfully than others. If on September 10, 2001, you felt the U.S. should attack Iraq, then on September 12 you discovered that the War on Terror required a "regime change" in that country. If on September 10, 2001, you favored compulsory "national service," then on September 12 you discovered that the War on Terror demanded no less. If on September 10, 2001, you favored federal subsidies to the underpants industry, you probably managed to find a terror-related rationale for that by the end of November.

But such projects do not advance the core mission of protecting Americans against terrorist assaults. In some cases, like the pending war with Iraq, they may actually subvert that goal.

America is the world's dominant military power. It can overthrow governments in Afghanistan and Iraq without much fear of defeat. What it can't do is protect its citizens against every maniac with a beef against us, or browbeat Arabs willing to sacrifice their own lives into accepting a region laid out on America's terms. I'm all for capturing the thugs behind the 9/11 attacks and feeding them their own testicles, and I'm all for destroying the organizations that would carry out further assaults. But a year after those murderers killed nearly 3,000 people in a few quick blows, Americans are scarcely safer now than they were this same morning, 365 days ago.