One of the hardest things for the American people to understand about the war unleashed on September 11 is that, 16 years in, we may be closer to its beginning than its conclusion. That notion may be staggering and saddening, but to those who have been listening to military commanders it comes as no surprise.
After all, just days after the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush tried to brace the American people for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” Then, in October 2001, as the United States and Britain launched the first counterstrokes against al Qaeda and its patrons and partners, Adm. Michael Boyce (at the time Chief of the British Defense Staff) predicted the war against terrorism “may last 50 years.” By 2006, U.S. generals were calling the campaign against terrorism “the long war.” In 2015, Gen. Martin Dempsey (at the time Joint Chiefs Chairman) described the struggle against jihadism as “a 30-year issue.” Earlier this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis called the conflict “America’s long war.”
These men grasped the essence of the post-September 11 challenge: Defeating jihadism—an enemy that doesn’t seek coexistence or the settling of grievances or recognition, but the dismemberment of civilization—would require time and endurance and stamina. It would resemble not World War II or Korea, Desert Storm or Kosovo, but rather the Cold War—a lengthy, multifaceted ideological-political-military conflict against a tenacious transnational foe.
In this light, NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document penned in 1950 that provided a roadmap for fighting Soviet communism, appears strangely relevant: Now, as then, our enemies are animated by a “fanatic faith, antithetical to our own.” Now, as then, the challenge is “momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this republic, but of civilization itself.” Now, as then, success depends on recognition by “all free people” that this “is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.”
Bush made mistakes—all wartime presidents do—but he was right to frame the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns as a “global war against terrorism.” As the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded, “Calling this struggle a war accurately describes the use of American and allied armed forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.”
The Bush administration’s sweeping war on terrorism succeeded at shifting the front overseas, putting the enemy on the defensive and forcing the enemy to expend precious resources on survival.
Some bristle at the very notion that this is a war. The Obama administration, for instance, sought to expunge “war on terror” and “global war on terrorism” from the federal government’s vocabulary. “You can never fully defeat a tactic like terrorism,” then-Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan explained in 2009.
Yet it pays to recall that the civilized world has, in the past, defeated or de-normalized tactics deemed uncivilized. Historian John Lewis Gaddis points to slavery, piracy, and genocide. In other words, a war on terrorism is not necessarily a futile enterprise.
Truth be told, the Bush administration wrestled with what to call its post-9/11 campaign. Almost three years after 9/11, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked, “Are we fighting a global war on terror? Or are we witnessing a global civil war within the Muslim religion… Or are we engaged in a global insurgency?”
The answer to each question was and still is yes, which means the language of war is appropriate.
To be sure, the war on terror enfolds more than military operations. As during the Cold War, intelligence, development, and diplomacy play important parts as well. However, these are supporting parts because ISIS, al Qaeda, and their kind have defined this as a war: In 1996, Osama bin Laden called on his death cult to focus on “destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until…it is completely defeated.” In 1998, he declared, “To kill the Americans and their allies…is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it.” By that time, his henchmen were conducting routine attacks against Western targets. En route to transforming parts of Iraq and Syria into a caliphate, ISIS massacred thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers; executed hundreds of Shiite prisoners; seized vast stretches of territory; erased the Iraq-Syria border; beheaded Americans and Kurds and Egyptians; and trained or inspired an army of terrorists to launch attacks in Europe, Turkey, Africa, and the U.S. An ISIS statement warns Americans, “We will drown all of you in blood.”
So, while Americans debate what to label the thing we are in the midst of—a global guerilla war, a worldwide insurgency, a civil war within Islam—our enemies know they are at war with us.
While our Cold War enemy sought to stamp out belief in God, our enemies in the war on terror envision a world where everyone either submits to their vision of God or dies. ISIS, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their ilk take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Their goal is to create the conditions for a decisive battle between the faithful and faithless, and ultimately to construct a transnational theocracy. It would be anything but paradise on earth.
Consider what the Taliban did while in power—and continues to do while trying to reclaim power: It banished girls from school, ordered Hindus to wear identity labels, beheaded people for dancing, turned soccer stadiums into execution chambers, burned people alive, and imprisoned missionaries. Today, thanks to the U.S. military, the Taliban is no longer in control of Afghanistan (nor, it seems, is the government in Kabul, but that’s a subject for another essay). As the late Christopher Hitchens wryly noted in November 2001, after Kabul and Kunduz and Kandahar were liberated from the medieval Taliban, “The United States of America has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age. This deserves to be recognized as an achievement.”
Not coincidentally, some 2.5 million Afghan girls are in school today. In response, Taliban militants have launched poison-gas attacks against schools to terrify families and teachers back into the darkness, even as the Pakistani Taliban has taken to torching and bombing churches.
Recall that the Taliban allowed bin Laden to turn Afghanistan into a spawning ground and launching pad for jihadism. Bin Laden warned that his cult of killers “do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.” That became obvious on September 11, when bin Laden’s war reached our shores. A little girl not yet three years old was the youngest to be murdered by bin Laden’s shock troops on September 11. Her name was Christine. Her grandfather describes her as “love personified.” She died in the unspeakable hell of Flight 175 when al Qaeda plowed the doomed plane into the World Trade Center’s south tower.
ISIS—the offspring of al Qaeda in Iraq—has been called “worse than al Qaeda,” and perhaps deservedly so. As proof of its savage piety, ISIS (whose adherents are Sunni Muslim) has summarily executed thousands of Shiite Muslims; drowned and burned alive POWs; conducted genocide against Yazidis and Christians. ISIS has imprisoned children as young as eight; executed imams, teachers, and hospital workers; ordered Iraqi Christians to convert or die; conducted a systematic campaign of rape in conquered territories; sold children into slavery; and, perhaps most shocking of all, used “mentally challenged” children as suicide bombers.
As Gen. John Kelly has explained, “Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus—and that is either kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp.”
This is the enemy the U.S. military has been fighting for 16 years. However, the U.S. military is not at war with Islam—after all, in the past quarter-century, U.S. troops have rescued Muslims in Kosovo and Kurdistan, Somalia and Sumatra, Kuwait and Kabul, while partnering with military personnel from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq—but it is at war those who would force people to submit to Islam. It is at war with people who “do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians.” It is at war with murderers and rapists masquerading as holy men. It is at war with those who seek to destroy civilization. And make no mistake: There’s a vast difference between those who use force to defend civilization and those who use force to dismember it. In a world where might still makes right, it is the U.S. military—not international treaties or UN resolutions, not presidential speeches or protest marches—that protects us from such enemies.
If Bush’s mistake was to overreach and view everything through the prism of September 11, Obama’s was to downplay the military aspects of the struggle against jihadism by stifling any reference to the phrase “war on terror,” by declaring al Qaeda “on the path to defeat,” by calling ISIS a “JV team,” by reassuring the American people it was time “to turn the page” on the war that began on September 11.
If Obama’s mistake was deemphasizing the “war” in “global war on terror,” President Donald Trump’s may be his failure to appreciate those other essential ingredients in waging a war of this kind—intelligence operations, development, and diplomacy. Although he has unfettered the U.S. military, his estrangement from the intelligence community, plans to defund development programs, and default tone-deafness in the diplomatic arena will likely hobble this phase of the long war on terror.
Photo Credit: By Michael Foran, via Flickr.