As the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States approaches, al Qaeda appears to be gaining strength. America remains on alert. We are told we must remain vigilant. The global war on terror continues. It's reasonable to wonder whether, how and when this conflict will end.
To answer these questions, we must separate reality from rhetoric. Never a war in the traditional sense, the global war on terror remains a banner of many missions. It began as a campaign against al Qaeda and the global enterprise inspired by its ideology. It became a military campaign to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and is now a campaign to prevent them from regaining control.
The global war also remains an effort to enlist the support the government of Pakistan in efforts against al Qaeda and its sympathizers there. It is an effort to prevent al Qaeda from finding new sanctuaries in Somalia, in Saharan Africa and in the Southern Philippines. And the global war on terror seeks to blunt Islamic extremism and radicalization, although this vital ideological component of the effort has not been effectively pursued.
At the same time, the global war on terror has been a vessel for actions against other terrorist groups that had American blood on their hands, that had global reach and that threatened U.S. allies. The global war is also a new label for decades of diplomatic and law enforcement efforts to combat terrorism as a mode of conflict.
The invasion of Iraq was also portrayed as a part of the global war on terror. Bush administration officials pointed to a close working relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Although unsupported by intelligence, some continue to assert this connection, and many Americans still erroneously believe that Saddam Hussein bore responsibility for 9/11.
Hussein's alleged efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction raised fears that he might someday arm terrorists with them. Preventing nuclear terrorism propels current U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iran. This too is part of the global war on terror.
How will these contests end?
Forget about "victory" any time soon in the unruly provinces of Southern Afghanistan or rooting out al Qaeda supporters in the turbulent tribal territories of neighboring Pakistan. Historically, no central government has ever effectively ruled these lands. American and NATO forces will be needed in Afghanistan for many years to come.
President Bush has claimed that Iraq is now the central front in the global war on terror, that fighting the terrorists there means not fighting them in the United States, and that if American forces withdraw from Iraq the terrorists will follow them home. These simple expressions may have popular appeal, but they overlook the role of the war in making Iraq a new destination for jihadist volunteers.
The fighting in Iraq is enabling al Qaeda to energize and enlarge its terrorist cadre with a new group of skilled and battle-hardened terrorist operatives. According to the recently released National Intelligence Estimate, al Qaeda can leverage these veterans to carry out new terrorist attacks.
American troops are likely to be needed in Iraq for years to come. Few insurgencies end in less than 10 years, and the conflict in Iraq is an especially complex mixture of guerrilla warfare, sectarian violence and virulent organized crime, all of which are likely to persist.
Few of the U.S. presidential candidates advocate pulling all American troops out of Iraq as quickly as logistically possible, and that is unlikely to happen. Instead, America may place greater emphasis on training and supporting Iraqi forces. We may pretend that U.S. troops are in Iraq only to fight al Qaeda, not those other insurgents or sectarian militias, although recently these same militias have become the principle source of American casualties.
U.S. forces may redeploy to defend vital enclaves or hunker down while a civil war rages around them. We may claim that the troops are there only to maintain stability in the region or prevent Iranian hegemony. But American forces will be there.
No doubt, this observation will dismay and infuriate those who want a prompt end to the war. It may even be seen as belated, grudging support for those who took us into Iraq and now oppose any timetable for withdrawal. But it is they who will be held accountable for bequeathing America this costly adventure that offers little prospect beyond preventing a worse catastrophe and no easy exit.
Whatever happens in Iraq will not end al Qaeda's terrorist campaign. Nor will unlikely developments like a political settlement in the Palestinian territories, reduced American dependence on Middle East oil, or Washington's public disapproval of undemocratic and corrupt rulers in the Middle East cool jihadist passions.
In its very first sentence, the National Intelligence Estimate optimistically declares: "We judge the U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years." In fact, we must prepare for a struggle lasting one or two generations.
But whether the jihadist campaign lasts a decade or a half century, it is unlikely to end with any discernible victory. Terrorist campaigns seldom end in either victory or defeat. More often they end with the terrorists, in this case al Qaeda's ideologues, dead or locked in their own dead-end universe and increasingly irrelevant.
Long before then, the words "global war on terror" will likely fade away — the sooner, the better, hopefully to be replaced by a more focused, realistic and sustainable strategy.
Instead of lumping together the many challenges America faces, this new strategy should take greater cognizance of the unique complexities of each challenge. Above all, what's needed is a sustainable strategy that inspires rather than frightens, and uses facts rather than slogans to win the support of an increasingly fatigued and increasingly cynical home front for the long campaigns to come.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary appeared on Washingtonpost.com on August 25, 2007