Four years after 9/11, where are we in the global war on terror? The question itself reflects our typically American desire to keep score, measure progress. Progress in World War II provided visible mileposts – the invasion of North Africa, the march through Italy, the return to the Philippines, the landing at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the fall of Berlin, VE day, VJ day – a bloodier contest but we knew where we were going.
Like the Cold War, the current contest could easily last decades. The Iron Curtain came down in 1946. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The intervening 43 years saw many ups and downs, with the ultimate outcome uncertain to the very end. It is against a horizon of four decades that we review the progress of the past four years.
Progress depends on how this new war is defined. It is a campaign to destroy al-Qaeda's terrorist enterprise. It has become inextricably intertwined with the struggle to suppress an insurgency in Iraq. It is a selective effort to defeat other terrorist organizations that threaten the United States and its allies. It is a decades-old effort to combat terrorism as a mode of conflict that will continue for decades. And it is conflated with efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction on the presumption that their development by states will lead inevitably to their acquisition by terrorists – too many things to measure in the aggregate.
The United States and its allies have made undeniable progress against the jihadist terrorist enterprise, most significantly, by eliminating al-Qaeda's readily accessible training camps in Afghanistan. This disrupted the large flow of volunteers from which al-Qaeda's planners could expand their international connections and recruit terrorist operatives from a global reservoir.
Pakistan has been kept on board while al-Qaeda-inspired attacks since 9/11 in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Turkey have galvanized their governments to action. Key terrorist operational planners – talent hard to replace – have been removed. Unprecedented cooperation among allied intelligence services has disrupted numerous terrorist attacks.
Still, we have not captured Osama bin Laden or a number of other top al-Qaeda leaders. We have not silenced or blunted the appeal of al-Qaeda's ideology. We have not publicly turned or rehabilitated a single detainee. (Hopefully, we have recruited a spy or two.) Arab and Muslim attitudes are more hostile now than four years ago.
A clear-cut victory is unlikely, but we could consider it to be a success if four years from now, bin Laden and his principal lieutenants are dead or in prison, there still has been no major terrorist attack in the United States, there are fewer jihadist terrorist operations worldwide, security in Afghanistan and Iraq has significantly improved, and there is evidence of less hostility among Muslims.
Our jihadist foes assess their own situation differently. They view war as a perpetual condition and see the current struggle not merely as a military contest, but rather as a missionary enterprise, albeit one that requires continued terrorist operations to galvanize followers and attract recruits. They only have to keep fighting, which they regard as a religious obligation. They have no compulsion to measure progress, no concern about casualties, no pressure for timetables. They realize that they cannot challenge America's military might in open battle, but believe that their spiritual superiority will ultimately defeat our superior technology. In their view, God will decide the outcome.
Faced with an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and the disaster of Chernobyl at home, the Soviet Union withdrew and collapsed. So, our jihadist foes are convinced, we will tire of war, and now faced with disaster at home, ultimately withdraw. Meanwhile, fighting provides its own rewards for the jihadists: hope, honor, paradise.
The 9/11 assaults on America established al-Qaeda's credentials; every attack since bears its label regardless of actual connectivity. The jihadists continue to communicate, recruit, train and prepare operations. The term al-Qaeda itself has transcended the historic organization to become a global ideology discussed on thousands of Web sites that didn't exist four years ago.
Jihadist operations have become more decentralized with higher local content and fewer of the transactions that intelligence services look for – communications that can be intercepted, border crossings, money transfers.
We now confront neighborhood al-Qaedas, although we cannot write off the center. Jihadist terrorist manuals on the Internet provide instruction. Fewer recruits are centrally trained. They disperse to join with locals for one-off attacks avoiding groups that can be identified and penetrated by authorities. Command and control are provided by local converts or by itinerant jihad expediters who come in, assemble operatives, provide technical assistance and depart. Like so many global corporations, al-Qaeda is relying more on part-time temps.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists have carried out more than 20 major terrorist attacks not counting any in Afghanistan or Iraq – one almost every two months. Nearly a thousand have been killed, several thousand injured. Meanwhile, fighting continues in Afghanistan. The Iraqi resistance goes on.
Historians will debate the wisdom of America's invasion of Iraq, seeing it either as a clever lateral escalation that redefined the war on terror militarily and politically, or as a dangerous distraction from the focused pursuit of al-Qaeda. Less debatable are its immediate consequences. The brilliant execution of the invasion itself was matched by utter failure to anticipate and prepare for a fierce resistance.
Foreign fighters have been attracted to Iraq's insurgency as a new front for jihad, but the assertion that fighting the jihadists in Iraq means not fighting them in America is not supportable. We are not heading them off at the pass, nor does killing one insurgent in Iraq mean one less jihadist in the world, and our foes are not so distracted by the fighting in Iraq that they cannot carry out terrorist attacks elsewhere. Instead, Iraq has become a training ground for the next cohort of jihadists who eventually will disperse with their skills in urban guerrilla warfare, bomb-making, and sabotage, raising terrorist operational skills worldwide.
How are we doing in Iraq?
Insurgency math is tricky. The relevance of the things we can count is questionable. Progress may occur subtly in things that are hard to measure. Perceptions count more than statistics.
The things we can measure do not indicate imminent insurgent collapse. Estimates of insurgent strength have increased over the past two years. Enemy-initiated incidents continue to occur at about 70 a day. Absent other accessible indicators, easily tracked U.S. casualties have become the sole focus of public attention here. If there is no significant change in the level of violence or U.S. deployment, by 2008 the fighting in Iraq will have claimed 4,000 Americans killed in action, 30,000 wounded, and cost a half-trillion dollars. At that price, Americans may not be willing to stay the course.
While the coalition forces exercise conventional military control – they cannot be defeated in battle – this is not very relevant since the insurgents do not have to defeat us militarily. We can protect only a portion of Iraqi citizens. Their security still depends primarily on sectarian militias and tribal connections. American losses are not crippling but may prove to be politically unsustainable. American experience is growing, but this is offset by unit rotation.
Reconstruction is behind schedule, although vital infrastructure is slowly being improved. An elected Iraqi government is in place, but we must avoid the American presumption that political progress means diminished violence. The fact is, sophisticated political institutions can co-exist with high levels of political violence. Look at the tenacious civil wars in Colombia and Sri Lanka, which have been practicing democracies for decades.
On the minus side, our intelligence is inadequate. We have too few troops. Even with ample recruits, Iraqis will need years to take over their own security. Coalition forces cannot control Iraq's borders with Iran or Syria, both of which have incentives to make things difficult. Even bringing security up to the level of the U.S. border with Mexico, which would require a huge investment, might have little significant impact on the insurgents' operational effectiveness.
True, the insurgents have limited appeal beyond displaced and disaffected Sunnis. They have no political program other than getting the occupiers out. They have no unified command structure. Much of the violence is purely criminal. Yet their determination appears undiminished. They are resilient and adaptive. There is no apparent shortage of jihadist volunteers. The fighting could indeed continue for years, increasing the danger that a guerrilla subculture will emerge in which perpetuation of the violence provides its own rewards, bringing local warlords and warriors status, power and profit so long as the conflict continues.
And in any long contest, one must anticipate surprises – unpredictable events that could significantly alter the course of the war or how it is perceived. The insurgents lack the capacity to launch a nationwide offensive on the scale of the 1968 Tet attacks in Vietnam, but they might carry off a major terrorist attack with heavy U.S. casualties. Increasingly indiscriminate insurgent violence may provoke a backlash by angry Iraqis, but it could just as easily set off a sectarian civil war. A mistake in U.S. targeting leading to a terrible tragedy with heavy Iraqi casualties or revelations of new abuses could alienate U.S. and world opinion.
Even Hurricane Katrina will count in ways that are still incalculable. Not since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which killed a half-million Americans, has there been a natural disaster of this magnitude in the middle of a war. New needs at home could increase pressure to reorder national priorities.
President Bush has demonstrated himself to be a resolute commander in chief, but he may find himself under growing pressure from two directions. Opposition to the war is growing. Its initial justification proved false – we found no weapons of mass destruction. Its connection with 9/11 is now discredited – Iraq had nothing to do with the attack. Its outcome is increasingly uncertain. It is not unpatriotic to ask where we're going.
Further opposition may come from the Pentagon itself. Wars wreck armies. When national survival is at stake, this not an issue. In a war by choice, preserving capability to deal with other contingencies must be reckoned.
With the fall of Baghdad, the continued fighting in Iraq ceased to be the Pentagon's preferred war. It has become precisely the kind of messy conflict American commanders hoped to avoid after Vietnam. The insurgency is stretching military manpower, ruining equipment, raising costs and diverting acquisitions. It also risks destroying military morale along with perceptions of American military competence. Public expressions of confidence conceal private wariness that indefinite involvement increases the risk of failure.
Military and political realities are forcing the United States to recast its objectives. As opposed to "mission creep" – the gradual expansion of military goals once operations begin – we see in Iraq what might be called "mission shrink," downshifting objectives to reduce expectations. What began as an easily won war to effect regime change became an effort to defeat a fierce resistance. Given the failure to attract more contributors to the U.S.-led coalition, and the unwillingness to commit more U.S. troops, the objective downshifted to enabling the Iraqis to do it themselves. Slow progress in that effort has led to the recognition that the fighting is likely to continue long after we depart, which in turn, decouples our withdrawal from any specific criteria on the ground.
There are no easy solutions here, but the American people need more than reassuring rhetoric and patriotic exhortations. We need a sober assessment and a clear presentation of a strategy that we believe just might work.
Significantly increasing American troop strength in Iraq at this point is probably unrealistic. To reduce friction with the locals and exposure to casualties, American forces could withdraw to desert garrisons allowing the United States to maintain its presence and pressure on Iraq's government while guaranteeing its survival. Or the forces could be redeployed to defend and develop the safest areas of the country, then gradually expand from these enclaves to slowly pacify unruly provinces. This is a classic counterinsurgency strategy.
Rotating forces by units may preserve their cohesion but cause us to periodically disrupt fragile relations with locals and lose valuable local knowledge. We may want to reconfigure some portion of the American military presence into a force more suitable for pacification, and which can be combined with newly trained Iraqi police and security forces. The Pentagon will understandably resist major alterations solely for Iraq.
At the same time, dialogues aimed at reducing the level of violence by provoking divisions in the insurgents' ranks or negotiating local accommodations should be continued.
The removal of Saddam Hussein was not on the agenda when the global war on terror began four years ago, yet the war in Iraq has since become its costliest component. It must not divert us from the initial task of destroying al-Qaeda's operational capabilities and dangerous ideology. We are not there yet.
Destroying al-Qaeda's ideology will require greater emphasis on political warfare. This means more than broadcasting in Arabic, advertising American values to win hearts and minds, or eliminating all sources of social and economic discontent that may anger young Muslim men, were that even possible. There will always be a handful of wannabe warriors, which is all al-Qaeda needs. Disrupting jihadist recruiting will require aggressive operations to reduce proselytizing, sow suspicion, entice defections among its followers, and turn those captured into our clandestine and public agents.
Lie in wait. Attack when the enemy is inattentive. These are the tenets of the jihadists' operational code. In the coming months and years, they will lie in wait while we will have ample opportunities to forget the continuing terrorist threat. But forgetting will invite deadly reminders.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a former captain in the Special Forces, is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on September 11, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.