Where are we in the war on terrorism? How are we doing? What's the score? How long will it last? Americans are asking these questions again and again as we approach the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The questions say a great deal about how Americans view warfare as a finite undertaking with a beginning and an end. In his State of the Union address last January, reflecting the view of most Americans, President Bush stated that the war on terrorism began on Sept. 11, 2001. But many jihadists see the war as just the latest battle in the perpetual conflict of Islam vs. the Infidels that began more than 900 years ago.
The word "war" makes Americans set a goal of discernible victory - somebody surrenders, signs a document, an evil empire collapses, a wall comes down, a villain bites the dust, and life returns to normal.
But in the view of the jihadists, war is not an aberration; it is a perpetual condition. As Osama bin Laden put it in his state of Islam address last January: "This clashing began centuries ago and will continue until Judgment Day."
"Combating" terrorism, the term used 32 years ago when President Nixon created the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism, implies an enduring task. It has largely disappeared from the vocabulary of American officials. Wars are to be won, not waged indefinitely.
The jihadists cannot hope to win a conventional military contest. Their code is to lie in wait, attack when we are inattentive and make our lives untenable. Fighting is process, not progress oriented. It provides opportunities to prove conviction, courage and prowess. The jihadists view death not as a sign of defeat, but the pathway to martyrdom. Ultimate victory will come when God wills it.
There is no question that al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies have lost ground since 9/11. A supportive Taliban no longer controls Afghanistan. The readily accessible terrorist training camps are gone. Governments regarded by the jihadists as apostate are cooperating with America and its allies. Many of al-Qaeda's top planners, mid-level leaders are dead or behind bars; others have moved up, but experienced talent is hard to replace. Improved cooperation among the world's intelligence services has made the operational environment for terrorists more dangerous. Cash flow has been squeezed. Many operations have been thwarted.
But al-Qaeda can celebrate some accomplishments. The terrorist group has transcended its original organization to become an ideology shared by many. Al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists have managed to continue terrorist operations at a pace faster than before 9/11. True, the attacks in Bali, Jakarta, Karachi, Riyadh, Khobar, Istanbul, Djerba, Casa Blanca and Madrid are all at the pre-9/11 level, but still suffice for recruiting and for keeping al-Qaeda's enemies off balance.
And in the view of many jihadists, America's invasion of Iraq is a gift from Allah that has alienated U.S. allies, provoked the Arab world, exposed the United States to precisely the kind of warfare that the extremists wage best, and created a new front that will attract and train new cohorts of jihad. Security measures are costing the American economy billions of dollars and changing daily life with increased checkpoints and surveillance. And in the battle for minds, the few jihadist Web sites around before 9/11 have grown to more than 7,000.
Although President Bush warns that "the war on terrorism will take a while," it is not clear that Americans fully comprehend what that means - or the challenges it presents. The historical experience of the past century is the opposite. Americans may be quick to reach for their guns, but a nation of pragmatists, we quickly tire of protracted conflicts where the outcome is not clear and progress is hard to measure.
America's participation in World War I lasted less than three years. Forty-five months separated Japan's surrender from Pearl Harbor. Dating the Vietnam War - America's longest - is trickier, as debate continues on whether it began in 1960, 1962, 1964 or 1965. But a growing number of Americans had turned against the war by 1968, and by 1969 it was clear the United States was getting out.
Part of the problem America faced in Vietnam was the inability of Americans to define the end - what President Lyndon Johnson called the "light at the end of the tunnel" - or to measure progress in getting there. North Vietnam's willingness to sacrifice its own sons guaranteed continuation of the fighting. The United States was not outfought. It was "out-bled" - the same strategy the jihadists mean to duplicate in a different form today.
Having survived the very real threats to our national existence during the Cold War, can the United States successfully confront the combined threat posed by a lethal hostile ideology, the diffusion of terrorist tactics that are getting smarter, and the spread of unconventional weaponry? Yes, but only if Americans fully appreciate the challenge we face now and address our vulnerabilities.
What can Americans do to better understand and wage a successful campaign against terrorism almost three years after 9/11?
First: We need to stop looking for "High Noons" in a Hundred Years' War. The total number of suspected terrorists detained worldwide means little over the long haul. The percentage of identified terrorist leaders who are killed or captured is a misleading statistic. Even the death or capture of Osama bin Laden will not end this war. We simply can't accurately measure progress on a day-to-day basis. One of the most common complaints from foreign intelligence services is the United States' determination to make visible scores in the short term, even at the expense of long-term intelligence gains.
Second: Recognize that as the 9/11 commission has correctly noted, "The United States has to help defeat an ideology, not just a group of people." An ideological conflict is not a popularity contest. Americans probably were not the most popular people at the end of World War II, certainly not in Germany or Japan, but we won the war by the use of raw military power that broke the will of our enemies. America won the Cold War because in the long run because the Communist side could not deliver or maintain the material progress it promised.
Waging a global war against al-Qaeda and like-minded jihadists should not exclude psychological operations aimed at demoralizing its followers or reducing its reservoir of recruits, but nothing should distract us from the relentless pursuit and total destruction of this terrorist enterprise.
Third: Recognize that new threats require organizational changes in the U.S. government, but organizational changes by themselves do not guarantee better performance, and can become a distraction. The proposed reorganization of the nation's intelligence apparatus merits more careful attention than it is likely to receive in drive-by legislation before the election. This is not to defend the status quo, but it is not clear how new counter-terrorism centers or national directors will get more intelligence sources on the ground, increase resources, prevent failures of imagination, ensure good analysis, avoid "groupthink," or guarantee political independence.
Fourth: Don't waste allies. The United States cannot defeat its adversaries by itself. The war on terrorism should not be America's war - it is the world's war. That means sharing what we know. Or it may mean accepting other ways of addressing the issue. Saudi Arabia's offer of amnesty and liberal amounts of cash to those who come in is an example. We bridle at the very idea, but it may turn out to be an effective way of defusing the threat.
Fifth: recognize that the extraordinary security measures imposed now will become a permanent feature of the landscape. But they must be acceptable and supportable. And if we are to avoid gradually choking our own economy, security measures must be effective as well as efficient and practical. We need to abandon the gates-and-guards approach to homeland security and more effectively exploit America's enormous capacity for invention, innovation and initiative.
Sixth: Don't exhaust public support with frequent public alarms. Americans must understand that terrorists remain determined to go after American targets abroad, and here, if the opportunity arises. There are risks. Further attacks are likely. A threat warning is not a photo op, a political infomercial, or public proof that the authorities are earning their pay. These warnings should be few and free of affectation. We can take lessons from the British in how to sound an alarm without being alarmist.
It is amazing how many people want to actively assist in homeland security - not just "be vigilant" without further instruction, or keep shopping when alert levels are raised. The federal government does not provide homeland security. Citizens do. This nation has powerful traditions of self-reliance and resiliency, as proved on 9/11. We must build on them.
Seventh: Accept the fact that no war escapes domestic politics. Democracy is America's strength. Partisanship is our weakness. Throughout the Cold War, Americans maintained a rough consensus on defense matters, although there were substantive debates. Today's fierce partisanship, fanned by an increasingly segmented news media, has reduced national politics to a gang war. It imperils the sense of community required to withstand the threats we face. We don't need unanimity. We do need unity.
And finally, remember that American values must be preserved. They are our ultimate defense, our moral bastion. Our enemies cannot bring them down. Only we can.
Jenkins is a terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He testified before the 9/11 commission on its first day of hearings.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on August 22, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.