We are taught that wars are linear. They aren’t.
In history textbooks, wars break out on the first page and end on the last. Textbook wars have clear turning points and inevitable outcomes.
Real wars are different. They are fierce, constantly shifting competitions, with innumerable advances and setbacks. And the outcome is always uncertain.
The war that began on Sept. 11, 2001, is a real war. Its progress has been anything but sure, and the outcome remains in doubt. One thing is clear: The nature of this war has changed dramatically since the Twin Towers fell, and America is not keeping up.
As the ashes settled in Manhattan and at the Pentagon, Americans had two grave concerns. One was a shadowy terrorist organization called al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida’s leader, Osama bin Laden, longed to establish a new caliphate. The main obstacles were the existing regimes in the Middle East, propped up, he believed, by the United States.
Bin Laden saw America as a paper tiger – one that would withdraw if attacked. And so, he attacked. After Sept. 11, his strategy remained unchanged: He aimed to find more ways to hit America with bigger and more spectacular strikes.
America’s second grave concern was that al-Qaida or other radical groups might gain access to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons that they would be unafraid to use.
These twin concerns are what launched the global war on terrorism and two long protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At home, the U.S. also implemented a swath of domestic counterterrorism measures – everything from implementing a color-coded terror alert system to standing up a massive Department of Homeland Security.
In the years that followed, the fears about terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction went unrealized. Meanwhile, al-Qaida was beaten back in Afghanistan and again in Iraq, where the terrorist group used the post-Saddam Hussein chaos to spark an uprising centered on the country’s Sunni minority tribes.
At the same time, the domestic security measures were proving to be highly controversial. Some, like the color-coded alerts, were found to be useless – indeed, little more than comical. But there was no question that the U.S. had become a much harder target for terrorists than it was on 9/11. The ability of foreign terrorists to infiltrate the homeland and execute coordinated attacks as directed from abroad dropped dramatically. It remains low to this day.
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he discarded much of the war on terror rhetoric but continued many of the same policies. The military focus remained on tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
The following year, however, Mr. Obama introduced a dramatic shift in counterterrorism policy. Though he continued the mission of taking out “core” al-Qaida operatives, he began withdrawing the U.S. from direct action, particularly in the Middle East. He withdrew forces from Iraq, without making a serious effort to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have allowed them to stay. He also announced his intent to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the U.S. played an ambivalent role in the Arab Spring. Previously, U.S. administrations had supported pro-democracy freedom movements throughout the world. But now – starting with the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran 2009 and continuing through to the aftermath of the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, to the Syria revolt and the Muslim Brotherhood’s aborted reign in Egypt – the U.S. stood virtually silent on the sidelines.
The regional turmoil – combined with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a half-hearted “surge” in Afghanistan and a hands-off attitude toward post-war Libya – created space for a resurgence of terrorist activity.
Various Islamist organizations have flourished in the power vacuum. The most high profile threat is the Islamic State, which stormed into Iraq in 2014 and declared the historical caliphate reborn. Its stunning success on the battlefield, combined with its winning Islamist narrative, enabled the Islamic State to attract tens of thousands of fighters from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Quickly, the organization won pledges of allegiance from groups across the region and established a worldwide presence – even as the administration blithely dismissed it as “a JV team.”
The face of the Islamic State looks different in different parts of the world. While it fields armies in Iraq and Syria, in the U.S. it provides motivation rather than manpower. Its focus here is to “inspire” individuals to plan and carry out their own acts of terrorism.
Unlike Sept. 11, virtually all of the terrorist plots we see today are “homegrown,” designed and carried out by people who live here – and have been inspired to kill their neighbors. The number of plots, successful attacks and casualties has risen dramatically during Mr. Obama’s tenure. Since Jan. 1, 2015, U.S. authorities have uncovered at least 25 domestic terror plots, making it the most active period of Islamist terrorist activity in the U.S. since Sept. 11.
Global trends look similar. According to the Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics & Peace, terrorist attacks soared 80 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year. There are more terrorists – and more people dying from terrorism – than a decade ago.
And it’s not just the Islamic State. Al-Qaida has quietly rebuilt its terror network. Unlike the Islamic State, the “new” al-Qaida does not seek to draw the attention of the U.S. As one key al-Qaida leader warned his colleagues: “Better for you to be silent. …” Al-Qaida’s strategy is to let the Islamic State draw the ire of the U.S. while it expands its influence in the shadows.
The sad reality is that, back in 2008, America and the rest of the West were winning the war on terror. But once we had the upper hand, we relaxed our grip, giving the global Islamist insurgency a chance to revive, recover and reinvent itself.
Today, the war rages on, although the enemy’s tactics are far different here on the home front as well as abroad. Regardless of who wins the White House in November, the next American president will be a war president.
And he or she will need to adjust America’s strategy to deal successfully with this ever-evolving threat.
James Jay Carafano is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation and directs the think tank’s research on national security and foreign policy issues. He wrote this for Tribune Content Agency.