War on Terror Status Report

Walter Russell Mead presents his sitrep of the War on Terror.

terrorism-headlines

In a provocative op-ed at the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead presents a status report on the War on Terror. Read the whole thing. In brief summary of his report:

  • “On 9/11, it became clear that all was not well in the post-Cold War, post-historical world.”
  • “By the end of the George W. Bush administration, the effort to launch a grand war against the West under the flag of al Qaeda had decisively failed.” This was largely the result of the “Sunni awakening”, Iraqis’ own response to Al Qaeda terrorism.
  • “The campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan that included the death of bin Laden continues to degrade the capabilities and prestige of the original al Qaeda network, even if the American exit strategy from this difficult conflict remains unclear.”
  • “The Arab Spring caught the administration off balance, and Washington has struggled to maintain its priorities as the Middle East has drifted away from liberal democratic protest toward a darker agenda.”
  • “The U.S. failure to support effective humanitarian intervention in Syria (even if prudent in terms of American domestic politics) has dramatically undermined the administration’s effort to portray the new U.S. as a pro-democracy, humanitarian power guided by the responsibility to protect.”
  • “At this stage, the terrain favors America’s enemies. In places like the wide swath of Africa’s Sahel region, and in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, it is difficult to establish strong states that can keep the extremists in check.”
  • “At present al Qaeda appears to have only a limited capacity to attack the U.S. and its principal European allies. But that could change quickly if the terrorists succeed in establishing havens in North Africa. This war isn’t over, and the danger isn’t past.”

Is that a fair summary? If you think so, say so. If you disagree, please present your own summary. Please do so in temperate terms, eschewing ad hominems.

My own view is that U. S. conduct in the War on Terror to date has consisted mostly of missteps, what success we’ve had is largely due to the enemy’s mistakes rather than our own masterful handling of the situation, we have done very little to eliminate the critical success factors behind the attacks on 9/11, and, as long as that’s the case, there will continue to be a risk roughly equivalent to the one we faced on September 10, 2001. Increasing the size and influence of the security state does very little actually to make us more secure. Further, I think that “the terrain” has always favored our enemies and that, while avoiding “boots on the ground” limits the costs we pay and fosters domestic political support, it also limits our ability to assess the actual situation, i.e. to tell the bad guys from the good guys.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    The US worrying about terrorists is like an elephant worrying about fleas.

    Unfortunately, flea phobia is somehow seductive to the national psyche.

  2. john personna says:

    (Also note that far more gun deaths per year are “no reason to change gun control.”)

  3. Moosebreath says:

    The only one I strongly disagree with is the first: “On 9/11, it became clear that all was not well in the post-Cold War, post-historical world.”

    It was clear before then (former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, etc.). That was just the day it started to matter to people in the US.

    I also disagree, though less strongly, with your comment: “what success we’ve had is largely due to the enemy’s mistakes rather than our own masterful handling of the situation”. I think we have had some success based on our own handling in what Mead calls “degrad[ing] the capabilities and prestige of the original al Qaeda network”.

    Finally, I think the terrain comment from both of you misses the mark. We only are having success if there is no place for Al Qu’eda and similar groups to operate. As a result, we need to be able to prevent them everywhere, or we are not winning.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    The terrain will always favor enemies like Al-Queda…or any insurgent for that matter…that’s why they are insurgents. Legitimate or illigitimate. The terrain favored us against the British.
    I wouldn’t do anything different about Syria or the Arab Spring…maybe around the edges…but not significantly.
    I disagree we are no better off than on 9.10.01.
    Just the day before yesterday two of the lead strategists in Africa were killed…that will slow-down the foothold some.
    http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/02/17161839-chad-claims-it-killed-terrorist-behind-attack-on-algerian-gas-plant

    “…If both deaths are confirmed, it would mean that the international intervention in Mali had succeeded in decapitating two of the pillars of al-Qaida in the Sahara…”

  5. john personna says:

    @this:

    Dear downvoter. I can only assume that you are not a rationalist, and prefer an emotional connection to risks. See also:

    How Americans Are Living Dangerously

    In particular:

    Which risks get excessive attention and which get overlooked depends on a hierarchy of factors. Perhaps the most important is dread. For most creatures, all death is created pretty much equal. Whether you’re eaten by a lion or drowned in a river, your time on the savanna is over. That’s not the way humans see things. The more pain or suffering something causes, the more we tend to fear it; the cleaner or at least quicker the death, the less it troubles us. “We dread anything that poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in a traditional way, like an auto crash,” says Slovic. “That’s the dread factor.” In other words, the more we dread, the more anxious we get, and the more anxious we get, the less precisely we calculate the odds of the thing actually happening. “It’s called probability neglect,” says Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago professor of law specializing in risk regulation.

    The same is true for, say, AIDS, which takes you slowly, compared with a heart attack, which can kill you in seconds, despite the fact that heart disease claims nearly 50 times as many Americans than AIDS each year. We also dread catastrophic risks, those that cause the deaths of a lot of people in a single stroke, as opposed to those that kill in a chronic, distributed way. “Terrorism lends itself to excessive reactions because it’s vivid and there’s an available incident,” says Sunstein. “Compare that to climate change, which is gradual and abstract.”

  6. J-Dub says:

    The War on Terror has turned out to be just like the War on Drugs, the War on Cancer, and any other “War on…”, that is, a money grab. There’s no money to be made from defeating terrorism just like there’s no money to be made from curing cancer. Anti-terror is a big and highly profitable business. Ten more years of Al Qaeda and I can retire.

  7. Scott says:

    We are engaged in a grossly asymmetrical war to our long-term disadvantage. We have not yet figured out how to make the war less asymmetric so we are paying a disproportionate high price in terms of talent and treasure.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    @ JP…
    Yup.
    9.11 wasn’t nearly as bad as the colosal blunder-f’ck response Cheney came up with while pi$$ing his pants in some bunker…all afraid of the dark skinned men in turbans.
    Also on gun control.
    Also on climate change.

  9. G.A.Phiilips says:

    I have come around to the point of view you give here Dave.I also believe that we now have a massive breeding ground problem due to the miss reading of and then the miss handling of the Arab Spring.

    The failure of the Bush Administration to undertand the true nature and identity of our enemy was tragic, as was the over reaction and over reaching steps to protect us here at home.

    The Obama administrations political use of the remains of the “War on Terror” that they, I think never belived in and its ocupational use of our homeland security laws and apparatus, something I refused to see back when I was being warned about what could happen are just mind boggling.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    The danger to the US from the war on terror is not to be determined by casualty counts alone. If terrorists were more successful in the US — say a bomb a month in a shopping center, not an outrageous scenario — we’d have a far larger security state and more curtailed freedoms. The security efforts we have now are inoculations – we take a bit of the virus and avoid a greater sickness.

    I think people who blithely dismiss “security theater” are disengaging their imaginations. It could be worse. Far, far worse, if we felt ourselves more genuinely threatened.

    Contra Dave, I think we’ve done quite a good job in the war on terror as opposed to the Iraq war which we mishandled miserably. We are killing Al Qaeda affiliates hither and yon and the west has gone quite a while now without a major terrorist attack. How is that not success? It’s precisely what we set out to do: forestall terror attacks on the US and our allies.

    The “underlying factors” are mostly beyond our control, despite American and foreign exaggerations of our influence. We had no power to either turn on or turn off the Arab Spring. Nor do we have the power to turn Yemen into a modern, functioning state. We’re doing what we can. And we’re doing what we should. And it’s working.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    The underlying factors may be beyond our control but the critical success factors are well within our control since they’re mostly domestic policy. Dealing with them would be inconvenient so we don’t do anything about them.

    Unless you think that Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and a handful of other identifiable figures comprise critical success factors, i.e. without them no attacks would have taken place, eliminating them does not really make us more secure.

    On the one hand, Michael, you dismiss casualty counts as not dispositive but on the other you cite them (“We are killing Al Qaeda affiliates hither and yon”) as metrics of success. I don’t think that metric is any more meaningful than the daily reports of Viet Cong killed we got in the news reports 40 years ago were.

    There continue to be terrorist attacks against Americans and U. S. interests. Some are in Afghanistan. Some are nearer to home, like the attack by Major Hasan in 2009.

    Just for the record one of those “up” votes on your comment is mine. I thought it was a good comment and that I disagree with the point of view doesn’t alter that in my eyes.

  12. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I have to say this Mead fellow has presented a reasonable and fair snapshot assessment. Certainly it’s not a loopy one. Unquestionably it’s far more sentient than the sort of dissonant bilge one normally associates with media-academe-Internet circles.

    Not sure however about that putative “Sunni awakening,” to which Mead makes reference. AQI was defeated by the 2007 U.S. surge, not so much by anything the Iraqis did. And in recent years to the extent Sunnis have “awoken” it’s been cases of meet the new bosses, same or worse than the old bosses.

    Iran of course remains a gigantic elephant in the room.

    Ultimately it would require a large leap of illogic to characterize overall the war on terror as anything other than successful. No domestic 9/11’s since 9/11 speaks for itself.

    Going forward, however, the brutal reality is that wars are won and lost based upon geopolitics, economics and technology, not so much based upon purely military endeavors. To those ends we’re in dire straits.

    Geopolitically we’re in severe decline. When France of all countries determines that it must take the lead deposing a terrorist-sympathizing Muslim dictator and then fighting against al Qaeda in Africa that truly bodes ill. Keep in mind that until two years ago France for the better part of six full decades (Suez ’56 – 2011) almost completely was disengaged from the world’s military affairs. That we’ve become to a material extent a support squad to the French speaks volumes.

    Economically speaking we’re in catastrophic decline, especially fiscally. There are third-world countries with far lower debt-GDP and deficit-GDP ratios. And given the demographics of the Boomers, the entitlement programs, and the unemployablility of Gen. Y, that picture only will look uglier as time marches on.

    Our one remaining advantage is technology. But that won’t necessarily last. Every public dollar spent on debt service is one less dollar that can be spent on keeping our technological edges. The same holds true for every public dollar spent on the likes of social engineering in government and in the workplaces, along with every dollar spent to provide “free” healthcare and other largesse to the young and able-bodied. And perhaps the ghastliest irony is that various elements of what are claimed to be our educated political classes have reflexive antipathies towards various programs, e.g., drones, through which we create and then implement our technological advantages.

    So whereas the past 11-plus years have been successful, looking out over the event horizon it’s difficult to be all that optimistic.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    @ Tsar…

    “…AQI was defeated by the 2007 U.S. surge, not so much by anything the Iraqis did…”

    I can only assume that is a facetious remark…given that, if serious, it is just plain wrong.

  14. Barry says:

    Dave, this is not an ad hominem comment, in the real (and forgotten) sense of the term ‘attacks on irrelevant characteristics’.

    I looked up Walter Russell Mead after seeing him mentioned in Daniel Larison’s blog, and read some of his writing. There is not there there. He has no insight, expertise, knowledge or influence. There was a comment about a neonazi posting on USENET once ‘He’s just a bot. And what’s worse, he’s a bot smarter than the rest of the neonazis’.

  15. Rob in CT says:

    The question will always be “at what cost?” In blood, treasure, diplomatic relations with other governments (and PR in countries that elect said governments).

    So, we engage in a world-wide fight against terrorists who wish us harm. This is expensive, of course. Further, we always run the risk of doing more harm than good (e.g. an airstrike that kills some lowlife AQ guy but also kills 20 locals and, down the road, spawns more terrorists), and frankly there’s no way to know for sure where to draw the line. We’re all guessing when we debate “blowback” vs. “better over there than over here.” As we are when we debate the security measures we have in place at home: is it just theatre? Are we making a poor trade of liberty for security?

    My inclination is to say that we clearly overreacted, did a number of really dumb things, blew a ton of money, got a lot of people killed, and the benefits are awfully hard to measure. Granted, we have not been hit at home since 9/11, and that does count for something. I just have no idea how to tally up a cost/benefit analysis that feels even remotely real (as opposed to me just pontificating). And I really don’t know how anyone else can either.

  16. Rob in CT says:

    There is far too much garbage in the latest Tsar post for me to bother going point by point. I’ll stick to this bit:

    When France of all countries determines that it must take the lead deposing a terrorist-sympathizing Muslim dictator and then fighting against al Qaeda in Africa that truly bodes ill.

    Mali is a former French colony. France has intervened militarily in its former colonies many times. A list, all post-Suez:

    France fought an eight-year war in Algeria, which ended with that country’s independence in 1962.

    – 1964, Gabon: French forces intervene to restore president after coup.

    – 1968-1972, Chad: French troops intervene to put down northern rebellion.

    – 1978-80, Chad: French forces defend government against rebels.

    – 1978, Zaire: French and Belgian paratroops drop into the mineral-rich Katanga region of Zaire (today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), where rebels are holding Europeans.

    – 1979, Central African Republic: French forces depose the eccentric Central African “emperor” Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

    – 1983-84, Chad: New French intervention in Chad, where the government is threatened by rebels backed by Colonel Moamer Kadhafi’s Libya.

    – 1986, Chad: Further operation against Chadian rebels; mainly using aviation.

    – 1986, Togo: French reinforcements sent after coup attempt, which fails.

    – 1989, Comoros: French forces go in when president is assassinated and mercenaries headed by Bob Denard, also French, take power.

    – 1990, Gabon: French troops support the regime of president Omar Bongo; evacuate foreign nationals from cities hit by rioting.

    – 1990-1993, Rwanda: French soldiers help evacuate French and other Europeans after rebels invade the country.

    – 1991, Zaire: French troops deploy capital Kinshasa during riots against the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.

    – 1994: Rwanda: Two separate French interventions follow the death in a plane crash of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, which sparks genocidal killings that leave some 800,000 people dead.

    – 1995: Comoros: New French intervention to halt a coup, again led by the French mercenary Bob Denard.

    – 1996-7: Central African Republic: Two French interventions to maintain order after munities among the local military.

    – 1997: Republic of Congo: French troops intervene during civil war; help evacuate foreigners.

    – 1996: Cameroon: France provides military assistance to Cameroon, which is involved in a dispute with Nigeria over an oil-rich border area.

    – 1998: Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire): Intervention to evacuate foreigners from Kinshasa during unrest following the overthrow of the Mobutu regime by Laurent-Desire Kabila.

    – 2002-present: Ivory Coast: French mount “Operation Licorne” after a military rebellion effectively cuts Ivory Coast in two. In 2004 they destroy Ivory Coast’s small air force after government forces bomb a French base.

    – 2003: Democratic Republic of Congo: France provides most of the forces for a UN operation to protect civilians in the northeastern Ituri region of the DRC.

    – 2008: Chad: New French intervention to bolster regime and evacuate foreigners during attacks by rebels from neighbouring Sudan.

    – 2011: Ivory Coast: French forces of the “Licorne” operation act alongside UN forces during the civil war sparked by Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to leave power after losing an election.

    I culled the list of interventions alongside US forces. The above is all France.

    Citing French intervention in Mali as proof of US decline is, therefore, moronic. I award you zero points. May the Flying Spaghetti Monster have mercy on your soul.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Unless you think that Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and a handful of other identifiable figures comprise critical success factors, i.e. without them no attacks would have taken place, eliminating them does not really make us more secure.

    I don’t think that’s right. Does it help or hurt an organization to have its officers killed? Imagine we’re talking about our CIA. Would it help the CIA to accomplish its mission if 20 or 30 or 50% of senior officers were killed and the rest were forced into a defensive crouch? Would it help a private company like Apple Computer if we culled some percentage of their executives and the rest lived in fear that they were next?

    AQ is an organization with a set of goals. If we make it extremely difficult for them to plan then we make it extremely difficult for them to act. And that’s our goal.

    On the one hand, Michael, you dismiss casualty counts as not dispositive but on the other you cite them (“We are killing Al Qaeda affiliates hither and yon”) as metrics of success. I don’t think that metric is any more meaningful than the daily reports of Viet Cong killed we got in the news reports 40 years ago were.

    I’m afraid that was mostly just lazy editing on my part. I was going somewhere else with it and didn’t re-read, so that first sentence is sort of an orphan.

    The practical job of our security services is to complicate life for our enemies. We want it to be hard for them to enter the country, we want it to be hard for them to arrange financing, we want it to be hard for them to plan, hard to train, hard to recruit, etc… We have clearly done all of that. Perfectly? No. But we have added layers of difficulty that did not exist pre-911, and enough difficulty eventually translates into an improbability. Our allies have done the same and the result is a distinct lack of spectacular terror attacks capable of inspiring the enemy and panicking our population.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Al Qaeda tyros who were sixteen years old in 2001 are now hardened veterans of 28. The guys we’re going after now weren’t even on the map two years ago let alone ten years ago. Is that reducing the risk? How would we know?

  19. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    Once again, Islam is the millstone. If your plan doesn’t include constraining, undermining, or eradicating Islam, you don’t have a plan, never mind a War. What you have is a hope.

    And, as to all the Muslim gratitude our efforts have provoked, it kind of reminds me of a Missouri-Warhol River: a verbal mile wide; an actual inch deep; and flowing for about 15 minutes.

    Some skimming of that Korany thingy would seem to be in order.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I think you too easily dismiss the role of individuals. Bin Laden was an inspirational figure. Zawahiri is not. It’s like the move from Steve Jobs to Whatsisname. Things may go along just fine, but they may not. It may be there aren’t an unlimited supply of Bin Ladens.

    AQ is obviously addicted to arge-scale, dramatic attacks. Those require organization and planning, and it’s unarguable that planning is more difficult when the conspirators are being killed off. We’ve basically taken an activity that was difficult to begin with and made it a great deal harder.

    As for how we’ll know we’re winning, we’ll know if 2020 rolls around and there are no other major attacks in the US or Europe. Then again in 2030. And 2040 and so on. We are looking for an absence.

    Terrorism is a useful tactic because it works. It causes terror, and terror breeds society-busting overreaction. But terrorism is not terrorizing Americans, and I simply do not believe that even the sillest of TSA rules amounts to some threat to our liberty. If terror consistently fails to have the desired effect it will recede as a tactic and a threat. That’s our win: when the message sinks in that this tactic does not work.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @11B40:

    The Muslims used to say the same about Christians. Those crazy-ass Christians keep invading, yelling about Jerusalem.

    Add up all the war dead that you can lay at the feet of Islamic countries, cultures, nation-states. Now do the same with Christians. It’s not even close. Christians are far, far greater murderers than Muslims. I don’t know if we hold the record, because that may just go to Genghis and his kids, but the Muslims aren’t even in the running. They’re barely Triple A let alone big league.

  22. steve says:

    I continue to wonder at the claims that we mismanaged the Arab Spring. Someone should write a book about the Limits to American Power. I cannot figure out why the Arabs would really care what we think.

    Steve

  23. Andy says:

    @steve:

    I think that’s a fair comment, but I do think we’ve been naive, particularly regarding Egypt.

  24. JohnMcC says:

    Thought-provoking and thank you for inviting comments. Seems worthwhile to make a link (h/t TPM): http://www.sigir.mil/learningfromiraq/idex.html

    I endorse Mr Reynold’s remarks (as is so often true) about the nature of AQ as a criminal organization. There is a definite deterioration in the ability of the Mafia to control swathes of America because the police keep putting their leaders in prison (and other Mafioso keep shooting them down). I don’t know how the same cannot be true of AQ.

    I think that our capacity to bring stability and settled government to the huge territory from the Federated Territories between Afghanistan and Pakistan through Somolia to Mali is very very limited. Probably one of those situations where more American/NATO boots are on the ground, the worse the outcome. Anti-terrorism inside those territories mostly consists of killing people.
    Damn shame we can’t do that and find a way to never kill the innocent; we should not stop trying to avoid that. But it is a war and events have never been good for innocence people living on battlefields.

    The events of the arab spring can be helpful. I think the Libyan intervention turned out as well as we could have hoped. My opinion is that Syria is not offering much to us; fortunately it does not seem to be offering much to our enemies either.

  25. James Joyner says:

    Dave,

    I’m somewhere between you and @michael reynolds on this one. The al Qaeda that attacked us 11-1/2 years ago is a shell of its former self. We’ve killed their leadership and made it very difficult for them to conduct major operations. They’ve been replaced by an al Qaeda 2.0 that’s more of a franchise operation that’s simultaneously more difficult to kill off and less threatening. Those changes are mostly a function of our efforts.

    At the same time, we remain extremely vulnerable simply because we’re a vast, free society. I’m continually but pleasantly surprised that we haven’t seen a wave of attacks at airports, shopping malls, office buildings, and the like. One determined nutbag could do a lot of damage psychologically. A band of nutbags could really wreak havoc.

  26. G.A.Phiilips says:

    Add up all the war dead that you can lay at the feet of Islamic countries, cultures, nation-states. Now do the same with Christians. It’s not even close.

    Harry(my nickname for michael reynolds, it was his idea), I think you should check your history on this subject.Once again I will also ask you to understand the differance between people that use the the name of God and or the bible for their own missguided reasons and dogmatic religions and what Islam teaches and how it was and is spread.

    They way you are doing this math has not much to do with the sums or equations you are useing.

    Respectfully…

  27. matt bernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    One determined nutbag could do a lot of damage psychologically. A band of nutbags could really wreak havoc.

    See the Beltway Snipers as one perfect example of this.

    I’m continually but pleasantly surprised that we haven’t seen a wave of attacks at airports, shopping malls, office buildings, and the like.

    This is one of the many reasons why I find all the people who keep claiming that there is an active radical-Islamic fifth column in the US so ridiculous. It doesn’t take much to set us into a panic. Three or four coordinated, geographically distributed mall shooting sprees or bombings would paralyze the general populace for quite a while.

  28. Barry says:

    @G.A.Phiilips: “Once again I will also ask you to understand the differance between people that use the the name of God and or the bible for their own missguided reasons and dogmatic religions and what Islam teaches and how it was and is spread.”

    There is none; both books have lots of nasty stuff in them, both books have lots of good stuff in them.

  29. mannning says:

    It is not clear to me that we Christians are talking about the same God as Islam does. Not when Jihad against the infidels is preached, among a number of other key differences, such as demoting Jesus, and their treatment of women, and so forth. Most of the sane parts of the Koran were abrogated by Muhammad after Medina, and the Koran is the will of the Islamic God as given to Muhammad to this day. It would seem that there are irreconcilable differences that must be accounted for between Christianity and Islam before making sweeping judgements either way.