Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Later

Five years ago today, 19 al Qaeda operatives, with the help of an unknown number of accomplices, hijacked four planes to use them as guided missiles. Two of the planes struck the World Trade Center towers, which were a peculiar obsession for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda; another struck the Pentagon, the most obvious symbol of the U.S. military; and the fourth was brought down when passengers staged a counterattack on the hijackers.

The question we must ask ourselves on this fifth anniversary is, are we safer as a result of the policies implemented by the Bush Administration? (By "we," I refer to the entire world, not just the United States.) I would argue that we are not.

Read more...Five years after the attack, Osama bin Laden remains at large, chiefly because the Bush Administration has diverted its attention from the hunt. President Bush has publicly stated that he considers bringing bin Laden to justice to be a low priority. The CIA task force in charge of finding bin Laden has been disbanded. The U.S. military focus in Afghanistan was shifted to Iraq, beginning in early 2002, only a few weeks after the U.S. invaded and toppled the Taliban regime. Almost five years in, NATO casualties in Afghanistan show no sign of slowing.

Indeed, the Taliban are in control of an increasing portion of the Afghan countryside, and are operating freely, conducting raids in the capital, Kabul, at will. The U.S.'s hand-picked government, led by President Hamid Karzai, has limited real-world authority, in part because it has been unable to provide for many of the basic necessities of life and commerce — particularly basic security. The government of Pakistan has signed a truce with Islamic militants in the border province of Waziristan, with the apparent effect of allowing Taliban and al Qaeda operatives shelter in Pakistan and free passage into and out of Afghanistan.

The U.S.-led war in Iraq has been a disaster for world security. Where once there was a brutal dictator who kept al Qaeda and other militant Islamists out of Iraq, now there is chaos, with a large safe haven for terrorists. Toppling Saddam Hussein did not improve the situation in Iraq, from the point of view of the Iraqi people, from the point of view of American interests, or from the point of view of moderate Muslims around the world. President Bush handed bin Laden the best recruiting tool he could have hoped for, plus a safe haven and an unparalleled live-fire training ground to create an army of militants dedicated to inflicting death and destruction on America for many years to come.

President Bush says that the struggle against international terrorism will be a "long war," carrying on for decades, and yet he fails to see the long-term implications of the missteps he and his administration continue to make in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and elsewhere. We will never defeat al Qaeda militarily, just as Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah with guns and bombs. We must win the hearts and minds of the Middle East, and most especially the next generation of potential terrorist recruits. We must find a way to change the widespread perception that the United States is dedicated to the destruction of Islam, and we can't do that with guns and bombs. We are trying to douse the flames of militant Islamism with gasoline.

What we should have done differently in the last five years is crystal clear: we should have committed the military and intelligence resources necessary to secure Afghanistan and put the Taliban out of action permanently, and to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. (Repeatedly taking out "al Qaeda's #3 man" means little when #1 and #2 slip through your fingers.) We should also have committed the resources necessary to rebuild Afghanistan, to give a greater sense of legitimacy to the new government there. We should have left Saddam Hussein trapped in a very small box in Iraq, confident that his day of reckoning would come soon enough, but we should not have invaded Iraq. Given that we did invade Iraq, we should have committed the resources necessary to secure the country, rather than shrugging off the mayhem that ensued immediately after the invasion and that continues to this day.

The much tougher question, of course, is what should we do now, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The hunt for bin Laden is far more difficult than it would have been in 2001. The Taliban is on the ascendant, as is the insurgency in Iraq. Both situations are sure to get worse before they get even a little bit better. The first step to victory, though, must be to admit the enormous mistakes we have made and commit to changing course.

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