Here it is, then: September 11th, 2011.
On that black day ten years ago, Nina and I stood on the roof of our Brooklyn home and watched the towers burn, and fall. Our daughter, now in her twenties, was in school at Stuyvesant High, just a couple of blocks from the doomed buildings; we didn’t know until that evening whether she was alive or dead. Our city was shattered, stricken, numb with grief and horror. I lost no family members or close friends, but everybody — everybody — knew someone who had. The awful shock jolted me, as it did so many others, from a comfortable complacence about the security of Western civilization to acute concern, and led me to a decade-long study of Islam, and of the history of the ancient conflict of which this was just the latest engagement.
9/11 was, I think, the most significant historical event of my lifetime. But given the Niagara of commentary leading up to this anniversary — the airwaves and print media have occupied themselves with little else for weeks now, it seems — I haven’t much to add. I will, however, direct you to a retrospective analysis, by STRATFOR’s George Friedman, of the past ten years of the resulting “War On Terror”.
Friedman notes that the security challenge facing the US after 9/11 was of a new kind, and that no traditional framework existed for coping with it:
This particular war — the one that began on 9/11 and swept into Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries — is hard to second-guess because there are those who do not think it is a war. Some people, including President George W. Bush, seem to regard it as a criminal conspiracy. When Bush started talking about bringing al Qaeda to justice, he was talking about bringing them before the bar of justice. Imagine trying to arrest British sailors for burning Washington. War is not about bringing people to justice. It is about destroying their ability to wage war. The contemporary confusion between warfare and criminality creates profound confusion about the rules under which you operate. There are the rules of war as set forth in the Geneva Conventions, and there are criminal actions. The former are designed to facilitate the defense of national interests and involve killing people because of the uniform they wear. The latter is about punishing people for prior action. I have never sorted through what it was that the Bush administration thought it was doing.
This entire matter is made more complex by the fact that al Qaeda doesn’t wear a uniform. Under the Geneva Conventions, there is no protection for those who do not openly carry weapons or wear uniforms or at least armbands. They are regarded as violating the rules of war. If they are not protected by the rules of war then they must fall under criminal law by default. But criminal law is not really focused on preventing acts so much as it is on punishing them. And as satisfying as it is to capture someone who did something, the real point of the U.S. response to 9/11 was to prevent anyone else from doing something — killing and capturing people who have not done anything yet but who might.
The problem is that international law has simply failed to address the question of how a nation-state deals with forces that wage war through terrorism but are not part of any nation-state. Neither criminal law nor the laws of war apply. One of the real travesties of 9/11 was the manner in which the international legal community — the United Nations and its legal structures, the professors of international law who discuss such matters and the American legal community — could not come to grips with the tensions underlying the resulting war. There was an unpleasant and fairly smug view that the United States had violated both the rules of war and domestic legal processes, but very little attempt was made to craft a rule of warfare designed to cope with a group like al Qaeda — organized, covert, effective — that attacked a nation-state.
As U.S. President Barack Obama has discovered, the failure of the international legal community to rapidly evolve new rules of war placed him at odds with his erstwhile supporters. The ease with which the international legal community found U.S. decision makers’ attempts to craft a lawful and effective path “illegal and immoral” (an oft-repeated cliche of critics of post-9/11 policy) created an insoluble dilemma for the United States. The mission of the U.S. government was to prevent further attacks on the homeland. The Geneva Conventions, for the most part, didn’t apply. Criminal law is not about prevention. The inability of the law to deal with reality generated an image of American lawlessness.
The primary mission as of September 12th was to prevent further attacks on American soil. This mission, at least, we have accomplished. But the mission became far less clear after that, and after we embarked on an enormously controversial war in Iraq, and an open-ended campaign in Afghanistan:
Heavy fighting continues in Afghanistan, Iraq is not quite done and new theaters for covert operations are constantly opening and closing. It is the first U.S. campaign — Afghanistan — that actually poses the most vexing problem, one that is simple to express: When is the war over? That, of course, depends on the goal. What is the United States trying to achieve there?
The initial goal of the invasion was to dislodge al Qaeda, overthrow the government that had supported it and defeat the Taliban. The first two goals were accomplished quickly. The third goal has not been accomplished to this day, nor is it likely that the United States will ever accomplish it. Other powers have tried to subdue Afghanistan, but few have succeeded. The Taliban are optimized for the battlefield they fight on, have superior intelligence and have penetrated and are able to subvert government institutions, including the Afghan military. They have the implicit support of elements in a neighboring major nation — Pakistan — that are well beyond American means to intimidate. The United States has no port from which to supply its forces except the one controlled by Pakistan and only complex and difficult supply routes through other countries.
On the other hand, the Taliban cannot defeat the United States, which can stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. But the major U.S. mission in Afghanistan is concluded. Al Qaeda has not used Afghanistan as a primary base since 2002. Al Qaeda in Pakistan, according to the United States, has been crippled. The Taliban, products of Afghanistan for the most part, have no international ambitions. Al Qaeda has relocated to other countries like Yemen and Somalia.
Given this, continued combat in Afghanistan cannot be linked to al Qaeda. It could be said that the reason to go to war in Afghanistan was to prevent al Qaeda’s return. But the fact is that it doesn’t need Afghanistan, and if it did return to Afghanistan, it would be no more dangerous to the United States than it currently is with its bases elsewhere.
In wars, and especially in counterinsurgencies, the mission tends to creep upward. In Afghanistan, the goal is now the transformation of Afghan society into one that is democratic, no longer corrupt by American standards and able to defend itself against the Taliban. This goal does not seem attainable given the relative forces and interests in the country.
Therefore, this war will go on until the United States decides to end it or there is a political evolution in Kabul in which the government orders us out. The point is that the goal has become disengaged from the original intent and is unattainable. Unlike other wars, counterinsurgencies rarely end in victory. They usually end when the foreign forces decide to leave.
Where do we go from here? Obviously we are still confronted by an implacable foe, the same relentless enemy the Christian world has grappled with since the seventh century. Its ideological foundation is no weaker now, and no less inimical to our own, than it was at Poitiers or Vienna. Can we, though, realistically imagine “victory”?
Most likely not:
There is talk of a long war against radical Islam. It had better not be. The Islamic world is more than a billion people and radical Islam is embedded in many places. The idea that the United States has the power to wage an interminable war in the Islamic world is fantasy. This is not a matter of ideology or willpower or any other measures. It is a matter of available forces, competing international interests and American interests.
Ultimately, there are three lessons of the last decade that I think are important. The first is the tremendous success the United States has had in achieving its primary goal — blocking attacks on the homeland. The second is that campaigns of dubious worth are inevitable in war, and particularly in one as ambiguous as this war has been. Finally, all wars end, and the idea of an interminable war dominating American foreign policy and pushing all other considerations to the side is not what is going to happen. The United States must have a sense of proportion, of what can be done, what is worth doing and what is too dangerous to do. An unlimited strategic commitment is the definitive opposite of strategy.
The United States has done as well as can be expected. Over the coming years there will be other terrorist attacks. As it wages war in response, the United States will be condemned for violating international laws that are insensate to reality. At this point, for all its mistakes and errors — common to all wars — the United States has achieved its primary mission. There have been no more concerted terrorist attacks against the United States. Now it is time to resume history.
The article is here.