9/11 and the nine year war
It has now been nine years since al Qaeda attacked the United States. And it has been nine years of America primarily focusing on the Islamic world. Over this period of time, the United States has engaged in two multi-year, multi-divisional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, inserted forces in other countries in smaller operations and conducted a global covert campaign against al Qaeda and other radical jihadist groups.
In order to understand the last nine years, we must understand the first 24 hours of the war — and recall our own feelings in those 24 hours. First, the audacious nature of the attack was both shocking and frightening. Second, we did not know what was coming next.
At the root of our panic was a profound lack of understanding of al Qaeda, particularly its capabilities and intentions. Since we did not know what was possible, our only prudent course was to prepare for the worst. Nothing symbolized this more than the fear that al Qaeda had acquired nuclear weapons and that they would use them against the United States. The evidence was minimal, but the consequences would be overwhelming.
What happened was that an act of terrorism was allowed to redefine U.S. grand strategy. The United States operates with a grand strategy derived from the British — maintaining the balance of power. For the United Kingdom, maintaining that balance in Europe protects any one power from emerging that could unite the continent and build a fleet to invade Britain or block its access to the mainland.
The Americans elevated that grand strategy to a global level. Having blocked the Soviet Union from hegemony over Europe and Asia, the United States proceeded with a goal, like that of the United Kingdom, to nip potential regional hegemons in the bud.
The U.S. war with Iraq in 1990-91 and the war with Serbia/Yugoslavia in 1999 are examples of this strategy. It involved coalition warfare, shifting America’s weight from side to side and using minimal force to disrupt the plans of regional aspirants to gain power.
The most significant effect of 9/11 was that it knocked the United States off its strategy. Rather than adapting its standing global strategy to address the counterterrorism issue, America became understandably obsessed with a single region — the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush.
Nine years later, though, with no clear end in sight, the question is whether this continued focus is strategically rational for the United States since it leaves the rest of the world uncovered. It is difficult to make the case to remain in Afghanistan since our strategic interest there is minimal. Our justification for the war in Afghanistan was that al Qaeda launched its attacks from there. But al Qaeda can launch attacks from Yemen or anywhere so that justification is no longer valid. Moreover, managing al Qaeda today does not require nation building in Afghanistan.
The question we should be asking now is, what does the United States lose elsewhere while it focuses on the future of Kandahar?
The threat of terrorism cannot be the focus of the United States and its foreign policy. America has done well in suppressing it over the past nine years, and this has come at a cost to other regions — a cost that can’t be sustained indefinitely and a cost that could result in challenges more threatening than a rising Islamist militancy. It is time for the United States to settle into a long-term strategy of managing terrorism as best as it can while not neglecting the rest of its interests.
After nine years, the issue is not what to do in Afghanistan but how the global power can return to managing all of its global interests, along with the war on al Qaeda. The world’s only global power cannot be captive to this single threat.