Loose Canons

Quo Vadis, Mars?

The War on Terror: why haven't we won it yet?

By 9.12.11

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The most remarkable thing about the war we are in is that we haven't won it yet.

This war didn't begin on 9/11: it began in August 1996 when the London newspaper Al Quds al-Arabi published Osama bin Laden's fatwa against America. Now is it ten years and one day after 9/11. U.S. forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, in Iraq for more than eight years and even longer in countless other corners of the world where special operations and CIA paramilitary forces work covertly.

Whether you count this as a fifteen-year war or begin your accounting on 9/11, it is the longest war in U.S. history. Although bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and many other enemies are dead, we have not won the war and victory not only isn't ours: we haven't even defined what it would be.

Where do we go from here? What path does the god of war dictate we travel if we do not heed his warnings? Quo vadis, Mars?

Much of what we learned about our enemy, and how he fights, we knew before 9/11 but hadn't learned. We saw Islamism do its best to blow up the World Trade center in 1993 and fail because the terrorists didn't use a bomb large enough to accomplish their objective. We saw the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000. We saw, but we did not learn.

We knew then, and have suffered painful lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Islamic terrorists abjure the Law of War. By that Law's definition, terrorists aren't lawful combatants because they intentionally attack civilians and -- almost always -- do not fight in uniform or under a national symbol. Even some in uniform reject the Law of War: Saddam's forces repeatedly ambushed U.S. troops by feigning surrender and then opening fire on those who advanced to capture them. This, like attacks on civilians, is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. But so what? Only we fight by the rules. This enemy follows its own rules, rules prescribed in its own barbaric code.

We have learned some things. We knew before 9/11 that al Qaeda and the other largest, most dangerous terrorist groups could not pose an existential danger without the sponsorship of nations. But, we were told, no matter how many of them we killed, more would flock to their banners because of our "aggression." We couldn't kill them fast enough, said the experts.

But, to borrow a phrase, yes we can. By the time bin Laden was turned into chum, al Qaeda's capability had been dramatically reduced by our special forces' relentless pursuit of its leaders and operational groups. Joint Special Operations Command -- JSOC -- has, for years, conducted operations against terrorist leaders and cells almost every night.

According to several sources, the pace has been tremendous: sometimes eight to twelve operations in a single night. But this comes at a price. We don't have enough people to keep up this pace forever. And the enemy knows this.

Which brings us to Lesson One: terrorist operations are cheap and defeating terrorist groups one by one is too expensive, in blood and treasure. It is just as British economic historian Niall Ferguson said last year: America is approaching the point at which it will no longer be able to defend itself. It is not just terrorism we must defend against but also cyberwarfare, anti-satellite weapons, and other threats that are far cheaper for the aggressors to create than it is for us to defend against them. And yet we are about to cut defense spending massively because our economy is weak and our president believes defense is less important than his ineffective "jobs" and "stimulus" programs.

Lesson Two is that by disabling terrorist networks -- killing their leaders, destroying their bases, and interrupting their finances -- we are tactically reducing the threat, but the reduction is only temporary. Though a terrorist leader may be indispensable to his group, he is not to the movement. Terrorist fighters can shift among groups easily. Terrorist groups can come and go, but as long as the movement they represent and the ideology that propels it remain undefeated, we cannot win this war.

Mars is not just a false god, but an evil that will always haunt our world. His earthly prophets point us to the path we need to follow in the coming years if we are to win this war. Both Sun Tzu, who wrote about 2300 years ago, and Carl von Clausewitz, who followed him by almost two millennia, assumed that a nation fighting an enemy could identify that enemy clearly and easily. That we have not done.

As I wrote on 9/11, in an article published in the Washington Times the following day, the nations that sponsor terrorism are our enemy. It is they who make terrorism an existentialist threat. And we have failed comprehensively to hold them to account for their acts.

Consider how our false ally, Saudi Arabia, spoke of us on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. In an editorial published last Saturday, the government-controlled Saudi newspaper Arab News wrote: 

… as it flexed its military, economic and political might in two wars, Washington forgot, or deliberately overlooked, the fact that its foreign policies, globally and toward the Arab and Islamic world in particular, were a crucial factor in generating the forms of violence it was combating…

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the war on terror, to use its popular designation, became a war on Islam. The West was and is still not fighting to eradicate terrorism. Terrorism is just a tool. It is fighting to defeat an ideology. And given the global supremacy of the Western media, the net effect has been a distorted picture of Islam.

There is one compelling truth to what the Saudis wrote: terrorism is a tool the Islamists employ to defeat our ideology, which is expressed in the freedoms preserved by the Constitution. The truth about Islam is that its core beliefs -- its ideology -- compel violence against non-believers. It is time for our leaders to say that and to pose the choice for its believers between the freedoms we defend and the slavery they preach. It is much cheaper for the Saudis to preach than it is for us to attack what they say. Oil is their insurance policy. It is in our power to invalidate that insurance, but our politicians don't have the fortitude to do it.

We cannot defeat the Islamist ideology by pretending Islam is a religion of peace. That way is the way of the appeaser. Those such as Obama who counsel compromise with Islamic ideology follow in the footsteps of Neville Chamberlain, not Thomas Jefferson.

Did we defeat communism by saying it wasn't the problem but that the KGB and the Soviet army were?

Sun Tzu wrote that it is of supreme importance in war to attack the enemy's strategy. The enemy's strategy is -- by subornation, propaganda, and violence -- to establish an Islamic caliphate across the globe. Terrorism is only one of the tactics it uses. When Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" he was not only speaking the truth, he was -- as he well understood -- fighting an ideological war. To defeat the Islamist ideology, we have to attack it head-on. It is just as evil, as oppressive, and just as hegemonistic as communism.

If we are to remain free, we cannot accept the continuation of the terror sponsors' war against us as some "new normal." This is not a Clausewitzian war in which massed armies fight on the poppy fields of Europe. It is something else, something just as dangerous to our future.

America wants, needs -- and, yes, is entitled to -- a return to the "old normal." To get it back we have to fight this war -- ideologically and kinetically -- in a manner calculated to win it decisively. As long as the enemy and its ideology remain undefeated, that cannot occur.

We face two futures. One is the goal of the Islamists in which America is no longer free and its ability to defend its freedoms. The other is a world in which nations no longer sponsor terrorism against us and Islamic fascism is sent to the ash heap of history. The results of next year's presidential election may be the last chance we have to make the choice. Quo vadis, America?

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.