Fallows argues that the war on global terror networks is over. Al Qaeda, as a functional organization, has been destroyed. The threat of terrorism has not ended (and might never end), but the threat from a cohesive international organization with operational capacity has passed. What we face now, those inspired by the movement, is a fundamentally different challenge that requires a different approach. We won. So let us celebrate our victory, publicize the thoroughness of the destruction of Al Qaeda, and open a new chapter in our approach to security.
Fallows refers several times to a quote from David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert first for the Australian army, then the Pentagon, and now the State Department:
Does Al Qaeda still constitute an 'existential' threat? I think it does but not for the obvious reasons. ... It is not the people Al Qaeda might kill that is the threat. Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It's Al Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.So, how did we win? After the US action in Afghanistan Al Qaeda's training camps were dismantled, and their operatives were arrested, detained, and killed by the thousands, including some of top leadership circle. Moreover effective intelligence work by the US monitoring Al Qaeda's communications, travel, and finances has largely closed down the organization's operational capacity. Fallows quotes former DHS official Seth Stodder: "Their command structure is gone, their Afghan sanctuary is gone, their ability to move around and hold meetings is gone, their financial and communications networks have been hit hard." Kilcullen concludes "The Al Qaeda that existed in 2001 simply no longer exists. In 2001 it was a relatively centralized organization, with a planning hub, a propaganda hub, a leadership team, all within a narrow geographic area. All that is gone, because we destroyed it."
With Al Qaeda gone what we have seen instead are attacks by self-starter groups, generally inspired to some degree by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But Fallows argues that lacking Al Qaeda's organizational abilities the US is unlikely to face another 9/11-scale attack. This is generally not due to DHS and our increased security focus, which Fallows criticizes (in part on the same principle I raised in this post), but rather due to the structural strengths of American society. Arab and Muslim immigrants to the US assimilate far more effectively and thoroughly than in Europe. While ghettoized European Arabs riot and protest, American Arabs have higher than average incomes, education levels, and business-ownership rates than the American population as a whole. If the primary source of terrorism in the post-Al Qaeda era is indigenous, disaffected Muslims and Arabs, the US can count itself relatively secure. And it is not our paranoia that will protect us--quite the opposite, it is our open and welcoming culture that will provide our security. This, of course, means that we must strive to preserve our openess and welcoming atmosphere, which will necessitate a 180-degree reversal of our current approach to security. We cannot afford to alienate our Arab population through policies like racial profiling. What made sense in a time of organized international terror networks does not make sense now.
Finally, Fallows argues that while the US may have inflamed Muslim opinion against itself, so has Al Qaeda turned off the Muslim public towards them. Even as anti-American sentiment has risen in the Middle East, there has been no corresponding rise in opinion towards Al Qaeda's ideal of Islam. Attacks on Arab civilians by Al Qaeda in Iraq and Jordan soured many Arabs on Al Qaeda. Fallows quotes Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland: "What we see in the polls is that many people would like Bin Laden and Zarqawi to hurt America. But they do not want Bin Laden to rule their children."
So if Al Qaeda is no longer a threat, what does that mean for our security strategy? First it means (not surprisingly) that Iraq is a complete disaster. Bin Laden no longer has the ability to do real damage to the United States, but, Fallows argues, drawing us into a war in Asia that we couldn't win was central to his strategy (although Bin Laden thought the war would be in Afghanistan rather than Iraq). Bin Laden's plan was to do to the Americans what the mujahideen did to the Soviets. In that respect, even in obscurity he continues to hurt us. We're operating according to his playbook. His plan was to engage us in a war where primitive weapons could destroy our domestic morale, economic strength, military reputation, and moral leadership, and Iraq is accomplishing all of these goals. 9/11 was, in the words of one security analyst, "superpower baiting", and we took the bait.
Fallows does not provide any easy answers on Iraq, but he does argue for a broad-reaching rethinking of security. The wartime approach must go. The state of fear created by the metaphor of global war disserves our security interests in every possible respect. As we've seen time and again, overreaction is the fuel on which terrorists feed. But a wartime approach condones and even promotes overreaction. Additionally it frames our options. In a time of war, diplomacy and soft power are always lower priorities. Wartime creates polarization, and, as we saw in Lebanon, desensitizes the policy-making apparatus to the specific relevant details of the diverse groups who oppose us.
Our mission, according to Fallows, is now comprised of three parts: domestic protection, continued pursuit of the remnants of Al Qaeda, and an "all-fronts diplomatic campaign". On the last point, Fallows quotes Dwight Eisenhower's 1958 State of the Union: "The only answer to a regime that wages total cold war is to wage total peace. This means bringing to bear every asset of our personal and national lives upon the task of building the conditions in which security and peace can grow." The soft power resources at our disposal today, Fallows argues, are far greated than we possessed in 1958. We are more ethnically diverse, wealthier, endowed with stronger universities, charities, and NGO's, and our leading companies are integrated into economies around the globe.
Fallows closes with a hypothetical address to the nation:
My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people -- and where the conscience of the world's people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and ot all other historic standards of decency.
Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist -- and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk -- especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.
We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks -- above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation's growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development -- people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world's scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast -- and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the environment, ot develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people's lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put in the hands of individuals or small groups.
The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges -- and opportunities. With quiet pride we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face.