The Landing Zone | 10.14.11
By Alan W. Dowd

We all know that the first counterstrike against al-Qaida came on 9/11 itself, when an ad hoc militia of citizen-soldiers stormed the cockpit of Flight 93. What many Americans seem to forget is that what began on Flight 93 continued in earnest on Oct. 7, 2001 - the day U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. This is the other anniversary, the one that most Americans overlook.

It's difficult to understand why. After all, Oct. 7 marks the beginning of the longest shooting war in American history. It has claimed some 1,800 American lives. But the sacrifice has not been in vain - Oct. 7 also marks the beginning of the end of an untenable status quo in the Middle East.

Think about it: ten Octobers ago, dictatorships - too many of them backed by the United States - dominated the greater Middle East. From North Africa to Afghanistan, a toxic mix of monarchs and madmen, tyrants and terrorists, held the reins of power. No one in the region looked to the democratic examples offered by Turkey or Israel. And the region's reformers, if there were any, kept quiet.

Ten years later, the reformers are shouting. And they aren't chanting "Death to America!" or "Long live bin Laden!" Most are demanding freedom, opportunity, justice and an end to corruption. In Libya, they are even demanding American flags, American fast food and American cars.

Contrast that with ten Octobers ago, when Libyans were not permitted to express anything at odds with Qaddafi's diktats and fiats, and certainly were not permitted to wave Old Glory. In fact, ten Octobers ago, Qaddafi was stockpiling WMDs, providing refuge to terrorists and erasing political opponents. Today, Qaddafi's regime of fear is toppled and the Libyan people are trying to build a free society.

Ten Octobers ago, the Egyptian government had the veneer of stability, and even tried to foist itself off as a democracy. In truth, Egypt was neither stable nor democratic. Today's Egypt may not be stable, but it is on the path toward democracy. If the Egyptian people make it, they will be a beacon within the Arab world.

Ten Octobers ago, the Afghan government was run by terrorists and allowed its territory to be used as a training ground for 9/11's mass murderers; today, the Afghan government is fighting terrorists and offers its territory as a base for counterterrorism operations across south Asia.

Ten Octobers ago, Saddam Hussein menaced the region, brutalized his people, made common cause with terrorists and plotted revenge on America; today, Iraq is free, fights terrorism and stands with America. Best of all, Iraq's Purple Thumb Revolution showed Iraq's Arab and Persian neighbors that self-government is possible. The lesson came at a high cost: 4,800 coalition troops (mostly Americans), tens of thousands of Iraqis, and hundreds of billions in treasure. Whether Iraq's freedom was worth that sacrifice will be debated for decades, but whether that sacrifice had an impact on the region's political landscape is beyond debate. Long before there was an Arab Spring, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami gazed at post-authoritarian Iraq and announced "the autumn of autocrats." America, he concluded, had "helped usher in this unprecedented moment."

As Lebanon's Walid Jumblatt adds, "This process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq, but when I saw the Iraqi people voting ... it was the start of a new Arab world."

Indeed, ten Octobers ago, the fall of dictators in Tunis and Tripoli, Cairo and Kabul, seemed unlikely; today, dictators remaining in power seems unlikely.

The campaign of campaigns that began on Oct. 7 was a key factor in this transformation. After all, when U.S. forces swept into Afghanistan and then Iraq, they not only toppled two horrific regimes, but they pulled the plug on the old order that relied on strongmen to deliver stability. Among the lessons of 9/11 was that the stability those strongmen offered was nothing more than a mirage.

To be sure, upending the status quo has brought uncertainty and setbacks:

• In Lebanon and proto-Palestine, for instance, the ballot box has paradoxically empowered enemies of freedom.
• Saudi Arabia reminds us that when our vital interests are at stake, there are limits to how hard we will push for reform. Iran's failed Twitter Revolution - especially when contrasted with Libya's NATO-aided revolution - reminds us that freedom sometimes needs a helping hand.
• Pakistan is schizophrenic at best and duplicitous at worst. Afghanistan's ability to stand on its own is an open question. In Libya, Egypt and Iraq, the world is anxiously monitoring the struggle between liberals and Islamists. And freedom's hold is fragile all across the liberated lands. But there is a sense, finally, that freedom has a fighting chance in the Middle East.

It all began 10 Octobers ago.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.