ASCF Report
By Alan W. Dowd

With Washington cutting dealswith the world’s most active state-sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic State carving out a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, Congress and the White House dismembering the U.S. military, and another 9/11 anniversary approaching, it’s time for us to return to first principles on the counterterrorism front. 

“From this day forward,” President George W. Bush declared just days after Manhattan was maimed, “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

Congress agreed, authorizing the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” 

That’s why the war on terror began with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which made common cause with al Qaeda. How things have changed in the intervening years.

Yes, the Taliban was toppled in late 2001. However, President Barack Obama is now trading Taliban commanders for American deserters and pushing hard to shutter the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This catch-and-release approach would have been unimaginable in the days and months after 9/11. 

Yes, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011—an important psychological and tactical victory in the campaign against jihadist terrorism. However, the Obama administration misread it as a strategic success, using bin Laden’s demise to justify its pivot to what can best be described as a pre-9/11 mentality on terrorism.

To be sure, Obama’s approach to terrorism has been shaped by the deep imprint of his predecessor. Troop deployments, drone strikes and intelligence programs begun by Bush continued under Obama—but only for a time and in a much more constrained manner. From the outset of his administration, Obama wanted to escape the shadows of 9/11. Thus, the Obama White House expungedthe “global war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements. Obama’s secretary of homeland security even used the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name. 

On the diplomatic front, the Obama administration began secret talks with Tehran’s terrorist tyranny and ultimately made a deal with the Islamic Republic aimed at delaying its nuclear breakout. What does Iran have to do with the global war on terrorism? Perhaps more than we know. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), says the still-classified materials exploited by SEAL Team 6 during the bin Laden raid contain information about “Iran’s role, influence and acknowledgment of enabling al Qaeda operatives to pass through Iran.” Michael Pregent, who viewed those materials during his service with the DIA, tells The Weekly Standard: “The documents indicate that Iran facilitated the safe passage of al Qaeda operatives [and] provided safe houses during travel.” In fact, the 9/11 Commission concluded years ago that “There is strong evidence…Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.”

Put another way, Iran harbored al Qaeda operatives and abetted al Qaeda’s war on America. In every way, it is a hostile regime—and a terrorist regime. It has played a role in terrorist attacks against America both before and after 9/11: the hostage ordeal in Tehran (1979-81), the Hezbollah attacks on U.S. Marines in Beirut (1983), the Khobar Towers bombing (1996) and the proxy war in Iraq, which claimed 500 American troops (2003-2011). 

On the battlefront, the Obama administration pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq and, after a brief buildup, ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan—two of the main fronts of America’s war on terror. “We have no realistic way to deal with threats in this region without bases in eastern Afghanistan,” warns Gen. David Petraeus.

Whether or not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a nexus of terrorism—as Bush, President Bill Clinton and his Justice Department,Congress, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Colin Powell all concluded—or a “dumb…rash war”—as Obama concluded—Iraq is undeniably a central front in the war today.

Obama’s supporters blame Bush for invading Iraq and thus upending what passed for regional stability before 9/11, while Bush’s supporters blame Obama for withdrawing from Iraq, gambling away the gains made during the surge, and thus opening the door to the emergence of ISIS. That debate will go on for decades. But this much we know: Iraq has vexed U.S. policymakers for the better part of 40 years. Washington tried cooperation and realpolitik in the 1980s; a police-action war and sanctions in the 1990s; no-fly zones and punitive airstrikes before 9/11; regime change and waist-deep engagement after 9/11; benign neglect and hands-off disengagement after 2011; and limited airstrikes after the ISIS blitzkrieg. In other words, perhaps Iraq was never a problem to be solved or a mistake to be corrected, but rather a problem to be managed.

      On the home front, where support for foreign-policy initiatives is won or lost, Obama promised that “core al Qaeda” was “on the path to defeat,” compared ISIS to a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms” and assured Americans “the tide of war is receding.” None of this was true:

  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called 2014 “the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.”
  • ISIS, al Qaeda, AQAP, AQIM, Boko Haram, al Shabaab and the rest of bin Laden’s heirs are surging. There are 41 jihadist-terror groups  in 24 countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004. 
  •  ISIS is arguably stronger than al Qaeda was on 9/11. It controls more territory (34,000 square miles), commands more footsoldiers, reigns over a population of some 2 million, looks and acts like a nation-state, and has fought the U.S.-led air armada to a stalemate. Plus, ISIS is attracting a steady flow of recruits to its death creed (1,000 per month) and is spreading beyond Iraq and Syria, with affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and Egypt’s Sinai. It’s no wonder why FBI Director James Comey describes ISIS as a bigger domestic threat than al Qaeda.

That brings us back to those first principles of the 9/11 era—and why we must return to them.

1. America is at war. This president may not like the term “war on terror,” and he may want to turn the page on a decade of war. But as Gen. Jim Mattis explains, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over.” The next president and the next Congress must recognize that we are at war with a determined enemy—a constellation of states and stateless groups that seek to overturn the liberal global order established after World War II. It’s a real war with many fronts. 

Halfhearted military interventions will not win this war. More than a year into the anti-ISIS air campaign, 75 percent of warplanes launched are returning to base without releasing their weapons. Consider this comparison: The average number of strike sorties per day against ISIS is 11, with an average of 43 weapons releases per day; the average number of strike sorties per day in the early phases of the Iraq War was 596, with an average of 1,039 weapons releases per day; the average number of strike sorties per day in the early phases of Afghanistan was 86, with an average of 230 weapons releases per day; the average number of strike sorties per day during the Kosovo War was 183, with an average of 364 weapons releases per day.

2. Fighting the enemy over there is preferable to fighting it here at home. That’s why the U.S. military’s post-9/11 campaign of campaigns—what some troops called “the away game”—was so crucial. By taking the fight to the enemy, U.S. forces took away its sanctuaries and shifted the battlefront. By pulling back and pulling out, Washington has taken pressure off the enemy. “The moment they cease to be fought against, they grow,” as Blair observes. 

Bush made his share of mistakes; all presidents do, especially wartime presidents. But he deserves credit for recognizing something that many Americans failed to grasp: 9/11 altered the very DNA of U.S. national security. Deterrence would not be an option with an enemy that, in bin Laden’s words, “loves death.” Containment would not be effective in the face of a global guerilla insurgency. Giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt would be irresponsible. Treating Iran and other radicalized regimes like normal nation-states would be dangerous.

Bush’s post-9/11 policies put America on the offensive—and the enemy on its heels. That’s not the case any longer. Instead, as Mattis observes, it’s the United States that has withdrawn into a “reactive crouch.” 

3. This is the very worst time to cut the reach, role and resources of the U.S. Armed Forces. The payoff of the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration will be “The smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history,” as then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in 2011.

As the Islamic State murders its way across Syria and Iraq, as the Islamic Republic uses terrorism and proxies to undermine U.S. interests across the Middle East, as the terror storm lashes against allies in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the region needs more from civilization’s first responder and last line of defense—not less.

Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.