The Landing Zone | 9.10.15
By Alan W. Dowd

Gen. Tommy Franks called 9/11 “a crease in history.” Fourteen Septembers later, the former CENTCOM commander’s observation remains an apt metaphor for that terrible Tuesday morning. By maiming Manhattan and attacking America’s military headquarters, al Qaeda created a fault line that changed how Americans piece together the past, perceive the present and prepare for the future. Our world has changed many ways in the intervening years - some for the better, some for the worse.

Let’s start where 9/11 was conceived. Afghanistan is better today than it was on September 11, 2001, if for no other reason than this: On 9/11, Afghanistan was under the rule of Mohammad Omar’s medieval Taliban regime, which turned the country into a torture chamber and ceded vast stretches of territory to al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden would use Afghanistan as a safe-house to plot and plan an asymmetric war against America that crescendoed with the bloodiest terror attack in American history. Today, bin Laden and Omar have been sent to wherever mass-murderers go when they die. And Afghanistan is governed by democratically-elected leaders committed to fighting terrorism rather than abetting it.

The security indicators are not perfect, but they’re pointing in the right direction: 332,000 Afghan troops trained and equipped (up from 6,000 in 2003); 29,000 local police on the beat; less than five coalition fatalities per month (down from more than 100 in 2009). Likewise, Afghanistan’s economic and social indicators are positive: Year-to-year GDP growth is averaging 10.5 percent since 2003. Total electricity capacity is four times higher than in 2002. There are 10 million Afghan children in school - more than five times the amount under the Taliban - and Afghanistan’s classrooms are finally open to girls. Fifty-five percent of Afghans say their country is headed in the right direction.

But Afghanistan’s transition out of the darkness has come at a high cost: 2,215 Americans and hundreds of troops from other countries.

The situation next-door in Iran is not as good for the United States. Thanks in part to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, in part to the ebbing U.S. presence in the region, and in part to the nuclear deal inked in July, Iran’s terrorist tyranny is in a stronger position today than on 9/11.

The president, hoping Iran lives up to his hopes, may believe Iran can be brought in from the cold. But the hard truth is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a revolutionary regime committed to using violence and terror to challenge the established global order. Thus, Tehran engages in hostage-taking; threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz; provides weapons, training and financial aid to Hamas and Hezbollah; arms and trains fighters in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon; and props up Bashar Assad’s beastly regime in Syria. Moreover, Tehran waged a proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the blood of 500 American troops on its hands.

The nuclear deal will provide Tehran with more resources to sow chaos. As Dennis Ross, a former advisor to President Obama, observes, the deal allows Tehran to “regain access to as much as $150 billion in frozen accounts…it is inconceivable that the Revolutionary Guards won’t receive a payoff that they can use for aggressive purposes with the Shiite militias throughout the region.”

Those militias are actively engaged in Iraq, as the strangest enemy-of-my-enemy coalition in history - Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Kurds and Turks, liberal democracies and revisionist autocracies, reactionary monarchies and revolutionary theocracies - fights an al Qaeda offshoot known as ISIS. Whether or not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a front in the post-9/11 campaign against terror - as President Bush, Congress, President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair concluded - or to be avoided as a “dumb…rash war” - as President Obama concluded - Iraq is undeniably a central front in the war today.

We cannot discuss Iraq without discussing the WMD issue. President Bush’s decision to launch a preventive war in Iraq was based partly on worries that Baghdad would use or lose its WMDs. In the post-9/11 world, the Bush administration concluded - and Congress agreed - that giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt would be irresponsible. But the invasion revealed only the skeleton of a WMD program. The irony is that President Obama, intent on avoiding another Iraq, stayed out of Syria, which increased the likelihood that Damascus would use or lose its WMDs. In fact, both have occurred.

Realists use Iraq’s postwar war to explain why America should avoid toppling regimes and upsetting the status quo. Idealists see the tragedy of Iraq as a consequence not of post-9/11 regime change, but pre-9/11 realpolitik. President Obama’s supporters blame President Bush for invading Iraq and thus upending what passed for regional stability before 9/11, while President Bush’s supporters blame President Obama for withdrawing from Iraq and thus gambling away all the gains made during the surge.

However, the “Who lost Iraq?” debate is not as black and white as the two sides suggest: Unlike 2003, when the American people and Congress strongly supported invading Iraq, there was no consensus to stay in Iraq in 2011. Moreover, the 2011 withdrawal timetable was set by the Bush administration. Given that the Obama administration was committed to withdrawing from Iraq, there was nothing surprising about its eagerness to follow that timetable. Regrettably, nor was there anything surprising about the results.

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 more airstrikes after the ISIS blitzkrieg. Put another way, perhaps Iraq isn’t a problem to be solved or a mistake to be corrected, but rather a problem to be managed.

Africa is in worse condition than it was in 2001. Egypt has weathered a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Washington ultimately supported a brutal military coup that restored some semblance of order but in the process toppled Egypt’s first democratic government. Libya has descended into tribal anarchy, and increasingly resembles Somalia. Kenya has been bloodied by the rise of jihadist terror. Parts of Nigeria are under control of ISIS-franchise Boko Haram. The French military continues to fight a low-grade war against jihadists in Mali.

On the positive side, Washington has more tools today than in 2001 to respond to Africa’s hot spots: a regional command focused on Africa, a counterterrorism base in Djibouti, a network of airstrips for conducting drone strikes, a rapid-reaction Marine unit, ongoing initiatives to fight the spread of disease.

To the north, NATO is bigger (up from 19 members in 2001 to 28 today) but arguably weaker. NATO headquarters has been begging members to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense for a decade. Yet only four NATO members meet that standard, and virtually every member is investing less in defense today than in 2001: Britain invested 2.5 percent of GDP on defense in 2001, and is using accounting tricks to remain above the 2-percent threshold. Turkey invested 5 percent in 2001, 1.7 percent today; France 2.5 percent in 2001, 1.8 percent today; Germany 1.5 percent in 2001, 1.2 percent today; Italy 2 percent in 2001, 1 percent today. In fact, European defense spending shrank by 15 percent in the decade after 9/11; the United States now accounts for 75 percent of NATO’s defense spending, up from 50 percent during the Cold War.

Triggered by the 9/11 attacks, the Afghanistan campaign marked the first and only time NATO invoked its collective-defense mechanism known as Article 5. Yet some allies put limits on how, where and when they engaged the enemy; some allies didn’t permit their fighter-bombers to carry bombs; and the United States contributed 71 percent of all forces in Afghanistan.

With the U.S. “leading from behind” in Libya, NATO was found woefully lacking in precision munitions, targeting capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, drones and command-and-control—just about everything needed to conduct a modern air war. This is what happens when nations stop investing in defense. And so, as Russian tanks rumble back to life, NATO is scrambling to rebuild its deterrent strength.

Russia is militarily stronger and literally bigger today than it was on 9/11. Russia has increased military spending 108 percent since 2004. On the strength of that buildup, Moscow has unveiled plans to field 2,300 new tanks and 600 new warplanes the next ten years; seized parts of Georgia; deployed soldiers scrubbed of insignia to wage “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine; annexed Crimea; fortified its Arctic military presence; and claimed the entire North Pole.

That provides a bridge to North America. Focused on the terror threat, Washington has spent hundreds of billions on homeland security since 9/11. Has it paid off? Yes and no. There have been no mass-casualty attacks on the order of 9/11, but there have been some very close calls: Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in 2009 and the failed Times Square car bomb in 2010. Plus, there have been several smaller-scale attacks inspired by the international jihadist movement: the 2009 Ft. Hood shooting, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and 2015 Marine recruiting-center attack.

Defense spending climbed from $316 billion in FY2001 to $690 billion in FY2010, before tumbling into the bipartisan chasm known as sequestration. The defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent today—headed for just 2.8 percent by 2018. That post-9/11 increase may seem sizable; however, as the Congressional Budget Office notes, in inflation-adjusted terms, DoD’s base budget increased by just 31 percent between FY2000 and FY2014—“an annual average growth rate of 1.9 percent.” As outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno puts it, “We have increasing demands on our military, while we continue to have decreasing resources in our military.”

Elsewhere in the Americas, Mexico is less stable than it was on 9/11. Mexico’s narco-insurgency has claimed 138,000 people since 2006. Beijing is wooing Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Argentina and Colombia with lucrative resource-development deals. And Moscow is reviving its military ties in the Americas, selling arms to eight countries in this hemisphere.

Across the Pacific, North Korea has an estimated 20 nuclear devices—more than it did on 9/11.

Like Russia, China is literally larger than it was on 9/11, having turned disputed atolls in the South China Sea into man-made islands that “are clearly military in nature,” according to Adm. Harry Harris, commander of PACOM. China’s official military spending has grown by an average 14 percent annually since 2000—a 210-percent increase—enabling it to buy, build and steal power-projecting warships, fifth-generation warplanes, a bristling arsenal of ship-killing missiles and sophisticated information-warfare capabilities. This past summer, Beijing showed off some of its multi-dimensional arsenal in what Jane’s Defense called “the largest-ever display of firepower” by China’s navy—and in a massive data hack compromising 21.5 million Americans. U.S. officials describe it as perhaps the “the most devastating cyberattack in our nation’s history.”

For a fleeting moment after 9/11, there was a national consensus about America’s purpose in the world. But as President Obama has observed, “Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national-security issues in tatters.” That assessment is accurate but frightening. Given the growing number of threats buffeting post-9/11 America—al Qaeda’s asymmetric war, China’s cyberattacks, Russia’s hybrid warfare, the Islamic State’s franchise jihad, Iran’s proxy wars, North Korea’s nukes—national unity on national security is sorely needed.

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