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A TNR Online Debate

Are We Winning the "War on Terror"?

Editor's Note: Today we present the final installment of a four-part debate between Philip H. Gordon, a senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of Winning the Right War, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, about the war on terror. The first three parts of the debate can be read here, here, and here.

Dear Phil,

My apologies for taking so long to reply to your considerate response. I was actually in London talking to British officials about Islamic terrorism and how we deal with it. Among other things, I was probing to see whether our "special relationship" had been damaged by America's tactics and mistakes in the "war on terror." You will be relieved: Despite Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the intelligence and security relationship keeps getting closer. Nor did I detect, by the way, any analytical confidence among the British that the Second Iraq War had produced more holy warriors among its enormous Pakistani immigrant population than had the American invasion and NATO occupation of Afghanistan. It is always striking how critics of the Iraq War--and you have certainly been a more thoughtful critic of this campaign than have many on the American Left--can talk endlessly about the generation of jihadists created by our actions in Iraq and our supposed moral failings in our fight against Al Qaeda ("there are millions if not tens of millions of people out there deciding whether they want to be 'with us, or with the terrorists'..."). But they rarely, if ever, talk about how Afghanistan plays into jihadist production. This causation concern seems to be an issue for some only when the questioned actions are deemed by them illegitimate and unnecessary.

I am, however, quite confident that if a British Pakistani cell, decrying America's aggression in Afghanistan, struck inside the United States with a WMD weapon, slaughtering tens of thousands, you would be firm in defending the "war on terror" against those bewailing America's overreach or nation-building delusions. I am also pretty confident that at least after such an attack you would recommend to President Obama that we obliterate the British Pakistanis' Al Qaeda training camps/villages in the Northwest Frontier, even though these actions and the inevitable loss of innocent civilian life in Pakistan may be used by Al Qaeda as a recruitment tool and may convulse our relationship with the Pakistani government. I am less confident that you would remonstrate against the CIA-recommended use of "aggressive interrogation" of the captured British Pakistanis since you would know that thousands more could be murdered in another attack.

Okay, your letter. Re: The Second Iraq War and whether it's a "setback for the war on terror": No, Phil, I don't think it is. It could turn out that way if we do what you and Senator Obama are recommending, that is, evacuate the country tout de suite. Al Qaeda, which is now having a rough time inside Iraq among its erstwhile Sunni Arab allies, would certainly get a new lease on life as everything in Iraq--especially the US-dependent Iraqi Army--collapsed with an American withdrawal. (Since you have only a momentary flirtation in Winning the Right War with the idea that things wouldn't be this bad with a hurried American departure from Iraq, I won't waste time deconstructing the surreal, things-won't-get-worse arguments advanced by what I call the T.E. Lawrence-on-hashish school of Arab fraternity.)

With the Americans gone, the Iraqi Sunni community would likely be back in sectarian hell--an essential state for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Go back and take a look at the early Al Qaeda commentary on the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. If you are worried about Al Qaeda recruitment tools, imagine televised images of Sunni holy warriors waving their weapons and flags over abandoned American bases. (The inevitable Shi'ite conquest of Iraq would probably be slow in coming and not save us from this catastrophe--of course, if I understand Senators Obama and Clinton correctly, they would just send airborne special forces back into Iraq to smite these celebratory jihadists in a timely fashion.)

Al Qaeda's possibilities in Iraq have always been two-sided: great promise or the potential for disaster. The same situation exists, by the way, for the clerical regime in Tehran. If the Iraqi Shiite community collapses into a radicalized mess--something which it absolutely has not yet done--then Iran will certainly win through our "misadventure." However, if the Iraqi Shia hold, if democratic politics among them continue--and watch the way Muqtada Al-Sadr since August 2004 consistently keeps returning to the political system and how he now publicly shows deference to the moderate lodestone of Iraqi politics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani--then the American liberation of the Iraqi Shia will be a huge defeat for Tehran, which has done so much to worsen the violence in the country. I strongly recommend that you read Bartle Bull's "Mission Accomplished" in this month's issue of Prospect magazine, Britain's best journal of ideas. It's a superb, cutting-edge piece on why Iraq is, finally, going the way that many had wanted to see years ago, before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's and General John Abizaid's counter-insurgency negligence and the Sunni onslaught against the Shi'a nearly drove us and the Iraqis over the cliff. Iraq is far from being a lost cause, Phil. Its import for the region and counterterrorism is still by no means baleful. It could turn out to be a disaster for the Middle East and us--I'm certainly not going to deny that possibility. But that die is far from being cast thanks to the surge that most Democrats in Washington publicly opposed.

Your commentary on Al Qaeda and Iraq is just too quick. There is a reason why Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was concerned about Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's unrelentingly vicious anti-Shiite tactics. What do you think looks worse for Al Qaeda: Sunni Arabs talking to Al Jazeera about why it's a good idea to work with the Americans and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, or an American retreat from Iraq? If we hold in Iraq--and this means a substantial troop presence there until at least 2012--and the Iraqis continue to make progress--and, yes, they are making considerable progress, maybe not the rapid progress that Americans always expect (but seldom themselves deliver) but impressive progress nonetheless for a people pulverized by Saddam Hussein and bloodied by insurgency, Sunni holy warriors, and a lame American counterinsurgency effort--then Iraq could well turn out to be the decisive defeat for Al Qaeda.

We didn't go to war in Iraq to thrash Al Qaeda; there were many other compelling reasons to down Saddam. However, the long war in Iraq, precisely because it has been excruciating for the Iraqis themselves, who on both the Sunni and Shiite sides have questioned the morality of Islamic extremism in their midst, makes this a contest where Al Qaeda is actually now losing the hearts-and-minds game that you rightly care so much about. The heroes and villains for the Sunni Arabs in and out of Iraq have become blurred, if not reversed. At the end of Winning the Right War, you express the hope that the outrages of terrorism will turn the tide inside Muslims. That is a good and probably well-founded hope. But what is striking, Phil, is that you don't see that Iraq is integral to this (Arab) Muslim ethical recalculation. Far more than 9/11, the Second Iraq War has upset the intellectual date cart in the Middle East. You seem to think this is bad thing. I don't.

This is not the place to go into a disquisition on Islamic fundamentalism and the Iraq War, but what is noteworthy about Iraq is how few holy warriors have committed themselves to the anti-American, anti-Shiite jihad. Given the enormous growth of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism since the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, given how easy it is for folks to travel to Iraq from all over the Middle East, given how important Iraq is in Islamic history, we should have seen tens of thousands of volunteers. We haven't. Numbers are always tricky in the Middle East (so are public opinion polls, of which you are unwisely fond in WRW). But it appears that the Soviet-Afghan War, a backwater affair against a second-tier infidel that many of the devout easily ignored, attracted many more holy warriors than has America and Britain in Iraq. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots have largely sat out this war. In the Soviet-Afghan conflict, they were instrumental to the jihad-in-Afghanistan missionary work. You seem to think that Iraq is only a plus for Al Qaeda if we stay, and if we leave, our defeat won't aid the jihadists that much, not as much as our continued presence aids their recruiting. But surely we've now seen enough in Iraq, Phil, to know this view is becoming the opposite of the reality on the ground and in the airwaves.

And concerning the meaning of "aggressive," well, it doesn't mean "World War III" or "World War IV," but it does mean preparing for the convergence of state-sponsored and non-state-sponsored terrorism. They don't have to converge. They can both exist separately (for example, Al Qaeda and the clerical regime in Tehran have long track records of terrorism independent from each other). But they definitely can commingle, which is what happened when Iran's ruling mullahs allowed Al Qaeda to traverse their country before and after 9/11. You walk away from this affair, Phil, by asserting in WRW that Al Qaeda and Iran are implacable enemies. Yet the historical record tells something else: Tehran treated Zawahiri for years as the poster-boy of acceptable Sunni radicalism; the 9/11 Commission Report chronicles deeply disturbing Al Qaeda travel in Iran after it became crystal clear that Al Qaeda was a killing machine. The intercepts of an "imprisoned" Al Qaeda in Iran also give one pause.

"Aggressive" means that the US should have a defense budget that allows the manpower and hardware to fight a major war in the Middle East, and if necessary, occupy a country that has used mass-casualty terrorism against the United States. This scenario, with either Syria or the Islamic Republic, in alliance with or independent of Al Qaeda's actions, isn't really that hard to envision. We are just talking about Khobar Towers I, but on a bigger scale. And a Khobar Towers II that was only as lethal as the first attack could easily require the United States to militarily confront Iran--unless we intend to walk away from it, as the Clinton Administration did in 1996. And I have to say, Phil, your qualifications of when you will use force--"much would depend on the details of the case--who exactly sponsored the attack, how certain we were about it, the scale, location, and context of the attack, what targets were available, etc."--make me deeply suspicious that you would take us right back to the Clintonian era, where we criminalized terrorism and militarily did next to nothing. If this isn't "galloping" away from the use of force, it's a very fast trot.

Concerning when and where to strike: If we can locate terrorists in Pakistan, this means absolutely we strike inside Pakistan if Islamabad proves itself unwilling or incapable of eliminating these targets (something which, unfortunately, has sometimes proved true). Air strikes and, yes, special forces deployments if the use of ground troops is called for (and it may well be). Historically, this certainly meant that the United States should not have run from Lebanon after we were bombed (we should have announced troop increases, our intention to stay, and very publicly deposited supplies on Beirut's docks for the construction of American bowling alleys). And we should have doubled down in Somalia. (Why do you think Black Hawk Down was a "disaster," Phil? I thought it was a resounding Ranger victory, one that mortally wounded Somali General Aideed. This became a political disaster in a pre-9/11 era; I think Republicans and Democrats would now likely handle this type of confrontation with a bit more stamina.) I'm not at all in favor of "lashing" out against targets willy-nilly. But if you can find terrorists who've killed Americans, kill them. If you can get someone else to eliminate them, then it might be better to pass the responsibility. (We should review this case by case.)

There is more to be said, Phil, on America's "image" and whether we've really been hurt in the war on terror by Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. I will, however, spare both of us. Simply put: We could be perfect angels and you would be unlikely to see any difference whatsoever in the European willingness to spend treasure and blood in Afghanistan. Our comportment as a nation had nothing to do with the German Air Force's refusal a few years back to fly the two of us out of Herat, Afghanistan. It was night time and thus too dangerous for the Germans to fly. The fear, ugliness, and cost of war, the ideological attachment to soft power, an ingrained habit to let Americans shoulder the economic and ethical burden of lethal global challenges, and fear of terrorist reprisals are what really limits our Western allies from doing more in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I certainly wish Abu Ghraib had never happened, and it's not clear that the punishments for this affair have been sufficiently severe, but I think you are reifying your own understandable disgust with certain American actions into policy recommendations that have relatively little relevance on the streets in Europe and the Middle East. Given all the other things that make Islamic holy warriors, Phil, it just seems dubious to me that you can with such certainty pick supposed American misbehavior as a crucial, lasting factor in generating lethal hatred of the United States. And as an aside, an historical conjecture: I think it's quite likely that if Democrats had been in power in 2001 (and if Bill Clinton had bombed Afghanistan after the attack on the USS Cole, I'll bet you Al Gore would have won the presidential election), a Democratic administration would have done more or less what George Bush did at Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib, like many other American obscenities during war, was as possible under "multilateral" Democrats as "unilateral" Republicans. It's the type of thing that happens when adult supervision during a nasty conflict is lacking.

And one quick remark about democracy in the Muslim world: Support it. We could, for example, do a lot more in Egypt, still the most important Arab country. Tie democratic progress to U.S. aid, especially U.S. military aid (who, by the way, is threatening Egypt in the Middle East?). If Mubarak attacks Saad Eddin Ibrahim and other democratic dissidents, then take away money. If the regime doesn't relent and open up, take away more military money, which doesn't aid the "modernization" of the country--well, at least not positively. And we should, of course, rhetorically blast the regime. Regularly. We can't help everywhere with equal effect, but we can certainly try where it counts most. Also, we can try apprising the Saudi government regularly about what Saudis are doing overseas. There is no good reason why the State Department doesn't publish every three months a public translated compilation of Saudi-supported religious material and missionary activity. If they are funding Wahhabi programs in Europe, America, Central Asia, and the Middle East, then everyone should know it, in detail. If Saudi hands are behind the spread of anti-Semitic material throughout the Muslim world, highlight it. We absolutely need engagement with Muslims, of all stripes. And we shouldn't argue any differently with Muslims in the Middle East than we do with Frenchmen and Germans. Many Westerners, especially on the left, are prone to treat Muslims like children, pulling punches whenever things get invidious. The Bush administration has often done this (less so, however, than earlier administrations). Such honesty, I think, is perhaps the best way to guarantee that we don't have a "clash of civilizations"--something neither of us wants.

I look forward to our next trip to Afghanistan together. It was, without doubt, one of the best trips, with the best companions, that I've ever had.

All best,


By Reuel Marc Gerecht