Commentary

The War on Terror: Two Years Hence

By Subodh Atal
September 11, 2003

By September 11, 2002, on the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, much had been achieved in the war on terror. Al Qaeda forces had been defeated in Afghanistan and the Taliban rulers had been ousted. The United States was leading a broad international anti-terror effort. Funding sources for Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups were being tracked down and blocked. There was hope that Afghanistan could limp back to normalcy and thwart the efforts of terrorists to use it again as a launching pad for operations.

At first glance, things look even more promising at the upcoming second anniversary of 9/11. Individual Al Qaeda terrorists continue to be detained around the world and many have ended up in U.S. custody. Saddam Hussein is on the run and his Ba’athist regime has been overthrown. The region remained uncommonly quiet for several weeks during the summer, with an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in place. Syria is reported to have shut down offices of Hamas and Hezbollah. Even North Korea has agreed to the U.S. demand for multi-lateral talks.

But it is hardly time to celebrate yet. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai’s dictates apply only within Kabul. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have been resurrected in Pakistan, and are staging increasingly bold attacks on U.S.-led military forces, Karzai’s army, and foreign aid workers. Threats from the region still reverberate all the way to U.S. shores, and Al Qaeda has carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia against American targets. A primary reason for the turn of events in Afghanistan is the change in focus to Iraq in the past year. With military and intelligence assets diverted to overthrowing Saddam, and then pacifying Iraq, the Taliban and their Al Qaeda friends got a reprieve, allowing them to regroup.

It is not clear that Saddam’s ouster will make America more secure from terror. Iraq promises to become a new flashpoint for an anti-U.S. jihad, keeping American forces tied down for years to come. And while the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may have brought a momentary halt to Mideast violence, neither side is making substantive moves expected by the other, while groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are using the lull to re-arm. Both sides appear to be making the right noises to keep the United States off their backs.

Giving the Bush administration just enough to declare victory is a nuanced policy practiced by other nations, such as Syria, which has closed terrorist group offices but continues to act as a conduit for “jihad-ists” headed into Iraq. For its part, Iran has learned the Iraq lesson well; it is clearly on a path towards nuclearization. And the Bush administration has still not come clean on Saudi Arabia.

The international consensus on the war on terror has been replaced by acrimony over Iraq, and counter-balancing moves by other nations. Russia continues to support the Iranian nuclear program. With the United States preoccupied in Iraq and burning considerable diplomatic capital in the process, North Korea was free to begin processing nuclear fuel and is now in a much stronger position to negotiate. China’s interests in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula have been overridden by a need to counter regional US influence. India, smarting from American coddling of Pakistani President Musharraf, is making overtures to China and has refused to help in Iraq.

The pre-emptive strike concept, theoretically an important tool to deter future attacks on the United States, now stands largely discredited around the world after the wanton exaggeration of the Saddam threat. And with the United States now looked upon as the mediator of first resort, its strategic priorities are threatened by distractions-Liberia being the latest example.

The threat to the United States is converging from four angles. One, the Taliban-Al Qaeda partnership is re-energized, targeting Afghanistan for now but keeping America in its sights. Two, the daily accounts of clashes in Iraq between the American occupiers and the resistance are fueling a new wave of worldwide recruitment of jihad soldiers. Three, the perception of U.S. unilateralism ensures that this jihad is going to be primarily focused on the United States. Lastly, many nations worried about U.S. hegemony are less likely to be receptive to U.S. concerns about weapons proliferation, international terrorism and the spread of radical Islam.

The past year has thus been marked by a series of tactical and symbolic victories, while strategic goals such as isolation and destruction of Al Qaeda and its allies, and maintaining international consensus on the terror war, have been de-emphasized. Unless the Bush administration practices greater discipline in avoiding further distractions from the war on terror, Americans one year hence will find themselves no more secure than in the dark days immediately after 9/11.

Subodh Atal is an independent foreign affairs analyst and the author of a forthcoming Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing paper, “At a Crossroads in Afghanistan: Should the United States Be Engaged in Nation Building?”