On Geopolitics

September 11: Three Years Later

12 MINS READSep 9, 2004 | 17:00 GMT
By George Friedman The U.S.-jihadist war is now nearly three years old. Like most wars, its course has been an unfolding surprise. It is a war of many parts — some familiar, some unprecedented. Like all wars, it has been filled with heroism, cowardice, lies, confusion and grief. As usual, it appears to everyone that the levels of each of these have been unprecedented. In truth, however, very little about this war is unprecedented — save that all wars are, by definition, unprecedented. Only one thing is certain about this war: Like all others, it will end. The issue on the table on the third anniversary is: What is the current state of this war, and how will it end? The war was begun by al Qaeda, and therefore its state must be viewed through al Qaeda's eyes. From that standpoint, the war is not going well at all. Al Qaeda did not attack the United States on Sept. 11 simply to kill Americans. Al Qaeda wanted to kill Americans in order to achieve a political goal: the recreation of at least part of the caliphate, an empire ruled by Islamic law and feared and respected by the rest of the world. Al Qaeda's view was that the real obstacles to such a caliphate were the governments of Muslim countries. These governments either were apostates, were corrupt or were so complicit with Christian, Jewish or Hindu regimes that not only did they not represent Islamic interests, but they had sold out the immediate interests of their own people. From al Qaeda's point of view, the power of these regimes resided in their relationship with foreign powers. Moreover, the perception of these foreign powers — particularly the United States, which had become the latest edition of Christianity's leading foreign power — was that they were irresistible. Muslim countries had not defeated a Christian power in war for centuries. Hatred ran deep, but so did impotence. Al Qaeda was far less interested in increasing hatred of the United States than in showing that the United States was vulnerable — that it could be defeated. Al Qaeda argued that the mujahideen had demonstrated this in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union collapsed as a result. If al Qaeda could demonstrate America's vulnerability, a sense of confidence would infuse the Islamic world and regimes would fall or change their policies. The Sept. 11 attacks were designed to demonstrate the vulnerability of the United States. They also were designed to entice the United States to wage multiple wars in the Islamic world while pursuing al Qaeda directly and indirectly, further opening the United States up to attack and attrition. Al Qaeda did demonstrate American vulnerability, and the United States did surge into the Muslim world. It did encounter resistance and took casualties. But al Qaeda completely failed to achieve its strategic goals. There was no rising in the Islamic street. Not a single Muslim regime fell. Not a single regime moved closer to al Qaeda's position. Almost all Muslim regimes moved to closer cooperation with the United States. Viewed through the lens of al Qaeda's hopes and goals, therefore, the war so far has been a tremendous failure. In various tapes and releases, al Qaeda officials — including Osama bin Laden — have expressed their frustration and their commitment to continue the struggle. However, it is essential to realize that from al Qaeda's strategic point of view, the last three years have been a series of failures and disappointments. This is the objective reality. It is not the American perception. The first reason for this perception gap is the definition the administration has given the war: It is a war on terrorism. If the goal of the war has been to deny al Qaeda strategic victory, then the United States is winning the war. If, on the other hand, the goal of the war is to protect the homeland against any further attacks by al Qaeda or other groups, then that goal has not been achieved. Al Qaeda's primary operational capability is its ability to evade U.S. intelligence capabilities. This is not a trivial capability. Three years into the war, the precise shape and distribution of al Qaeda and related organizations are still not transparent to U.S. intelligence. However much more the United States knows about al Qaeda, it does not appear that its abilities are sufficient to guarantee the security of the United States or allied countries against enemy attacks. There are too many potential targets, and al Qaeda remains too invisible to guarantee that. Therefore, on a purely operational level, the United States does not see itself as winning the war. During World War II, for example — by 1943 or even earlier — the United States was secure from German or Japanese attacks against the homeland. That is not the case in this war. Therefore, there is an interesting paradox built in. On the strategic side, al Qaeda is losing — and thus the United States is winning — the strategic war, and this, of course, is the decisive sphere. On the operational side, even though there has thus far been no repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the war is at a stalemate. Public perception is more sensitive to the operational stalemate than to the strategic success. This has led to a crisis of confidence about the war that has been compounded by a single campaign — Iraq — which has dwarfed the general war in apparent importance. As readers of STRATFOR know, our view of the Iraq campaign has been that it was the logical next step in the general war and that the Bush administration knew that by February 2002, when it became apparent that U.S. intelligence could not strike globally to destroy al Qaeda. It has also been our view that the Iraq campaign was marred by extremely poor intelligence and planning. We have also argued that such failures are not only common in war but inevitable, and that these failures, however egregious, were to be expected. We have also argued, and continue to be amazed, that the single greatest failure of the Bush administration in this war has been its inability to give a coherent explanation of why it invaded Iraq. The public justification — that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — was patently absurd on its face. You do not invade a country with a year's warning if you are really afraid of WMD. The incoherence of the justification was self-evident prior to the war, and the failure to find WMD was merely icing on the cake. The consequence was a crisis of confidence that was a very unlikely outcome after Sept. 11 and which the administration built for itself. In other words, the decision to invade Iraq was, from our point of view, inevitable following the failure of the covert war. What was not inevitable was the catastrophic failure to explain the invasion and the resulting crisis of confidence. The clearest explanation for this failure has to do with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. relation to the kingdom — a relationship that goes far beyond the Bush family or either political party. Saudi Arabia was one of the reasons for the invasion. The U.S. intent was to frighten the Saudis into policy change, demonstrating (a) that the Saudis were now surrounded by U.S. troops and (b) that the United States was no longer influenced by the Saudis. The goal was to force the Saudis to change their behavior toward financing al Qaeda. Stating this goal publicly would have destabilized the Saudi regime, however, and the United States wanted policy change, not regime change. Therefore, Washington preferred to appear the fool rather than destabilize Saudi Arabia. If this is the explanation — and we emphatically do believe, from all analysis and sources, that the administration did have a much more sophisticated strategy in place on Iraq than it has ever been able to enunciate — then it was one with severe costs. Apart from the specific failures in the war, the generation of a massive crisis of confidence in the United States over the Iraq campaign has become a strategic reality of the wider war. To the extent that this is a war of perception — and on some level, all wars are — the perception that the United States is deeply divided is damaging. The actual debate is over the Iraq campaign and not the war as a whole, but this has increasingly been lost in the clamor. There is much more consensus on the war as a whole than might appear. Therefore, we can say that although al Qaeda has failed to achieve its strategic goals, at the same time, the United States is facing its own strategic crisis. Since Vietnam, the fundamental question has been whether the United States has sufficient will and national unity to execute a long-term war. One of the purposes of the Iraq invasion was to demonstrate American will. The errors in what we might call information warfare — or propaganda — by the Bush administration have generated severe doubts. The administration's management of the situation has turned into a strategic defeat — although not a decisive one as yet. Massive dissent about wars has been the norm in American history. We tend to think of World War II as the norm, but, quite the contrary, it was the exception. The Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Vietnam War and others all contained amazing levels of rancor among the American public. The vilification among the citizenry of Washington's generalship or Lincoln's presidency during the action was quite amazing. Thus, it is not the dissent that is startling, but the perception of U.S. weakness that it generates in the Islamic world. And the responsibility does not rest with the dissidents, but with the president's failure to understand the strategic consequences of public incoherence on policy issues. Keeping it simple works only when the simple explanation is not too difficult to understand. Let us therefore consider the salient points:
  • Al Qaeda has failed to reach its strategic goals.
  • The United States has not secured the homeland against attack.
  • There has been a major realignment in the Muslim world's governments, due to U.S. politico-military operations that have favored the United States.
  • There has been no mass uprising in the Islamic world as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks.
  • The Iraq campaign has involved massive failures, but the casualty rate remains less than 2 percent of the total killed in Vietnam. That places the problem in perspective. In addition, the political situation is increasingly manageable in Iraq.
  • The strategic management of information operations has been the major U.S. failure. It is serious enough to threaten the strategic thrust of the war against al Qaeda. The inability to provide a coherent explanation for Iraq has substantially harmed the war effort. At the same time, this should not be overestimated. It is interesting to note the problem that John Kerry is having in articulating his own challenge to the president over Iraq and the war in general. He has three potential strategies:
  • Reject the war in general
  • Reject the Iraq campaign but embrace the rest of the war
  • Accept Iraq and the war and argue that he would be more competent in executing both Kerry vacillates between the last two positions for a reason. If he takes the first position, he risks alienating the center, where voters are uncomfortable with any anti-war position but want superior leadership and execution. If he accepts the third position, he can take the center but risks the possibility that hard-core anti-war leftists will stay home on Election Day. Therefore, he is avoiding a strategic decision between the last two positions — shifting tactically between the two, hoping to bridge the gap. This is a difficult plan, but it seems the only one open to him. It is also the factor that will limit the extent of strategic damage stemming from Bush's presentation of the Iraq campaign. Kerry won't be able to effectively exploit that damage because of his own political problems. Therefore, at this moment, we would argue that the war, on the whole, is being won by the United States or, more precisely, is being lost by al Qaeda. The purely military aspects of the war are going better for the United States than is the politico-military effort, primarily due to the complexity of coercing allies without causing them public humiliation. But that is also the weak point of the U.S. campaign and the point at which al Qaeda will try to counterattack. That covert coercion could, al Qaeda hopes, energize a political movement it is trying to create. The war is far from over. The snapshot of the moment does not tell us what either side may do in the future. The United States clearly intends to move into Pakistan to find bin Laden's command center. Al Qaeda clearly intends to destabilize Saudi Arabia and any other target of opportunity that might open up — Pakistan or Egypt. And in the end, as in all wars, there will be a negotiation. It is impossible to really envision what that negotiation would look like or who the parties would actually be, but — returning to the point that this war, like all others, will end — complete victory by either side is the least likely scenario. Whatever the outcome, this much must be understood. On Nov. 8, the United States will have a president who will never again stand for re-election. He may have the office for four more years or for only two more months. In either case, we can expect that an attempt at decisive action will occur. Win or lose, Bush will be looking for his place in history. A Bush acting without political constraints will be the wild card in the next phase of the war.
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