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9/11: Never Again?

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This essay first appeared in the National Journal Security Expert Blog.

This is the most painful of anniversaries. Fear, anger, anxiety -- a cocktail of emotions. The images are still vivid. This year's commemoration is especially full of angst. Perhaps because torture, Afghanistan and failed wars are creeping back into the headlines. These reflections aim to disentangle fact from myth, emotion from reason, so as to better estimate what we really should worry about and whether our current policies actually raise the risk of something horrific occurring again.

9/11 was a unique event. The perpetrators were a transnational network without a national affiliation who used hijacked civilian aircraft to attack monumental buildings in the homeland of the world's greatest power located across an ocean -- and did so with devastating effect. To describe what happened is to evoke the audacity of the project and the intensity of the reaction. Any serious appraisal, therefore, must detach itself from the powerful emotions of fear and dread as well as the horrific imagery -- to separate actuality from legend.

The critical lesson to be drawn is that the operation did not depend critically on a fixed location although facilitated by a stable base in Afghanistan. It was multinational: conceived in Afghanistan, organized in Germany and the US, and executed here by Saudis and Egyptians. The plan's stunning success should not obscure its simplicity. No innovative technology was designed, no complicated logistics were entailed, no special opportunity available or created, no great amount of cash needed. Most impressive was the dedication and emotional resiliency of the hijackers who kept their sense of suicidal purpose despite living in an alien environment.

A key to success was the equally stunning incompetence (and, let's face it, sheer stupidity) of security agencies in the target country. The 9/11 Commission's conclusion that nothing reasonable could have been done to prevent it is utter nonsense: just scanning the transparent facts makes that embarrassingly obvious. The most egregious failure was the FBI's in not following through on the two agents' reports of Middle Easterners taking flying lessons without concern for take-off or landing.

We perhaps have to live with the possibility of a conspiracy by similar extremely motivated persons. We cannot accept similar self-created vulnerability.

As to future threats, let's keep in mind the following points. Freedom to use large swaths of territory is not an absolute precondition to doing something of the same order. Technological thresholds are low whether we think of airplanes, conventional explosives or chemicals. It is fairly easy to commit terrorist acts that kill at least hundreds.

Assuming the truth of the two previous statements, the question that stands out is why so little has happened over the last eight years. Superior intelligence/police work? In the United States, not one serious plot has been exposed. The few, over-publicized cases were embryonic schemes involving marginal persons lacking the mental and morale capacity to do much of anything. In Europe, there have been a number of instances (Germany, UK, France) where plots were disrupted at very early stages -- but none came approximately close to 9/11 in capability or organization. They, too, involved marginal young men of limited competence. Major successes were scored in Pakistan to diminish severely al Qaeda's original group.

We should also note that the superior recruiting and training facilities we provided in Iraq over the past six years (plus motivation given to potential bankrollers) has not had any demonstrable effect insofar as major threats outside the Greater Middle East are concerned.

Logically, it follows that we either have overstated the size and scope of the al-Qaeda network; mistakenly assumed that the prominence of the U.S. as a strategic target relative to Middle Eastern governments was a constant for the relevant persons or groups; and/or exaggerated the ease of marshaling persons with the requisite combination of emotional strength and discipline to even consider doing something like 9/11.

The implications in terms of American policy can be simply stated. Going after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan made sense. It was a partial success. Everything else that we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq (Somalia, too) has been an enormous waste of resources: human, financial, technical and political. Enhancing classic intelligence/police work in close cooperation with the services of other governments is far more valuable, far less costly -- and avoids the counter productive consequences of endless wars and occupations.

The negative effects of our policies are huge in well-known respects: motivating possible terrorists from across the region, providing the proving grounds for them to hone their skills, motivating potential funders, and alienating deeply the general population of the regime which not only favors terrorist groups but also endangers incalculably other vital interests of the United States.

Negative effects also register at home -- financial, constitutional, ethical and in feeding a dangerous mood of anger, fear and frustration.

The Real Worry

The exploiting of free floating feelings of dread among Americans for political and ideological purposes has both obscured real dangers and contributed to them. Let's drop the childish game of scaring ourselves with the likes of high school drop-out Jose Padilla and similarly I.Q. challenged riff-raff. In doing so, we are behaving like kids who conjure monsters lurking in the stairwell so as to get a thrill by toying with their self-generated fears.

The guy to think about is the reputable scientist/technician who visits the U.S. regularly, who may have an institutional tie there, who has a friend or relative in the shipping business, who has become deeply alienated and aggrieved by things we have done. He may have a close relative (direct or by marriage) who was a victim of some American atrocity in Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine. He may have developed an overwhelming urge to act destructively -- even if it is in the form of a symbolic act punctuated by an exclamation point! None of our rampaging around Southwest Asia will protect us against that scenario becoming real. Indeed, the more rampaging we do the better the odds on it happening.

When it does, Richard Holbrooke, David Petraeus, Barack Obama et al will not need 50 performance measures to "know it when they see it."

Holbrooke, speaking at the Center for American Progress on August 13, summarized administration thinking this way:

"The specific goal.....is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we'll know it when we see it."

The unwitting reference is to a comment by a Supreme Court Justice in an opinion on a landmark pornography case. How apropos.

This is what passes for grand strategy in Washington these days.