We are into the second decade of the "war on terror." It now ranges from the mountains of Afghanistan to the jungles of Colombia. It has dominated our lives since 9/11. Yet there is no measure of success to gauge progress or to say when it may end. So it is time to take stock of where we are and where we are going.
One thing we can state with certainty: its prosecution on all fronts at home and abroad is relentless. And the costs have been enormous. The payment has been in lives lost or crippled, in trillions of dollars, in prestige and authority dissipated, and in a latent menace to our well-being that the "war" supposedly aimed at eliminating. This endless crusade has achieved a state of perpetual motion generated by a confluence of dogmatic ideology, intellectual obstinacy, cynical political calculation and the exertions of powerful financial and professional interests. Today, the enterprise -- or at least 90% of it -- looks to be divorced from reality.
What is the threat that justifies these expenditures? Americans' collective image of the "war on terror" project is of hordes of fanatical Muslims scaling the outer walls of the Republic with turbans, scimitars between their teeth and terrifying cries of "Allah Akbar" on their lips. They are legion. Heroic Americans clad in the colors of the CIA, FBI and Homeland Security man the battlements -- repelling the jihadis with arrows, stones and hot pitch. Some join the uniformed military to sally forth in punitive raids to smite the enemy before he can muster his forces for the next, inevitable onslaught.
All this is sheer nonsense inspired more by scary TV shows and films than deliberate thinking. Yes, there once was a serious terrorist organization that had the United States in its sights. Al-Qaeda succeeded a few times; once on American soil with horrific effect that traumatized the country. That success resulted in large part from the incompetence of the CIA and FBI (especially the latter) and a national leadership that was asleep at the switch.
The military action to root the leadership out of their Afghan base was necessary (although 9/11 was organized from Hamburg). The follow-up intelligence and police operations to degrade the remnants of al-Qaeda, too, were a logical and appropriate response to the danger. Circa 2002-2003, no significant threat to the United States still existed. Over the ensuing decade, the sole attempts at terror in the U.S. have been amateurish forays that were ill-planned and on a very small scale. If all we have to worry about is some kid with a Rube Goldberg explosive device concealed in has underpants every ten years or so, we should thank our lucky stars. Instead, our leaders and the terrorism industry work overtime to persuade us that the people who couldn't get their hands on fire retardant shorts are still out there scheming to plant a nuclear fizzle bomb in Michael Bloomberg's City Hall.
Al-Qaeda is a franchise name -- as Rome was for a thousand years after it fell, like Caesar was for two millennia until the Bulgarian Tsar was ousted by the Red Army. The name means little if anything in concrete terms. Al-Qaeda in North Africa? Its Algerian components are serious but concerned exclusively with Algeria. The rest are nests of bandits, desert buccaneers and pseudo jihadis whose ability to harm us is limited to kidnapping wayward tourists who wander off the caravan routes. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? Here, too, the Saudi component has its sights on the House of Saud. The Yemeni component is preoccupied with its own local agenda and exploiting the opportunities opened by the post-Saleh chaos.
Of course, there was the American Anwar al-Awlaki whom we honored by declaring the indispensable man of AQAP. Whether his assassination was warranted or not, it hardly has changed the threat equation. Al-Sabah in Somalia? An impoverished outfit in every respect with its own local political dynamics and ambitions. A refuge for more serious al-Qaeda types? Who exactly? Anyway, far less useful than any major city in Europe. This has not stopped Washington from mobilizing Ethiopia (again), Kenya, the African Union and our own drone squadrons in a massive effort to crush them.
The Taliban? No less a personage than Joe Biden declared a few weeks back that, "Look, the Taliban per se are not our enemy." Their fading ties with the enfeebled ghost of al-Qaeda past in the Hindu Kush are insignificant since the focus is on Afghanistan's political future -- as it always has been. (One wonders whether killing thousands of Taliban non-per se enemies, along with thousands of collaterals, does not create thousands of per se enemies).
The number of those "out there" who constitute some danger to the United States? If we follow the logic of the Obama administration as manifest in justification for the draconian measures of the Patriot Act II and in our geographically growing deployments in Central Asia, South Asia, Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel, West Africa, East Africa, and now even Latin America -- then the number of enemies is in the hundreds of millions. That is to say, counting all Muslims who harbor hostile thoughts towards the United States and, therefore, are declared legitimate targets in the "war on terror." How many people actually would participate in a venture to do physical harm to the United States? They probably number in the three digits. How many might have the capability of acting and the will to try and do so? A handful. Other 9/11s in the works? Not a scintilla of evidence of that.
The tragic irony is that our flailing about may fill with quiet rage and a thirst for revenge a few competent people who indeed could do us serious harm. It may already have. Iraq and Afghanistan were signal achievements in this regard.
The chances of this less than terrifying reality braking the momentum of the "war on terror" juggernaut? Zero. It has become a fixture of our foreign policy, of our politics, of our budgetary arithmetic and -- above all -- it is burned into our national psyche.