We're Not Winning This War
Are we winning the war? The first question to ask is, what war? The Bush administration continues to muddle a national understanding of the conflict we are in by calling it the "war on terror." This political correctness presumably seeks to avoid hurting the feelings of the Saudis and other Muslims, but it comes at high cost. This not a war against terror any more than World War II was a war against kamikazes.
We are at war with jihadists motivated by a violent ideology based on an extremist interpretation of the Islamic faith. This enemy is decentralized and geographically dispersed around the world. Its organizations range from a fully functioning state such as Iran to small groups of individuals in American cities.
We are fighting this war on three distinct fronts: the home front, the operational front and the strategic-political front. Let us look first at the home front. The Bush administration deserves much credit for the fact that, despite determined efforts to carry them out, there have been no successful Islamist attacks within the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. This is a significant achievement, but there are growing dangers and continuing vulnerabilities.
One of the most deep-seated of these problems is the U.S. government's tendency to treat this war as a law enforcement issue. Following a recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission, Congress sought to remedy this problem by creating a national security service within the FBI to focus on preventive intelligence rather than forensic evidence. This has proved to be a complete failure. As late as June of this year, Mark Mershon of the FBI testified that the bureau will not monitor or surveil any Islamist unless there is a "criminal predicate." Thus the large Islamist support infrastructure that the commission identified here in the United States is free to operate until its members actually commit a crime.
Our attempt to reform the FBI has failed. What is needed now is a separate domestic intelligence service without police powers, like the British MI-5.
The Sept. 11 commission catalogued in detail how our intelligence establishment simply does not function. We made priority recommendations to rebuild the 15 bloated and failed intelligence bureaucracies by creating a strong national intelligence director to smash bureaucratic layers, to tear down the walls preventing intelligence-sharing among agencies, and to rewrite personnel policy with the goal of bringing in new blood not just from the career bureaucracy but from the private sector as well. This approach was completely rejected by the Bush administration, which decided instead to leave this sprawling mess untouched and to create yet another bureaucracy of more than 1,000 people in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It was the exact opposite of what we had recommended.
The greatest terrorist threat on the home front is, of course, the use of weapons of mass destruction by Islamists. Here the president has moved to establish a national counter-proliferation center to share and act on intelligence, and he has recently initiated a cooperation agreement with Russia and our allies to work together in preventing nuclear materials from getting into the hands of the Islamists and to undertake joint crisis management if such an attack takes place. These are real accomplishments.
Turning to the operational front, our objectives are to destroy the capability of Islamist organizations to attack us and to deny them geographic sanctuaries in which they can recruit, train and operate.
The post-Sept. 11 threat demanded preemptive attack against Islamist bases, and this was done without delay in the invasion of Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban government, its ally and supporter. It was a brilliantly executed operation in which all our armed forces and CIA operatives combined in a ruthlessly efficient victory. In the succeeding years, however, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been able to regroup, rebuild and re-attack because they enjoy a secure sanctuary largely free from attack within the border areas of Pakistan.
The next military operation of the war was, of course, the invasion of Iraq. Here again the combined military operations of the United States and Britain were brilliantly successful in defeating Iraqi forces and removing Saddam Hussein and his regime. But in the aftermath of that victory, grave blunders were made. There was a total misunderstanding of the requirements for successful occupation.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was proved right in his keeping the initial invasion force small and agile, but desperately wrong in disbanding all Iraqi security forces and civil service with no plan to fill the resulting vacuum. Certainly it is hard now to understand the logic of that decision.
The military occupation in Iraq is consuming practically the entire defense budget and stretching the Army to its operational limits. This is understood quite clearly by both our friends and our enemies, and as a result, our ability to deter enemies around the world is disintegrating.
This brings us to the third front, the strategic-political. The jihadist regime in Iran feels no reservation about flaunting its policy to go nuclear, and it unleashed Hezbollah, its client terrorist organization, to attack Israel. In Somalia a jihadist group has seized control of the government. In Pakistan, Islamists are becoming more powerful, and attacks within India are increasing. Governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan are under increasing Islamist pressure. In the Pacific, North Korea now feels free to rattle its missile sabers, firing seven on America's Independence Day. China is rapidly building its 600-ship navy to fill the military vacuum that we are creating in the Pacific as our fleet shrinks well below critical mass. Not one of these states believes that we can undertake any credible additional military operations while we are bogged down in Iraq.
The indoctrination and recruiting of jihadists from Indonesia, South Asia and the Middle East are carried out through religious establishments that are supported overwhelmingly by the Saudi and Iranian governments. Even in the United States, some 80 percent of Islamic mosques and schools are closely aligned with the Wahhabist sect and heavily dependent on Saudi funding. Five years after Sept. 11, nothing has been done to materially affect this root source of jihadism. The movement continues to grow, fueled by an ever-increasing flow of petrodollars from the Persian Gulf.
There is no evidence that the administration has ever raised this matter with the Saudi government as a high-level issue, and -- just as damaging -- it has never acknowledged it as an issue to the American people. Thus Rumsfeld's question -- are we killing, capturing or deterring jihadists faster than they are being produced? -- must be answered with an emphatic no.
In reviewing progress on the three fronts of this war, even the most sanguine optimist cannot yet conclude that we are winning or that we can win without some significant changes of policy.
The writer was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and later served as a member of the Sept. 11 commission. This is a condensed version of an article that appears in the September issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine.