The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The unwinnable war on terrorism?

For the first time since the so-called war on terrorism began, the United States is physically on the defensive, dealing with the fallout of the first successful home-soil attack since 9/11.

But in the minds of the American people, the United States hasn't been winning the war on terrorism for nearly a decade.

Even as the U.S. has notched some big wins and avoided large-scale attacks like the one at the Boston Marathon on Monday, Americans have rarely seen their side as actually winning the war.

Even in the months after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, a Gallup poll showed just 42 percent of Americans thought their side was winning, while another 46 percent said neither side was winning and 9 percent said the terrorists were winning.

In fact, the only times when a majority of the American people thought their country was winning were in the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

By 2007, as the Iraq war grated on the American psyche, the number of people who said the terrorists were winning (20 percent) was actually approaching the number who said the United States was winning (29 percent).

That was the closest the country came to thinking it might actually be losing ground. In other words, it's not as if Americans have no faith in the results; they just don't think the United States is necessarily winning.

Gallup hasn't asked the question in two years, so we don't know for sure where things stand today. But there's little reason to believe that a majority of Americans see themselves on the winning side. Even with the killings of bin Laden and nearly all senior al-Qaeda leaders, the generally optimistic and nationalistic American people still seem to see the war on terrorism as something of a stalemate.

Such is the problem when you are fighting against a somewhat abstract concept and ideology rather than a defined nation. Progress is harder to measure when you can't quantify (or even see) the enemy.

All of it suggests the American people now view the war on terrorism as something that is to be managed rather than won.