For those of us who were in the Pentagon when it was attacked, the weeks around the 9/11 anniversary are always a blue period. The costs of the attack that took the lives of 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., have been compounded by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with nearly 7,000 U.S. dead, 53,000 U.S. wounded, 1,400 allied dead, and over 200,000 dead indigenous civilians and soldiers in those two countries.
For many in the Armed Forces, the 17 years of the “Long War” have become an abiding focus of their lives. For our soldiers, it is now possible to die on your 13th deployment to a combat zone. We must adapt our policies to ensure that this doesn’t become a Forever War.
Progress in the war in some ways is trending downward. Al Qaeda is stronger than ever, especially on the Arabian Peninsula and throughout Africa. ISIS has lost its caliphate in Iraq and Syria but hangs on in a few countries, including Afghanistan. Iraq teeters, and the war in Syria continues. Europe and Turkey choke on refugees from these contingencies.
Iran won our war in Iraq. It has reinforced its role as a regional troublemaker. To date, our new strategy in Afghanistan has gone poorly. Our episodic involvement with Saudi Arabia in Yemen has produced a nightmare of casualties, famine and another opportunity for Iran to spread its influence.
There are, however, bright spots in the Long War. We are markedly safer in our homeland. Our state and local police — ably assisted by the FBI — successfully have added counterterrorism techniques to their portfolios. U.S. federal courts have dealt with terrorism remarkably well. The agencies of the federal government work well together on intelligence and law enforcement matters. State and federal governments can make effective decisions to protect us where we live. International cooperation similarly has improved. Another 9/11-style attack is increasingly remote, but not impossible.
In the kinetic fight, we have succeeded in keeping foreign terrorists from our shores. Our Special Operations Forces took out Osama bin Laden and a generation of terrorist leaders. We have been successful in fighting “by, with and through” our partners in Iraq, Afghanistan and all throughout the Middle East and Africa. ISIS invaded Iraq in 2014, but it is now in the final stages of being crushed by coalition forces, Kurds and friendly Syrian fighters. In Afghanistan, despite battlefield reverses, there is a new and apparently widespread interest in peace.
The Long War has been costly in blood and treasure. It diverts us from larger purposes and wears on our soul. What can be done to conclude the campaigns of this generational struggle on favorable terms?
To begin, we have to continue the policies and programs that are working. Homeland security and attacks on terrorist leadership should remain high priorities. Cooperation with our allies and security partners should be deepened. Support for U.S. intelligence, special operations forces, and advisory efforts must be kept at a high level.
At the same time, while counterterrorism has been relegated to a secondary priority, the United States and its allies can make our efforts more effective. Given that Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen all are campaigns in the same conflict, the White House needs a holistic, multi-campaign, interagency assessment. Based on that assessment, the United States could forge a comprehensive strategy focused on war termination, with future operations being mainly conducted “by, with and through” our partners on the ground, to the greatest extent possible.
While our combat forces have worked overtime, our diplomats need to pick up the pace in peacemaking and combating violent extremism in the information sphere.
Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE anticipated this recommendation. He appointed senior envoys for Afghanistan and Syria. In Afghanistan, former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad needs to work to unite factions to work on a negotiated settlement. Pressuring Pakistan to get with the program will be difficult, but not beyond the skills of this three-time ambassador.
In Syria, former Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a Vietnam War combat veteran, has his work cut out for him. When ISIS finally is crushed, he will have to take care that our allies are protected and not swallowed up by Bashar al-Assad’s juggernaut, supported by Iran and Russia. Dealing with Assad and Russia will be an odious, but necessary, part of peacemaking there.
At the same time that we keep up effective counterterrorism operations, we must recognize that counterterrorism ultimately is about defeating, blocking or outliving a radicalism. The Long War is both a kinetic and an ideological struggle. Along with its allies and partners, the United States needs to have more effective programs for countering violent extremism in the information sphere, and especially on the internet, where so much recruitment takes place and poisoned thought is distributed.
Al Qaeda and ISIS feed on both a set of radical religious ideas and the epidemic of poverty, corruption and poor governance throughout Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Helping friends and allies with governance and in defeating poverty may well contribute to a more effective U.S. counterterrorism policy. More U.S. and international aid to nations that are absorbing the bulk of the refugees also can help mitigate the ill effects of this war.
In the end, left to its own dynamics, the Long War could become a Forever War. It’s time we reshape our policies to prevent that from happening.
Joseph J. Collins, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is university professor at the National War College. In his last policy assignment, he was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for stability operations (2001-2004). His nearly 28 years of military service include infantry and armor assignments in the United States, South Korea, and Germany; teaching at West Point in the Department of Social Sciences; and more than a decade of policy assignments in the Pentagon.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]