They Proposed to Move the Earth

America Defeated: How Terrorists Turned a Superpower’s Strengths Against Itself
By Mark Danner, Tomdispatch.com. Posted March 26, 2008.

America’s enemies have used an evangelical, redemptive regime, hell-bent on remaking a fallen world, to lay the seeds of their success.

[This essay was adapted from an address first delivered in February at the Tenth Asia Security Conference at the Institute for Security and Defense Analysis in New Delhi.]

To contemplate a prewar map of Baghdad — as I do the one before me, with sectarian neighborhoods traced out in blue and red and yellow — is to look back on a lost Baghdad, a Baghdad of our dreams. My map of 2003 is colored mostly a rather neutral yellow, indicating the “mixed” neighborhoods of the city, predominant just five years ago. To take up a contemporary map after this is to be confronted by a riot of bright color: Shia blue has moved in irrevocably from the East of the Tigris; Sunni red has fled before it, as Shia militias pushed the Sunnis inexorably west toward Abu Ghraib and Anbar province, and nearly out of the capital itself. And everywhere, it seems, the pale yellow of those mixed neighborhoods is gone, obliterated in the months and years of sectarian war.

I start with those maps out of a lust for something concrete, as I grope about in the abstract, struggling to quantify the unquantifiable. How indeed to “take stock” of the War on Terror? Such a strange beast it is, like one of those mythological creatures that is part goat, part lion, part man. Let us take a moment and identify each of these parts. For if we look closely at its misshapen contours, we can see in the War on Terror:

Part anti-guerrilla mountain struggle, as in Afghanistan;

Part shooting-war-cum-occupation-cum-counterinsurgency, as in Iraq;

Part intelligence, spy v. spy covert struggle, fought quietly — “on the dark side,” as Vice President Dick Cheney put it shortly after 9/11 — in a vast territory stretching from the southern Philippines to the Maghreb and the Straits of Gibraltar;

And finally the War on Terror is part, perhaps its largest part, Virtual War — an ongoing, permanent struggle, and in its ongoing political utility not wholly unlike Orwell’s famous world war between Eurasia, East Asia, and Oceania that is unbounded in space and in time, never ending, always expanding.

Snowflakes Drifting Down on the War on Terror

President Bush announced this virtual war three days after September 11, 2001, in the National Cathedral in Washington, appropriately enough, when he told Americans that “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Astonishing words from a world leader — declaring that he would “rid the world of evil.” Just in case anyone thought they might have misheard the sweep of the President’s ambition, his National Security Strategy, issued a few months later, was careful to specify that “the enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism — premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.”

Again, a remarkable statement, as many commentators were quick to point out; for declaring war on “terrorism” — a technique of war, not an identifiable group or target — was simply unprecedented, and, indeed, bewildering in its implications. As one counterinsurgency specialist remarked to me, “Declaring war on terrorism is like declaring war on air power.”

Six and a half years later, evil is still with us and so is terrorism. In my search for a starting point in taking stock of those years, I find myself in the sad position of pondering fondly what have become two of the saddest words in the English language: Donald Rumsfeld.

Remember him? In late October 2003, when I was in Baghdad watching the launch of the so-called Ramadan Offensive — five simultaneous suicide bombings, beginning with one at the headquarters of the Red Cross, the fiery aftermath of which I witnessed — then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was in Washington still denying that an insurgency was underway in Iraq. He was also drafting one of his famous “snowflakes,” those late-night memoranda which he used to rain down on his terrorized Pentagon employees.

This particular snowflake, dated October 16, 2003 and entitled “Global War on Terrorism,” reads almost poignantly now, as the Defense Secretary gropes to define the war that it has become his lot to fight: “Today we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror,” he wrote. “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

Rumsfeld asks the right question, for beyond the obvious metrics like the number of terrorist attacks worldwide — which have gone up steadily, and precipitously since 9/11 (for 2006, the last year for which State Department figures are available, by nearly 29%, to 14,338); and the somewhat subtler ones like the percentage of those in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world who hold unfavorable opinions of the United States (which soared in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and have fallen back just a bit since) — apart from these sorts of numbers which, for various and obvious reasons, are problematic in themselves, the key question is: How do you “take stock” of the War on Terror? At the end of the day, as Secretary Rumsfeld perceived, this is a political judgment, for in its essence it has to do with the evolution of public opinion and the readiness of those with certain political sympathies to move from holding those opinions to taking action in support of them.

What “metrics” do we have to take account of the progress of this “evolution”? Well, none really — but we do have the guarded opinions of intelligence agencies, notably this rather explicit statement from the U.S. government’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of April 2006, entitled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” which reads in part: “Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision” — those metrics again — “a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although still a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic distribution. If this trend continues, threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.”

Dark words, and yet that 2006 report looks positively sanguine when set beside two reports from a year later, both leaked in July 2007. A National Intelligence Estimate entitled “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland” noted that al-Qaeda had managed — in the summary in the Washington Post — to reestablish “its central organization, training infrastructure and lines of global communication,” over the previous two years and had placed the United States in a “heightened threat environment… The U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years.”

This NIE — the combined opinion of the country’s major intelligence agencies — only confirmed a report that had been leaked a couple days before from the National Counterterrorism Center, grimly entitled “Al Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West.” This report concluded that al-Qaeda, in the words of one official who briefed its contents to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, was “considerably operationally stronger than a year ago,” “has regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001,” and has managed to create “the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives.” Another intelligence official, summarizing the report to the Associated Press, offered a blunt and bleak conclusion: al-Qaeda, he said, is “showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States.”

Given these grim results, one must return to one of the more poignant passages in Secretary Rumsfeld’s “snowflake,” released to flutter down on his poor Pentagon subordinates back in those blinkered days of October 2003. Having wondered about the metrics, and what could and could not be measured in the War on Terror, the Secretary of Defense posed a critical question: “Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists?”

For me, the poignancy comes from Mr. Rumsfeld’s failure to see that, in effect, he and his boss had already “fashioned” the “broad, integrated plan” he was asking for. It was called the Iraq War.

Read all of this remarkable article here.

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