- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009


Eight years ago this week, Osama bin Laden watched and then celebrated as a terrorist attack he had authorized brought down the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, slaughtering thousands of innocent Americans.

Bin Laden was, at that time, in Afghanistan, which was, at that time, ruled by the Taliban. Soon, U.S. forces and their anti-Taliban Afghan allies would chase bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar across the border into the wild tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. From that base, they would organize an insurgency against U.S. and NATO forces and a new Afghan government.

Conservatives are now divided over this conflict. The debate on the right is interesting but academic. Barack Obama — no conservative — is president. During his campaign for the White House, he blasted President Bush for diverting to Iraq resources needed for Afghanistan, the “good war,” the war that, he emphasized, must be fought and won.

If Mr. Obama intends for this mission to succeed, he will have to return to this theme. He will have to use his not-inconsiderable powers of persuasion to make the case that Afghanistan is both worth winning and winnable. If he cannot bring himself to do that — with at least as much passion as he has put into the debate on health care — support for Afghanistan will collapse, and nothing pro-mission conservatives say, write or do will prevent it. Does history offer any precedent of an ambivalent commander in chief leading a nation to victory in war?

Columnist George F. Will has made the conservative critique forcefully, contending that American troops are not so much battling America’s enemies in Afghanistan as engaging in nation-building and democracy-promoting — Sisyphean tasks at best in this remote corner of the world.

Pro-mission conservatives argue that promoting economic development and improved governance are simply components of counterinsurgency, the method of warfare most likely to succeed — as we learned the hard way in Iraq — against militant jihadis on Third World battlefields.

I would stress this: Afghanistan is not a war. It is one battle in what — I’m not the first to deduce — is going to be a long war, a global conflict to defend America and the West against an insidiously dangerous enemy.

We are fighting over ideas as much as land. In fact, as real estate, Afghanistan is of minimal value. But what happens there will help determine how we — and our enemies and the millions of people around the world who have not taken sides - understand what this struggle is about and who is likely to prevail.

“It was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that laid much of the imaginative groundwork for 9/11,” Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens points out. “If one superpower could be brought down, why not the other?”

It is a fact of life that generals who win victories attract recruits; losing generals end up alone. Anytime infidels flee, declaring “This is a war that can’t be won!” the radical jihadis gain. By contrast, anytime jihadis flee because they can’t stand up to “the strongest tribe,” they lose more than an engagement and lines on a map.

If this struggle is too much for the present generation, we will deserve what comes in its place. Americans used to say that freedom is not free, that it must be earned by generation after generation. That sounds hokey to 21st-century ears, I know. That doesn’t make it less true.

Our enemies believe history and God are on their side. They are eager to fight for victory, which they define as bringing death, destruction and humiliation to you and your children. They say this plainly in their speeches and sermons. They are not seriously attempting to delude anyone. Rather, they are counting on us to delude ourselves. Eight years after Sept. 11, with many on both the left and the right arguing for retreat and a president who doesn’t appear to know his own mind, can anyone say with confidence that they are wrong?

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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