Eighteen years is a long time. If you were born 18 years ago, you are today a young adult, old enough to find a job, begin college, enlist in the military and vote for the first time. You also should know what happened in 2001, the year you were born. But, given the state of America’s educational system, I’m not confident you do. So let me briefly fill you in.
Back then, the Soviet socialist experiment had collapsed, ending the Cold War which had followed World War II which had followed a decade of economic depression which came 11 years after the end of World War I.
That led to the belief — naive but widely held — that there was a “new normal,” that Americans could cash a “peace dividend,” that whatever differences remained among the world’s peoples could now be resolved through diplomacy, commercial relations and the intercession of transnational bureaucrats.
Then, on September 11, 2001, a sparkling late summer morning, enemies of America hijacked four passenger jets and turned them into guided missiles.
Two planes brought down the World Trade Center, symbol of America’s economic might. One struck the Pentagon, headquarters of America’s military strength. A fourth was headed for the White House, where America’s top elected leader resides. That fourth jet failed to reach its target thanks to the heroic resistance of the passengers onboard.
Nearly 3,000 people, ranging in age from 2 to 85, were killed, a higher death toll than Pearl Harbor in 1941. Al Qaeda, the organization responsible, spent about a half-million dollars to plan and execute the attacks. The cost to the United States has been estimated at more than $3 trillion.
President George W. Bush soon launched a Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). The flaw in that concept: Terrorism is not the enemy. Terrorism is a weapon wielded by the enemy.
A more accurate description of the enemy was provided by Bernard Lewis, the late, great scholar of the Middle East: “a movement in the Islamic world.”
To elaborate: Our enemies are Islamic supremacists fighting a long war against the West, against Judeo-Christian civilization, against “Crusaders and Zionists.”
Or as Ruhollah Khomeini said years before he would become supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran: “Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. All the countries conquered by Islam or to be conquered in the future will be marked for everlasting salvation. For they shall live under Allah’s law.”
President Obama jettisoned President Bush’s GWOT, replacing it with CVE, Countering Violent Extremism. Just last week, the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal think tank led by Michael Waldman, a former assistant to President Clinton, published an article: “Why Countering Violent Extremism Programs Are Bad Policy.” Its contention: “No evidence demonstrates that they are effective in reducing terrorist violence or even the spread of ‘extreme’ ideas.”
President Trump’s policies vis-a-vis jihadism can best be described as a mixed bag. Thanks to his renewal of economic sanctions, Iran’s rulers have fewer resources to devote to terrorism and imperialist aggression. Nevertheless, there has not been a sophisticated, orchestrated, mass-casualty Islamist terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11, thanks to an aggressive counter-terrorism policy. Would anyone have expected that to be the case 18 years ago?
Also, and despite his misgivings, Mr. Trump has maintained a small contingent of American troops in Syria whose main mission is to enable Kurdish and Arab partners to continue to diminish the Islamic State, which emerged following Mr. Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
On the other side of the ledger: Zalmay Khalilzad, who carries the rosy title of Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has been negotiating with the Taliban, the Islamists who ruled Afghanistan in 2001, giving safe harbor to al Qaeda and, after the attacks of 9/11, refusing to surrender Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban have continued their terrorist attacks even as the talks have proceeded. Last Thursday, a car bombing near the U.S. embassy in Kabul killed an American paratrooper, a NATO soldier from Romania and at least 10 civilians. Ambassador Khalilzad resumed negotiations the very next day.
Then, over the weekend, Mr. Trump revealed that he had planned to meet with Taliban leaders at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, just 48 hours before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Can you think of a better way to send a message of legitimacy and encouragement not just to the Taliban but to all jihadi groups and regimes in the Middle East and beyond?
Better late than never, the thought occurred to Mr. Trump: If the Taliban “cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.” He went on to cancel the meeting and suspend further negotiations.
Regarding the Taliban, he tweeted: “How many more decades are they willing to fight?”
I’ll venture a guess: As many as it takes. Afghanistan is but one battle in a war that has been waged, on and off, for centuries. The empires, caliphates, emirates, regimes and groups doing the killing change. The goals do not. As one Taliban captive famously said: “You have the watches. We have the time.”
If President Trump, unlike his predecessor, believes that no deal is better than a bad deal, he will want to have a tough talk with Ambassador Khalilzad about the necessary contours of a good deal with the Taliban.
One American administration after another has fought this conflict erratically and without a coherent global strategy to defeat or at least contain the jihadis — to frustrate their ambitions. If you’re 18, and you understand that, you must be sorely disappointed by how much your elders have not achieved since the fateful year you were born.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.