Off on Another ‘War’ Against ‘Terror’

The original post-9/11 “war on terror” rejected a targeted police-oriented response toward al-Qaeda, which also would have focused on root causes of Sunni extremism, and instead demanded a military “war.” Now, 13 years later, few lessons have been learned, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

As President Barack Obama prepares for a speech in which he will describe his strategy for countering the group commonly known as ISIS, officials in his administration are preparing public expectations by saying the effort against ISIS may take three years to “complete.”

Maybe the preparation is intended to dampen anticipation of rapid results, but it probably also is designed to cushion any sticker-shock reaction from people who will hear in the speech an effort that is larger and longer than they may have had in mind.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield in Bagram, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 25, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield in Bagram, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 25, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Three years may sound like a lot, but consider that this week marks the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attack that stimulated a priority-monopolizing, invasion-facilitating, civil-liberties-revising “war on terror” which, although that latter term isn’t used as routinely as it once was, never has received a certificate of completion.

Even without a spectacular terrorist attack, or any attack, on the U.S. homeland by the feared group du jour, much of the public discourse in the United States today about ISIS closely resembles the public discourse more than a decade ago about al-Qaeda. Of course, part of what we are hearing is a continued reaction to 9/11, even though ISIS had nothing to do with that attack.

Firm action against ISIS has already become equated in the public mind with prevention of a future big terrorist attack in the United States, in a way that never would have occurred had there not been a 9/11.

Expectations about the duration of counterterrorist efforts against the most feared group of the day are one respect in which the public mood and discourse of today resemble what prevailed a dozen years ago. Three years probably seemed like a rather long time to most Americans back then, and 13 years was probably outside the frame of reference of almost the entire public.

Today there is still around not only plenty of radical Sunni terrorism but also the very group, al-Qaeda, that was the prime target of counterterrorism after 9/11. Just three years ago the White House released a national strategy on counterterrorism that was almost entirely about al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

How many Americans listening to the President this week anticipate that a decade from now ISIS will still be a major policy concern of the United States? Probably almost none, and any who thought about it probably would consider such persistence, if it should occur, a mark of unsuccessful counterterrorist policies.

A political correctness that pervaded discussions of counterterrorism and al-Qaeda a decade or more ago pervades discussions today about ISIS. There was back then a requirement to speak only of defeating or destroying the group that represented the terrorism problem, or maybe even terrorism in general, and not to speak of just containing or degrading it.

Woe to those (myself included, based on pre-9/11 writings) who pointed out that terrorism is an age-old tactic that can be managed with varying degrees of success but never eliminated. Today al-Qaeda, let alone terrorism in general or even the Sunni variants of it, has not been destroyed. Given the expansion and metastasis of it into groups such as ISIS, it would be hard even to say it has been defeated.

Terrorism is better managed than it was 13 years ago, however, thanks in large part to enhanced defensive security measures, and the core al-Qaeda group has been significantly degraded and contained. The lessons of all of this seem to be lost on those today who insist on a whatever-it-takes mission of destroying ISIS.

The constraints imposed by the current political correctness regarding ISIS dovetail in an unfortunate way with some of the political vulnerabilities of the Obama administration. The administration probably seeks, for example, to avoid any posture that could be disparaged as “leading from behind,” which also would be out of tune with the current militant mood music about destroying ISIS quickly and forcefully.

Leading from behind would in some respects, however, be the most effective U.S. approach toward countering ISIS in the Middle East, given how success in any such effort will depend heavily on whether Arab publics and governments, including Sunni ones in particular, are seen to be out front in opposing the group.

The administration will have to balance the demands of the current political zeitgeist against whatever it may privately consider to be the best way to protect and advance U.S. interests in the Middle East in the face of the ISIS phenomenon. Wherever it strikes that balance will unavoidably fail to satisfy entirely either of these opposing sets of criteria.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

13 comments for “Off on Another ‘War’ Against ‘Terror’

  1. Abe
    September 10, 2014 at 20:06

    “We will with the consent of Allah free Chechnya and all of the Caucasus! The Islamic State is here and will stay here, and it will spread with the grace of Allah!”

    – ISIS fighter reportedly in a seized airport in the Syrian province of Raqqa (September 2014)

    Members of the Islamic State, presently terrorizing Iraq and Syria, have released a video threatened President Vladimir Putin and vowing to wage war in Russia’s North Caucasus.

  2. Abe
    September 10, 2014 at 20:01

    “We know that you support the Chechen terrorist for decades. And the support, of which you just spoke openly, is completely incompatible with the common goal of fighting global terrorism. We are interested to develop friendly relations after clear and strong principles.”

    “Our point in terms of Assad will never change. We believe the Syrian government is the best representative of the Syrian people and not these liver-eaters.”

    – Vladimir Putin speaking to Bandar bin Sultan (aka “Bandar Bush’‎) in Moscow (August 2013)

    Bandar, director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, was tasked with managing Saudi policy in the Syrian civil war. He allegedly confronted Putin in a bid to break the deadlock over Syria. “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” he allegedly said. Putin then rejected the proposal furiously.

    Bandar was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005.

  3. Abe
    September 10, 2014 at 19:53

    “They are attacking Iraq, through Syria and in a direct way, and they announced war on Iraq, as they announced it on Syria, and unfortunately it is on a sectarian and political basis.”
    – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaking about secret Saudi Arabian support for Islamist militant groups (February 2014)

  4. Abe
    September 10, 2014 at 18:21

    “Leading from behind” means making the designated enemy bleed for as much and as long as is possible. It is an indirect interventionist strategy that invariably allies itself with terror in the name of fighting terror.

  5. Zachary Smith
    September 10, 2014 at 18:15

    Firm action against ISIS has already become equated in the public mind with prevention of a future big terrorist attack in the United States, in a way that never would have occurred had there not been a 9/11.

    I’m forced to admit there may be some merit to this remark, for the rightwingnuts have been hard at work implanting the notion in the “public mind”. Example I just ran into:

    James O’Keefe filmed a play-acting black-clad jihadi with a British accent carrying fake ricin and pretend Ebola across Lake Erie and into Cleveland
    He managed to disembark, walk to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame carrying a duffel bag, and enter the building without anyone challenging him

    As Elmer Fudd would say to Joe Sixpack, “be wary afwaid!” So we need the smooth talking black drone-executioner to have plenty of authority to send more weapons to “moderate rebels”. Of course ISIS won’t get any of them. And bombing Syria, of course.

    Seriously, has Mr. Pillar ever come out and said BHO is any kind of idiot? Some authors can do that.

    The devolution of President Obama’s foreign policy in his second term into what I characterize to be moronic, reactive, middle finger hugger-mugger from China to Ukraine to Gaza to the Middle East has not, I believe, received the attention it deserves from America’s army of plugged-in Washington journos. Instead of “not doing stupid sh*t” and pivoting away from the Middle Eastern morass to Asia, the US is back in the thick of it, stirring the sh*t in a manner clumsy and shortsighted enough to put America’s friends as well as adversaries on notice that having the US apply its foreign policy expertise to their region is not necessarily an unalloyed good.

    Unless his pension depends upon being nice to BHO, Mr. Pillar really ought to consider becoming more blunt and outspoken, even to the point of rudeness regarding the Banker President who all-too-often does Stupid Things.

  6. Abe
    September 10, 2014 at 16:33

    The US has been leading from behind since 2011: Sunni Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, have been seen to be out front in supporting Al Qaeda and ISIS against the Libyan and Syrian governments.

    Now the most effective U.S. approach toward supporting Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East is appearing to oppose Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East.

    So much for the constraints imposed by the current political correctness.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 10, 2014 at 17:25

      Abe, I have a question for you. Don’t you think the ‘Leading from Behind’ policy is part of Brzezinski’s formula? Oh, and add to that the Petraeus strategy. Joe Tedesky

      • Joe Tedesky
        September 10, 2014 at 20:03

        I respect that Brzezinski’s being interviewed by his daughters friends, but why not ask the old gent if he ever knew Tim Osmon? By the way has Putin ever been aggressive with Ukraine. I seem to recall it was the EU/IMF that demanded total submission. Am I right remembering that Russia was willing to go a long to get a long? Was that Putin propaganda that fooled me?

        Listen to Brzezinski during the interview and tell me what is wrong worth what he said. I would like to thing that everything at ground level was working out that way..but, there was 298 airline passengers killed over this idea of using other peoples killers to get what you want…this madness must end!

    • Abe
      September 10, 2014 at 17:50

      Leading from behind – 1979
      make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible

    • Abe
      September 10, 2014 at 17:52

      Leading from behind – 2014
      make the Russians bleed for as much and as long as is possible

      • Joe Tedesky
        September 10, 2014 at 20:04

        Abe it printed above…see above response J.T.

  7. Hillary
    September 10, 2014 at 14:37

    Washington has thrown away trillions of dollars of public money and suffered major casualties in pursuit of endless wars in the Middle East, which were vigorously promoted by the domestic Zionist power configuration at the behest of Israel.
    Meanwhile neocon Zionist elite forces the U.S. to wage war, by using its money to elect the pro-war government.
    US belligerence is being promoted as the patriotic solution by the PNAC crowd.
    International public opinion polls have repeatedly ranked Israel’s policies as a major source of war and instability in the world today.

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