TRUDY RUBIN: War on terrorism never found a conventional state

By Trudy Rubin

Did we win the war on terrorism? Ten years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaida is fractured. There’s been no second attack (although intelligence chatter has picked up possible threats during anniversary commemorations).
So people ask: Did we win? Not really. What we’ve won is hard knowledge that cost us dearly. And what we’ve lost – well, that will cost us even more.
We know now (and many knew at the start) that there never was a “war on terrorism.” The Bush administration used that term to rally the country at a terrible time, but it was badly misleading. It misdiagnosed the nature of the struggle.
This was not a conventional war. At the broader level, it was a battle of ideas that would take decades to play out. At the narrow level, it should have been a very specific effort to crush the jihadi network that had attacked us – al-Qaida.
Yet in 2001, we were accustomed to fighting states and didn’t know how to confront an enemy that was stateless.
Let me be clear. I believe we had no choice but to declare war on the Afghan Taliban that was host to bin Laden. However, we were smart enough, initially, to rely on local Afghan ground forces to do the fighting, helped by our air strikes and commandos.
After that, the Bush administration’s grandiose approach to war against terrorism did us in.
Instead of cleaning up the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bush rushed to war in Iraq – which had no al-Qaida. Our shift in focus permitted al-Qaida to flourish in Pakistan and ignored the return of Taliban networks to Afghanistan.
Meantime, the gross mishandling of postwar Iraq helped create an al-Qaida monster in that country, where there hadn’t been one. It also inspired jihadis elsewhere.
And here’s the biggest irony: We invaded Iraq because the Bush team convinced itself, despite much evidence to the contrary, that Iraq was home to al-Qaida – along with a nuclear program.
Yet it was wealthy Saudis who financed al-Qaida and other jihadis. And, after 2001, nuclear-armed Pakistan became home base for al-Qaida and its allies. But we didn’t sufficiently confront these two allies, focusing instead on Iraq.
Gradually we learned these bitter lessons over the last decade, at a huge cost in lost U.S., Iraqi, and Afghan lives.
The bad news: Al-Qaida clones in Pakistan still hope to take over this nuclear-armed state. This isn’t out of the question.
A faltering economy has created more fears about the future than did the 9/11 killers; political zealots, including some GOP candidates, stoke those fears and balk at political consensus.
The fissures within our society have grown so great, we can’t even pay tribute to the 9/11 fallen without bitter arguments over religion and patriotism.
Bin Laden couldn’t defeat us, and we’ve learned how to deal with the jihadi danger. But 10 years on, we’re in danger of defeating ourselves.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at trubin@phillynews.com.