September 12th, 2012

What a difference eleven years can make.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the United States of America dropped into a boiling cauldron of pain, confusion, and anger. On September 12th, 2001, images of first responders desperately searching the rubble of the Twin Towers for survivors were juxtaposed against solemn Presidential press conferences, an outpouring of global condolences, and a tornado of speculation about the perpetrator of the attack. We were scared as hell.

What were we going to do about these Al Qaeda guys? What could be done against this kind of organization? It was based in essentially the least accessible country on Earth, led by veterans of a very successful insurgency against another military superpower, well-funded (at least by the standards of non-state actors), and stocked with additional affiliates, agents, and fellow travelers dispersed and hidden across every other continent. Dick Cheney thought it would take multiple generations to beat Al Qaeda, possibly even a century or more.

Well, it didn’t, even after a very costly excursion to Iraq. It took about a decade. The job’s not “done” in the usual sense of the word–putting an end to all terrorism and violent extremism everywhere isn’t even possible in comic books–but Bin Ladin’s organization is neutralized. It turns out that even the most sophisticated non-state actor isn’t going to last very long against the combined resources of the developed world.

Think about it this way. The United States made the dismantling of Al Qaeda one of its top foreign policy priorities. I say “one of the top” because AQ wasn’t President Bush’s top priority, although it probably took the #2 slot; AQ’s destruction has most certainly been President Obama’s top priority. This spot was formerly reserved for the job of containing the Soviet Union, which was by most accounts the second-most-powerful nation state in history. It was the world’s largest state geographically, and contained a workforce of about 150 million people who spent a lot of their productive capacity (in 1990, this amounted to about $2.7 trillion) building weapons.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a threat. By comparison, the Al Qaeda organization proper consisted of a few thousand people working with hundreds of millions to a few billions of dollars. To be sure, many of these people were highly intelligent, skilled killers, as well as absolutely ruthless and willing to die for their cause… but we are still talking about a group that was three to four orders of magnitude smaller than the USSR.

And the US switched focus only ten years after the USSR dissolved. Much has been made of AQ’s revolutionary, internet-enabled, decentralized nature, and how it supposedly made the organization impervious to the kind of brute force a superpower can muster, but it’s clear that ten years of technological process in networking didn’t change the nature of the game enough to absorb this kind of heat. Thus, when we turned a substantial portion of the military-industrial-intelligence complex designed to crush the USSR in a vice on Al Qaeda, we didn’t just kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer, we hit it with an 18-wheeler.

My point here is not to bray about how awesome America is, or to pen a rah-rah triumphalist superpatriotic screed. In my opinion, our approach to defeating AQ has been inefficient, brutal, inhumane, and at times illegal, befitting a “total war” mentality that may have been appropriate against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Soviet Russia (although that is also debatable), but not against AQ. Nor, of course, do I want to minimize the suffering inflicted by Bin Ladin and Friends, here, in Europe, and throughout the Muslim world. These were very dangerous people. They had to go one way or another, and we have a mandate to insure their successors never become as dangerous.

It is merely to remember that they were–and are–human, and as such, neither infallible nor invincible. And in retrospect, it’s not that surprising they’re mostly dead now.

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