We Are Losing the War on Terror

The brazen attacks in Mosul and Karachi are just the latest signs that the bad guys are gaining momentum.

The ground truth about the spread of terrorism will be a hard one for many Americans to swallow after 13 costly years of war. Terrorism is spreading worldwide. Our enemies have sustained our blows, adapted, and grown. Two questions loom large as a consequence: Where did we go wrong and what do we do now?

Recent headlines and new studies support the conclusion that global terror trends are heading in an ever more dangerous direction. In early June, the Rand Corporation released a study that detailed the growing threat. It reports that in 2007, there were 28 Salafi-jihadist groups like al Qaeda. As of last year, there were 49. In 2007, these groups conducted 100 attacks. Last year, they conducted 950. The study estimates that there were between 18,000 and 42,000 such terrorists active seven years ago. The low-end estimate for last year, at 44,000, is higher than the top estimate for 2007, and the new high-end estimate is 105,000. The administration rightly argues that "core al Qaeda" has sustained "huge" damage. But "core al Qaeda" no longer poses the principle threat to the U.S. homeland. That comes, according to the Rand report, from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As Rand summarizes the report: "Since 2010, there has been a 58 percent increase in the number of jihadist groups, a doubling of jihadist fighters and a tripling of attacks by Al Qaeda affiliates. The most significant threat to the United States, the report concludes, comes from terrorist groups operating in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan."

As legitimate as the questions that have emerged in the Bowe Bergdahl case may be, they are secondary to the deteriorating situation associated with the war the recently released prisoner went to Afghanistan to fight. There is no denying that the contempt for Congress shown in failing to inform it of the deal -- even as perhaps 100 in the administration knew of it -- starkly reveals the cynicism behind last year's faux deferral to Congress on Syria. But it would be far more cynical to continue with the Obama team's variation on the "mission accomplished" misrepresentations of his predecessor. The war in Iraq was not over or won when we said it was. Nor is the war on terror won or the threat it poses resolved simply by no longer using the term or suggesting our goal was merely to inflict damage on the tiny fraction of terrorists who were associated with the 9/11 attacks. The reality is that we are still fighting the last war on terror even as a new set of risks loom and are made worse by our minimizing their implications for political purposes.

In its recent assessment, "Country Reports on Terrorism 2013," the State Department acknowledged the trend. It observes that last year attacks worldwide increased almost by half, from 6,700 to 9,700. Nearly 18,000 people died and nearly 33,000 were injured. While the report hails allied forces for making progress combating al Qaeda's core in the AfPak region, it also notes that the group's affiliates are becoming more dangerous. The report takes particular note of the threat posed by foreign extremists in Syria, which has become a kind of petri dish in which a growing global terror threat is being cultivated. Estimates on the number of such fighters range from 7,000 to over 20,000. The news that one recent suicide bomber in Syria was an American and that one of the attackers behind the recent shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium spent time in Syria suggests how this threat may evolve over time. It's not unlikely that, if left unchecked, the long-term consequences of a cadre of fighters trained in Syria who will soon return to their home countries will be one of the darkest legacies of that war -- a legacy that may well echo the long-term costs associated with training jihadists in the battle against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s, among whom, of course, was Osama bin Laden.

Sleepwalking Into a Trap

On just one day this week, Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for an attack on Karachi's international airport that killed 30 people, while in Baluchistan 23 Shiite pilgrims were killed in gun and bomb attacks. (A follow-up attack on the Karachi airport's security academy occurred less than 48 hours later.) That same day, 52 people were killed in bombings in Baghdad. Elsewhere that day a female suicide bomber attacked a barracks in Nigeria. Scores more died in the fighting in Syria -- many at the hands of the government, to be sure, but many also as victims of extremists.

Such attacks pass with little more than perfunctory comment from our leaders or the media. Yet we are numbed to such attacks at our peril. We compound the risk associated with such numbing by rationalizing them away. The Rand report notes that the number of "near abroad" attacks is up while the number of "far abroad" attacks has gone down. This is a way of saying that the threat to the U.S. homeland appears to be less from these fragmented, decentralized groups. The report also suggests that such groups are more easily defeated or turned against one another. The State Department presented its report with comments from its spokesperson that "the numbers [of attacks] against Americans have been very low for a long time and have continued to go down." 

That fewer Americans are being killed and fewer terrorists are seeking to hit targets on U.S. soil is no doubt a very good thing. Much credit for producing such an outcome is due to the U.S. intelligence community and our military for reducing those risks to our homeland security establishment and the private sector organizations with which they must collaborate to be successful. But it would be as dangerous today to interpret current trends as being positive because one particular past enemy is in decline or because at the moment the risk to Americans at home is lower as it was for top officials to underappreciate the threat posed by bin Laden immediately before the 9/11 attacks.

That's the dangerous trap into which we risk falling. By overly focusing on narrowly addressing the threats identified with the attacks 13 years ago, we risk creating precisely the same conditions that led to those attacks... and ignoring other, perhaps more serious, emerging threats.

For example, serious threats exist to U.S. interests that are not threats to the homeland. The disintegration of Syria is such a threat. The creation of a failed state bordering Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq poses deep and lasting risks to the region. One manifestation of how such a threat can spread is visible right now in Iraq, where ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), a group that cut its teeth in the Syria conflict, has just seized control of much of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul.

This compounds ISIS gains in Fallujah and across Anbar province. Should the Iraqi government fail to regain control of this region, the consequences of an extremist rump state on Jordan's eastern border and of conflict with Kurds in the north are grave. Such a scenario is quite possible, in fact; 11 years after the United States went to war with Iraq we could be on the verge of seeing it fracture into an extremist Sunni state in the west and an Iranian puppet state in the east -- perhaps the worst possible outcome we could have envisioned. It raises the question: What is the opposite of "mission accomplished?" And another: Who lost Iraq? (That the destabilization that caused this was triggered by an Afghan-based extremist's group attack on the United States is illustrative of how unpredictable, convoluted, and widespread the aftershocks of terror attacks can be.)

This last point in turn should lead to the recognition that the cultivation of extremist threats within failed states like Syria or weak states like Iraq, Yemen, or Libya or those in sub-Saharan Africa seems certain to produce a new generation of jihadists who will soon pose a threat worldwide. That such groups have gained important footholds in Libya, Mali, Nigeria, and in the Horn of Africa should be very worrying to us. While they seem like distant places and the damage is not now being visited on Americans, what will be the cost in terms regional stability, access to vital resources, flows of immigrants and refugees to new countries that can ill-afford to house them, etc.? 

The Risks Posed by National Narcissism

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks we had a number of reactions to the trauma it caused. Some were natural -- like seeking to exact a punishment on those behind the attacks. Some were sound national security policy -- like seeking to keep the attackers from ever attacking us again, and increasing the tools we have to anticipate or mitigate future risks. Some were dangerously ill-considered -- like invading Iraq. Some were damaging to our national standing -- like surveillance overreach or the use of torture. Today, we are learning the lessons of this period of reaction, this era in which so many of our initiatives seemed to be driven by fear of a future attack. That is why it would be both ironic and perilous for us to fail to learn one of the first lessons of what happened on 9/11, which is that in today's globalized, technologically empowered world, there is no such thing as a distant problem. All can make their way to our doorstep with lightning speed. 

This does not mean we must intervene everywhere against everyone. The first War on Terror was clearly mismanaged in many sometimes profoundly damaging ways. Indeed, some of our best antidotes to the risk posed by terror are not war at all but good intelligence, good police work, and a renewed focus on economic, social, and institutional development. Certainly, invading and destabilizing extraneous countries only makes matters worse.

One of the most pervasive problems behind the first War on Terror was national narcissism -- the sense that now that this problem that had afflicted so many for so long had taken a big enough toll on us, it was all about us, entirely up to us to handle in whatever way we saw fit, the laws of nations and the international community be damned. But there is another insidious consequence of such nationalism. It is the mistaken belief -- the one that afflicted us prior to 9/11 and was one of its proximate causes -- that if such problems did not impact our shores and our people, they never would; they weren't our concern. We can't let such a view delude us into complacency now.

As Seth Jones, the author of the Rand report, has said, "Based on these threats, the United States cannot afford to withdraw or remain disengaged from key parts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may be tempting for the U.S. to turn its attention elsewhere and scale back on counterterrorism efforts. But [our] research indicates that the struggle is far from over."

We dare not drop our guard. And we must find ways to work even more vigorously with the international community, with our allies, with stable regional governments upon which we can depend and with whom we can collaborate, to do whatever we can to reverse this disturbing recent trend. President Barack Obama's West Point speech -- which suggested that we could now safely start to hand off such issues to partners on the ground -- has, in the case of Pakistan and Iraq, been debunked within the last few days. We cannot put this effort on autopilot and forget about it. Instead we must develop new strategies and new active and committed alliances -- like finding ways to work more closely with the Chinese, who face a similar threat at home, reinvigorating how the Atlantic Alliance works together on such issues, and working more closely with the more moderate Sunni states in the Middle East. Our new efforts will require more aid (and unlike with some of our Syria promises, aid that is swiftly delivered when it can make a difference). They will mean more technical assistance and training. More shared intelligence. More military support and, yes, action when it is the only and best available option. And above all it will mean instilling the sense of urgency that should be associated with any endeavor, like this one to protect our citizens and interests, in which we are so clearly losing ground. 



Shimon Peres and the Minnows of the Middle East

The Israeli president's departure only highlights the glaring dearth of decent leaders remaining in the region today. 

Today's departure of Shimon Peres from Israel's presidency started me thinking about the passing of truly consequential leaders in Israel and the Middle East and wondering whether we will ever see (or even want to see) such leaders again.

What distinguishes Peres isn't his longevity but his centrality and relevance to Israel's remarkable story. He has had his share of political setbacks, most notably his unfulfilled quest to become an elected Israeli prime minister in his own right. He served twice as prime minister -- once in a national-unity government, in which he rotated the top job with Yitzhak Shamir, and again in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination -- but he never won a popular mandate.

But this omission makes Peres's career even more extraordinary. I'd be hard-pressed to identify another political figure who played such a critical role in any democracy over such a long a period of time, despite not winning its top leadership post. In America's history, Benjamin Franklin comes to mind. And so might Alexander Hamilton, had not Aaron Burr cut his life and career short.

Charles de Gaulle famously said that the cemeteries of France were filled with indispensable men, though he clearly would have counted himself (with good reason) as one of the truly indispensable. And it's hard to imagine Israel's story without Peres. Peres did not found modern Israel as de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, but if you took him out of Israel's national narrative, the country would have been much the poorer.

Peres has been there and done that in nearly every aspect of Israel's political, security, and economic life. He was a member of the Knesset for 48 years, longer than anyone else. He served in 12 cabinets, including as deputy minister of defense under David Ben-Gurion, treasury minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and vice prime minister. In 2007, he was elected Israel's ninth president. And Peres wasn't just serving time. He's considered to be the father of Israel's nuclear program and has been central in matters of Israel's security and peacemaking for well over half a century.

His detractors, of course, believe his contributions exaggerated and in the case of his signature effort -- forging the Oslo accords -- dangerous. They mock his narcissism and political ambition. But deriding a leader for ambition and self-regard, particularly after 70 years of public life, is thin criticism. Peres is Peres. And, despite all his flaws and imperfections, for the most part he has transcended his detractors.

Peres may never have the grandfatherly authority of Rabin or Ariel Sharon, or the true greatness of Ben-Gurion, his mentor. But he has won the affection and gratitude of his country and a central place in Israel's history.

Peres was preceded in the presidency by Moshe Katsav -- a man convicted of rape and now doing serious jail time; and he'll be succeeded by Reuven Rivlin, a longtime Israeli politician and Likud Party stalwart known for his hawkish views, though also respected for his commitment to democratic principles. His election is unlikely to elicit much excitement either inside or outside of Israel, since Rivlin lacks Peres's stature and weight on the international stage. These are indeed depressing bookends.

But the bad news doesn't end here. With Sharon's passing and Peres's departure from official Israeli life, the country is passing through a leadership transition from a founding generation to a younger set of leaders who -- while savvy politicians -- lack the moral authority, vision, and judgment that characterized those of an earlier time. Netanyahu, Barak, Olmert (now convicted of embezzlement and facing serious jail time, too) and Netanyahu again were all immensely talented, capable executives -- but their potential for effective leadership and governance looked better on paper than it ever did in practice.

Sure, we tend to glorify and idealize the so-called giants of old. And I'm sure there are more than a few Israelis who wouldn't want to see the likes of a Menachem Begin or Sharon again. But none of this significantly alters the reality that at a time when Israel faces profound challenges and is in desperate need of leaders with vision and courage they are nowhere to be found.

And if that's true for Israel -- a remarkably resilient, productive, and dynamic democracy -- it's much, much worse for an angry, broken, and dysfunctional Middle East that seems to lack leaders and institutions, to boot. Make no mistake, notwithstanding our Hollywood obsession of being rescued by The One, unless you have accountable leaders who can rise above narrow sectarian, corporatist, and ethnic politics and think about the interests of the nation as a whole, there's very little chance of producing good governance, let alone major political and economic reforms.

I really do regret being so consistently and annoyingly negative. But on the occasion of Peres's exit from public life, I can't help feeling down about how empty the shelves are in the leadership department. And here's why.

Tacitus was right

"The fairest day after a bad emperor is the first," the famous fourth-century Roman historian said. Whatever the hopes and desires for the so-called Arab Spring, it has clearly been a disappointment as far as leaders go. Sure, we should give it more time to coalesce and not succumb to the prejudice of low expectations, or be reductionist about the singularity of the region's cultural and religious traditions. But the trend lines just about everywhere look pretty grim with the exception of Tunisia -- the one purported success story. And yet, that's a country so unique that its still-fragile transition from autocracy to a more pluralist political system isn't really indicative of much beyond its own idiosyncratic conditions.

Things elsewhere in the lands of the Arabs run from bad to worse. It's now been almost four years -- admittedly a tiny increment of time against the broad sweep of the history's clock. But in no place touched significantly by the Arab Spring has there been anything akin to positive transformative change and little of the transactional competence required for basic security and prosperity. With apologies to Clint Eastwood, it's been a story not of the good; but mostly of the bad and ugly.

Authoritarians and/or chaos

Once upon a time, Arabdom was ruled by what I like to call the adversarial and acquiescent authoritarians. The first group are those that the United States confronted (and, at times, consorted with): Iraq's Saddam Hussein; Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi; Syria's Bashar al-Assad. They were cruel and extractive leaders, who, like most dictators, end up going the way of the dodo. The second were America's boys -- the acquiescents we did business with in the name of stability and interests: Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Yemen's Abdullah Saleh, and Palestine's Yasir Arafat.

Arafat left this world first, but the Arab Spring took care of the rest. Clearly, few in Washington want them back. But look at what replaced them.

In Iraq, for lack of better options we ended up putting in power an authoritarian committed first and foremost to the Shiites getting even and staying ahead. In Libya, we've gone from a cruel madman to an arbitrary and destructive tribal warlordism with nobody in charge and no end in sight. In Syria, we have a junior version of a dictatorial father but one who has proven even more lethal and determined to maintain power. In Egypt, a new "democratically" elected pharaoh has arisen amid the adulation of millions of Egyptians who didn't want the Muslim Brotherhood and who seem -- at least for the moment -- to have acquiesced to a centralization of power in exchange for a measure of security, stability, and the hope (because that's all it is right now) of greater prosperity. Yemen is better off without Saleh, but will find it almost impossible to escape the gravitational pull of a weak if not failing state. In Palestine, despite the unity gambit, there's no indication that either Mahmoud Abbas (79, and thinking about his retirement) has the will or the ability to rise to greatness -- not without huge incentives from Israel and the United States. As for Hamas, I won't even waste your time. With the exception of Marwan Barghouti (serving five consecutive life sentences in Israeli prison) there is no Palestinian leader who has national clout or respectability.

Sheikh weight

It is one of the more curious anomalies of today's Middle East turbulence that despite all the talk of democratization, political pluralism, and reform, it is the Arab kings, sheikhs, and dynastic families that have remained the most stable -- seemingly immune to the dramatic changes that have roiled their neighbors. Less extractive rulers, some even beloved by their peoples, and insulated in most cases by oil wealth and Islam, remain in the saddle even while pressures mount. Maybe the key reason is that their peoples look around at the neighborhood and conclude: If that is what the Arab Spring has wrought, we don't want one here. Will the bell toll for the kings and rulers of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the UAE, and Bahrain? Perhaps. Some argue that there isn't one among them who seems willing or able to introduce the kind of change that might better their long-term odds. Others suggest that opening the door to meaningful reforms will accelerate the end of monarchies around the region. Whatever the case, the fact remains that kings, not democrats, look to be wearing the crowns for the foreseeable future. The heads may well lie uneasily. But they aren't going anywhere.

Non-Arabs on the march

If there's any hope of the region producing quality leadership look to the non-Arabs: Iran, Turkey, and Israel. I say this largely because, unlike the Arab world, all are politically stable; have tremendous economic potential; the capacity to project military power; and to play key regional diplomatic roles. Israel and Turkey (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's democratic transgressions duly noted) are democratic in character and have ties with the United States; Iran is in a transition that holds significant potential in that regard. All have potentially bright futures (though with significant asterisks, to be sure). With respect to leadership, on paper both Turkey and Israel have the potential to produce chief executives who are accountable, democratically elected, and determined to produce good governance and regional stability. The same might be said about Iran, one day -- but only after there's a profound transition from the domination of the ayatollahs and security establishment to ... well, something else not yet defined. But all three are powerful and serious states with the capacity to act and make decisions. And they are likely to remain so, with futures far brighter than the most significant Arab polities. 

Where are the region's leaders?

Right now, there's not a single Middle Eastern state that can claim a leader who's bold or potentially transformative, and willing or able to risk much in matters of peace or political reform. The chances of a Mandela in the Arab world, or even in Israel, Turkey, or Iran for that matter -- are slim to none. Greatness in leaders is rare by definition. We probably won't see the likes of Anwar Sadat or a King Hussein again. And maybe that's fine: Israelis and Arabs have had it with big men who promise and can't deliver. Indeed, maybe the real dynamic is not charismatic, chest-thumping leaders at all but the less sexy task of developing institutions, building civil society, and channeling the force of public opinion that has become such a dynamic element on the Arab street.

But this will take time -- a lot of time. And in the interim, the conflict-ridden, dysfunctional Middle East is likely to continue to drift, leaderless and visionless. I'll miss Shimon Peres for his humanity, grand ideas, and above all for his commitment to a better future for a region that has seen some pretty dark days. I can only wish we had more like him.

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