Is the War on Terrorism a real war? If this is the real thing – not just a metaphorical war like the War on Poverty or the War on Drugs – you have to expect real casualties; you can't expect that we will win every battle.
You also need to understand how terrorists define victory. For them, victory does not mean taking a hill or pacifying a city, or forcing the surrender of a battalion. For terrorists, a tactical victory means leaving unarmed civilians -- men, women, children, babies -- lying on the ground, covered with blood: dead, dying, mutilated, crippled. For terrorists, strategic victory means instilling fear and, over time, destroying a way of life, extinguishing an enemy civilization.
Is the War on Terrorism really about terrorism? Yes and no. Terrorism isn't really an “ism,” it's a weapon. One of our goals should be the abolition of that weapon, just as we seek to abolish the use of biological warfare. Terrorism violates one of the oldest laws of war – the prohibition on intentionally targeting non-combatants. As long ago as the Middle Ages, such slaughter was considered barbarian and dishonorable.
For pragmatic as well as moral reasons, we should not retreat from that view in the 21st Century. If terrorism is rewarded, given legitimacy or even just excused, the inevitable result will be more terrorism. If, on the other hand, everyone understands that terrorism de-legitimizes those who use it -- as well as their cause -- and if terrorists are consistently fought and consistently defeated, terrorism will eventually come to be seen as a dead end, and its use will fade.
Is the War on Terrorism only about terrorism? Of course not. On a deeper level, the War on Terrorism is about the ideologies that use terrorism in an attempt to end the democratic experiment that began in 1776 and which has so far spread to more than 150 countries. Most of those ideologies are “Jihadist” -- the heirs to Nazism and Communism but with an Islamist coloration. The most important of these ideologies are Khomeiniism, Wahhabism, bin Ladenism, Ba'athism and Arafatism. All seek to force “infidels” out of the Middle East and to re-conquer lands that the Jihadists insist have been stolen.
Jihadist ideology has been behind virtually every terrorist blow inflicted on America – from the Hezbollah bombing of the US Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut in 1983, to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, to the 1996 bombing of our troops in Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to the 1998 attacks on America's embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, to the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, to al Qaeda's magnum opus on Sept. 11, 2001.
Is the War on Terrorism World War IV? That's the name given to this conflict by scholar Eliot A. Cohen and former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey. What they intend to suggest is that this war is as much of an existential threat as were the first and second world wars and the Cold War.
Osama bin Laden would agree. In 1996 he published what he titled a “Declaration of War Against the Americans.” Two years later, he elaborated on the theme, calling the conflict a war on “Crusaders and Jews” and making it absolutely clear who -- in his twisted view -- was at war with whom. “There are two parties to the conflict,” he wrote. “World Christianity, which is allied with Jews and Zionism, led by the United States, Britain and Israel. The second party is the Islamic world.”
But it was only after Sept. 11, 2001 that most people began to take any of this seriously. That meant we were coming late to the game. Throughout the 1990s, al Qaeda trained tens of thousands of terrorists in Afghanistan and other countries. As a result, despite 20 months of significant advances by the US, al Qaeda still has international operatives and sleeper cells that can continue to wage war against us.
Those in the media who have been asking, “Is al Qaeda back?” miss the point. Al Qaeda never went away. Since American forces destroyed al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan, terrorists have managed to strike in Bali, Mombassa and Tunisia, and, more recently, in Saudi Arabia and, Morocco. Though under intense pressure, al Qaeda and its allies show no signs of giving up.
As I write this, intelligence sources are predicting another attack against the US. The only question is: Where and when? Al Qaeda has not succeeded in murdering Americans on American soil since 9/11. But that is still bin Laden's goal, and despite the serious efforts being undertaken – by the Justice Department, the FBI, the Pentagon and Homeland Security, among others – at some point bin Laden probably will manage to slaughter Americans again.
When will the War on Terror be won? No one knows. The first step toward getting the job done is simply to accept that we are at war – not everyone does accept that, even now. The second step is to understand who we are fighting and what it will require to defeat them. The third step is to do what is required.