Eight years ago this week, Osama bin Laden watched and then celebrated as a terrorist attack he had authorized brought down the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, slaughtering thousands of innocent Americans.
Bin Laden was, at that time, in Afghanistan, which was, at that time, ruled by the Taliban. Soon, U.S. forces and their anti-Taliban Afghan allies would topple the Taliban. Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar would flee across the mountainous border into the wild, tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. From that base, they would organize an insurgency against U.S. and NATO forces and the new Afghan government.
Conservatives are now divided over this conflict. The debate on the right is interesting but academic: Barack Obama — no conservative — is president. During his campaign for the White House, he blasted President Bush for diverting to Iraq resources needed for Afghanistan, the "good war," the war that, he emphasized, must be fought and won. Since becoming president, Obama has named his own commander for Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and earlier this year, he sent 21,000 additional troops, a down payment on the increased resources needed to turn the tide.
But if Obama intends for this mission to succeed, it will require more than boots on the ground and drones in the air. He also will have to use his not-inconsiderable powers of persuasion to make the case that Afghanistan is both worth winning and winnable. If he can not bring himself to do that — with at least as much passion as he's put into more than 100 speeches on health care — support for the fight in Afghanistan will collapse, and nothing pro-mission conservatives say, write, or do can prevent it. Does history offer any precedent for an ambivalent commander-in-chief leading a nation to victory in war?
Columnist George Will has made the conservative critique forcefully, contending that American troops are not so much battling America's enemies in Afghanistan as nation-building and democracy-promoting — Sisyphean tasks at best in such a remote corner of the world.
Pro-mission conservatives argue that promoting economic development and improved governance are simply components of counterinsurgency, the method of warfare — as we learned the hard way in Iraq — most likely to succeed against militant jihadis on Third World battlefields.
I would stress this: Afghanistan is not a war. It is one battle in what — I'm not the first to deduce — is going to be a long war, a global conflict to defend America and the West against an insidiously dangerous enemy that has emerged from within the Islamic world.
It is a war over ideas as much as it is a war over land. In fact, as real estate, Afghanistan is of minimal value. But what happens there will help determine how we — and our enemies and the millions of people around the world who have not taken sides — understand what this struggle is about and who is likely to prevail.
"It was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that laid much of the imaginative groundwork for 9/11," Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens points out. "If one superpower could be brought down, why not the other?"
General McChrystal and his commander, Gen. David A. Petraeus (a brilliant military mind), know what needs to get done to win the Battle of Afghanistan. They ask only that we provide the troops, weapons, and support.
Less certain is whether political leaders on either side of the aisle have a coherent strategy to win the broader conflict. I suspect bin Laden was correct when he observed that most people prefer a strong horse to a weak horse. The strategic implication is that America and the few allies that have any fight left in them need to beat al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militant Islamists like rented mules.
It is a fact of life that generals who win victories attract recruits; losing generals end up alone. What's more, in a war against religious fanatics — the Taliban is not, as NBC's David Gregory recently said, a "nationalist movement" — no editorial, no speech, no talking point demonstrates the absence of divine endorsement quite so convincingly as defeat on the battlefield.
Any time infidels flee, declaring "This is a war that can't be won!" or even "This is a war that can't be won militarily!" the jihadis gain. By contrast, any time jihadis flee because they can't stand up to "the strongest tribe," they lose more than that engagement and lines on a map.
"We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York, and London," said Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban. His recent death — killed in Pakistan killed by an American drone launched from Afghanistan — suggests his prayer went unanswered. It suggests, also, that his bellicose interpretation of Islam may be a dead end — both figuratively and literally.
It was consequential that American forces and our Iraqi allies defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq (and if democracy promotion is not your top priority, don't fret that the government there is flawed). It will be useful for us to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan (and don't expect to leave behind a Costa Rica of the Hindu Kush; just leave behind local forces trained to defend themselves). It is imperative, too, that we exert maximum pressure on the Islamist regime in Tehran that has been waging war against us for 30 years, and is today supporting terrorists from Afghanistan to Iraq to Gaza to Argentina.
If this struggle is too much for the present generation, we will deserve what comes in its place. Americans used to say that freedom is not free, that it must be earned by generation after generation. That sounds hokey to 21st-century ears, I know. That doesn't make it less true.
Our enemies believe history and God are on their side. They are eager to fight for victory — which they define as bringing death, destruction, and humiliation to you and your children. They say this plainly in their speeches and sermons. They are not seriously attempting to delude anyone. Rather, they are counting on us to delude ourselves. Eight years after 9/11, with many on the left and the right arguing for retreat, and a president who doesn't appear to know his own mind, can anyone say with confidence that they are wrong?