We all have an opinion of what has happened in the twenty years since 9/11, here’s mine:
I wrote in earlier essays about lessons learned from Afghanistan but here we should address the larger issue not of lessons learned but lessons unlearned from our two decade fight against those who use terror as a tactic.
That’s the first lesson we didn’t learn,” Terror isn’t an ism, it’s a tactic based on instilling fear in the minds of your adversary. Fear is an emotion used by all governments to some extent. Even in pre-9/11 America the average citizen feared the Internal Revenue Service and like Lieutenant Speirs in Band of Brothers the IRS did nothing to discourage that fear for they found it useful in doing their job. In the two decades since 9/11 the government has upped the fear level to allow it to tighten its ability to control movement, financial transactions, speech and other aspects of American life. Rather than spinning a positive message of how we would accept and overcome the situation we were encouraged to fear our adversaries. This, of course, made for excellent media fodder and we have been fed this fodder constantly for twenty years, sometimes with a slight flavor change like, fear the climate, fear SARS, fear Ebola, fear COVID, fear Republicans, fear those who will not take orders.
The second lesson we didn’t learn was, it isn’t and never was about Religion. The ongoing conflict isn’t about Radical Islam versus the world, it’s about the same thing any conflict is about: who’s going to be in charge. We stumbled all over ourselves trying to separate the good Muslims from the bad Muslims and trying not to offend the good Muslims. Perhaps that is because we saw Islam as a monolithic religion when, in reality, there is no central controlling mechanism and the religion revolves around Mosques, Imams and tribes. It never was a war of religion but by allowing our adversaries to set and control the narrative they were allowed to fight a total war for domination while we were restricted to fighting an enemy who claimed we were prosecuting a war against religion making for even more fodder for their apologists.
The third lesson we didn’t learn was one we should have learned in the Philippines in the early twentieth century during the Philippine War and certainly during the Vietnam war. When you fight an adversary on their ground and they engage in asymmetrical tactics of war, you will eventually lose the will to continue to prosecute that war and the adversary, having taken the long view, will win. It’s their turf, they know the land and the people and they can wait, all the while picking a fight here and there to remind people they’re still around. They can melt into the mountains and live with their cousins. They can infiltrate your “good Muslims” and make use of terror attacks. They will operate just like the Sicilian Mafia or the Russian Mafia or Israeli, Armenian, Chinese mafias do against organized law enforcement organizations.
The fourth lesson we didn’t learn is that occupying strong points against an adversary engaged in asymmetrical warfare is useless and the use of conventional military forces only increases your vulnerability to terror tactics by increasing the number of available targets. This was a lesson learned by the Mongols, Mughals, Persians, British and Russians in that very same place we call Afghanistan. When you fight a war by a different set of rules from those being used by your adversary you’re going to be constantly at a disadvantage. As Henry Kissinger so astutely observed, “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose and the conventional army loses if it does not win.” Since winning has no true definition in an asymmetrical situation, the conventional army is doomed to lose as long as the guerrilla is able to mount resistance. There are ways to defeat guerrillas but it is not with conventional forces. It is done by identifying their leaders and sources of support and quietly removing or interdicting both.
The fifth lesson we didn’t learn is you don’t change the hearts and minds of individuals overnight or even over a decade or so. When you’ve had fourteen hundred plus years of a culture the people in that culture don’t suddenly say, “Ah, I see we’ve been wrong all this time and you are right and we will follow your new ideas.” That’s known in the religion trade as a primordial revelation and they are few and far between. Saul on the road to Damascus perhaps but that took the intervention of God and, as much as some idealistic oriented politicians might like to think, the US government is not God.
The sixth lesson we didn’t learn is terror has always been and will always be a tool of small groups seeking power. You do not win a war on terror and it shouldn’t even be called a war. We refer to wars because we use the military rather than specially trained operatives conducting affairs on our behalf. We use the military because to our way of thinking deaths in combat are permissable and acceptable but to kill an individual away from the battlefield is somehow underhanded. In other words we allow our sensitivities of idealism to interfere with the saving of lives by removing the cause of those deaths surreptitiously. Our Western canon of religion and philosophy has us believing that many deaths are permissible if we fight by the rules we have established in that Western canon. Our adversaries are not so constricted and thus inflict greater causalities upon us because of our quixotic sense of honor. And when those casualties occur, our government and media turn up the volume on the fear klaxons calling us to cower in our revetments of safety under their watch.
The seventh lesson we didn’t learn was human nature doesn’t change. Check whatever historical record you like and you will find revolts recorded in all of them. People want to be in charge of their own lives and they do not take kindly to others telling them how they must live. They will band together and struggle for the right of self-determination; the right to be in charge. Those opposing that struggle will find rationalizations for why people should not be in charge of themselves and will inevitably use force in an attempt to subdue the rebels. The most successful outcome to these struggles occurs when the rebels are isolated and any attempt they make to export their ideas outside their sphere of influence, especially through the use of terror tactics, is met with an overwhelming non-conventional response. Such a response might simply be the disappearance of their recognized leaders and does not have to be a publicized affair. In fact it would be better if it were not.
Perhaps it is not too late to learn these lessons as we approach the age of maturity in our struggle, remembering that Orwell and Churchill reminded us that we sleep safely at night because there are rough people who stand ready to do violence to those who would oppose that safety. It’s time to come out from under the umbrella of fear and take a realistic approach to the world as it is and not as we would like it to be.
Biggest lesson we never seem to learn is that you can’t allow your enemy a sanctuary where they can withdraw, rest and rearm. We had many levers of power never used against the cynical Paks who pretended to help us but were demonstrably helping our enemy. Sanctions, cutting remittances ending ALL foreign aid and allowing surgical strikes into Quetta and Tribal Areas would have been a start.