This tenth anniversary of that grim September day when so many innocent people died in the most horrible fashion is a time to mourn their loss, as well as the thousands who have been lost in the past 10 years of the war against global terrorists, and to share in the grief of the loved ones they left behind.
It is also an occasion to give thanks for the heroism of so many on that day whose courage prevented the deaths of thousands more. There were the New York firefighters and police who rushed into the burning buildings to rescue people, Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers on Flight 93 who brought down that plane before it could reach Washington, Richard Rescorla, whose foresight and bravery may well have saved thousands, and scores of others whose sacrifices saved lives.
We also have reason to be thankful for the heroism of the brave Americans—and their allies from many different countries, including from Afghanistan and Iraq—who have been fighting the war on terror for the past 10 years. More than 1,700 Americans have lost their lives in Afghanistan and more than 4,400 in Iraq. Many more have suffered grievous wounds. But we have not been fighting alone. Afghans and Iraqis fighting for their countries have borne the greatest burden. Although the numbers are less precise, more than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed since 2003 and more than 5,500 Afghans in just the last four years. More than 300 other coalition members have been killed in Iraq and almost 1,000 in Afghanistan, the largest share coming from our British allies, who have suffered 559 deaths. Those numbers represent individual tragedies but also individual bravery for which we all should give thanks.
One way to honor those dead is to recognize what they accomplished. Along with the mourning and thanksgiving, there is also much to celebrate on this anniversary. Three successes stand out as particularly important.
First is the fact that there have been no further successful attacks on the United States. No one predicted this outcome 10 years ago. Indeed, there was every reason to expect additional large-scale attacks, and we know that the terrorists were planning for them. They were stopped thanks to a massive effort by the United States, with a great deal of support from others, to go on the offensive against the terrorists and to treat this fight as a matter of national security and not just law enforcement.
Until September 11, terrorism was treated in the framework of law enforcement. Captured terrorists were treated as defendants awaiting prosecution, not as potential sources of intelligence about future plots. States that supported terrorism might be the object of retaliatory strikes, as with Libya in 1986 or Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, or subjected to restrictions on commercial transactions. But there was no serious effort to get them out of the terrorism business entirely. Even Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and close relative and associate of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who went on to mastermind the attacks of 9/11, was read his Miranda rights and never seriously questioned about what he might know of future terrorist plans.
That changed fundamentally after 9/11. One can debate whether all the individual decisions taken under that new approach were necessary, but it is impossible to argue that we could have achieved the success we have so far without treating terrorists not just as criminals but as enemies.
Beyond simply preventing additional attacks, our second big success has been against al Qaeda itself. Although still a force to be reckoned with, it is a shadow of its former self, with Osama bin Laden dead, many of its other senior leaders dead or captured, its sanctuary in Afghanistan gone, and its attempt to defeat the United States in Iraq a strategic failure.
The third success we have occasion to celebrate is that state support for terrorism is in retreat. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are no longer sponsors of terrorism—although there are groups that would like to return them to that status. We can hope that Syrians will soon topple the terror-sponsoring Assad regime. That would still leave serious dangers from North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons, and from Iran, which aspires to get them. But it is significant progress.
The most controversial element of the strategy adopted after 9/11, except perhaps for enhanced interrogations and the terrorist surveillance policy, was the decision to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That war was costly and there were some costly mistakes. But that doesn’t settle the question of whether the war was a mistake. We paid a high price in Korea for MacArthur’s decision to push up to the Yalu River, but few would argue today that Truman’s controversial decision to come to the defense of South Korea was a mistake. Even World War II, the wisdom and necessity of which even fewer would question, had its costly errors. After the brilliant D-Day landings, we wound up bogged down in the hedgerows of Normandy and suffered 40,000 casualties in six weeks. Failing to recognize that Germany was not yet defeated, we were unprepared for its attack in the Ardennes in December 1944. The Battle of the Bulge that ensued, one of the largest in American history, proved to be a disaster for the Germans. But it also cost more than 80,000 American casualties.
Why did we go to war against Saddam Hussein when it was al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11? Saddam presented the special danger of someone who might provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. He had a record of supporting terrorism and praised the attacks of 9/11. (Even the Taliban condemned the attacks, while complaining that there was no proof al Qaeda was responsible.) Alone among heads of government, Saddam warned that Americans should feel “pain” so that “when they suffer, they will find the right solution and the right path.” And he defied multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, including the ones that required him to dismantle the chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs he had been developing prior to the 1991 Gulf war.
It is true that we didn’t find the stockpiles of WMD that American and other intelligence agencies predicted we would discover in Iraq. But the Iraq Survey Group—the very same authority that everyone relies on for the finding that there were no WMD—is equally clear that Saddam had the intention and the capability to restart those programs once the sanctions were lifted. According to George Piro, Saddam’s Arabic-speaking FBI interviewer, “He wanted to pursue all of WMD. . . . [He wanted] to reconstitute his entire WMD program,” chemical, biological, and even nuclear. “The folks that he needed to reconstitute his program [were] still there.”
Those who say that it was a mistake to go to Afghanistan and remove the Taliban have an obligation to say what alternative course of action would have produced success. Strategic bombing, the 1998 response on a larger scale, wasn’t going to force the Taliban to abandon al Qaeda, nor would it have enabled us to capture so many key terrorists. And removing the Taliban necessarily confronted us with the challenge of working to create an Afghan government that could stand on its own feet.
Similarly, in Iraq, simply continuing the sanctions regime—which was collapsing—would have confronted us sooner or later with the problem of Saddam’s WMD ambitions. We might have armed and supported Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, instead of a full-scale invasion. But whichever choice we made, I believe it was right to confront him sooner rather than later.
Ten years after 9/11 we increasingly hear complaints that our response was an overreaction. In fact, by preventing further attacks we may have prevented a different kind of overreaction, the one that happened 70 years ago. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American citizens were put in internment camps, a stain on the record of our democracy. After 9/11, despite some ugly incidents, Americans on the whole behaved well toward their Muslim fellow citizens, and leaders from both political parties went out of their way to emphasize the importance of doing so.
America is not at war with Islam, either here or abroad. Indeed, in Afghanistan and Iraq our most important partners are Muslims. As long as there are images of Americans killing enemies who happen to be Muslims, those images will be used to feed anti-American propaganda among the world’s Muslims. As long as those images are around, we have to make a sustained effort to explain that we are fighting in defense of people who also happen to be Muslims. And we have done this many times before: in Kuwait in 1991, in northern Iraq in 1991, in Somalia in 1992, in Bosnia in 1995, in Kosovo in 1999, and most recently in Libya this year. We have acted in our national interest and because we believed that the Muslims of those countries deserved our help, not because they were Muslims but because they were human beings. That impressive record needs to be recounted much more often, because it is often forgotten.
There is one final thing to celebrate on the tenth anniversary of al Qaeda’s terrible deed. That is the rejection of al Qaeda’s ideology by so many brave Arabs, in many different countries, who are risking their lives not for a heavenly paradise but for freedom and democracy. We are only at the beginning of that story. We don’t know what season will follow the Arab Spring. But what we hear these protesters saying is not that they love death, but that they love freedom even more than life. That is no small thing, and something else to celebrate on this grim anniversary.