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Gates at War

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The frustration Gates expresses in 600 pages is aimed at senior civilian and military leaders of both parties who did not recognize or shoulder their responsibility to provide full support for American troops they had sent into harm’s way. That frustration is spot-on. But it is not sufficient. War does not end when we bring our troops home—it ends when our enemy loses the will or ability to continue to fight. So far he has lost neither.

Al Qaeda in Iraq killed thousands of Iraqis in 2013. Al Qaeda franchises have killed thousands more in Yemen, Syria, and now Lebanon. Radicalized youth from Europe, America, the Caucasus, and Russia, to say nothing of the Muslim world, have gone to wage what they call jihad in Syria, and some are returning to their homelands. As my colleague Leon Aron points out in a forthcoming paper from the American Enterprise Institute, the al Qaeda threat has begun to spread into Russia. An ethnic Russian youth who converted to Islam and was radicalized in the Caucasus blew himself up in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), one of several such attacks to shake the Russian heartland in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. Spotty reports from China suggest that ethnic Uighurs are expanding their own terrorist campaign, and we have seen at least one terrorist video released half in Turkish and half in Uighur. The tide of war—of this war, of al Qaeda’s war against us—is not receding, it is advancing.

It does not follow that we must or should invade everywhere or send thousands of troops all over the place. This war is complicated and our responses to it must take that into account. But we must understand that we are still at war. We must understand that inaction is a form of action, indecision a form of decision. Above all, we should remember the mistakes we made in the past, all of them, and remember the price we paid for convincing ourselves that we were not at war when, in fact, we were.

We still have opportunities to make a difference without a massive intervention. We can and should support the moderate Syrian opposition now fighting both against Bashar al-Assad and against one of the al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. We can and should support the Iraqi tribes fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq while working to mediate between them and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom they see as almost as great a threat. We can and should commit to extending our presence in Afghanistan and so avoid repeating the disastrous failure of our diplomacy to secure a similar extension in Iraq after 2011. It may still be possible for relatively small and limited interventions that do not involve the deployment of large numbers of U.S. troops to change the balance in these key fights. But the window for that opportunity is closing fast. If we allow it to close, our options will become more stark and the choice between massive intervention and unacceptable danger may well become the only choice we have.

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