The memoir of former defense secretary Robert M. Gates has landed with a bang. Gates has harsh words for President Barack Obama’s wartime decision-making and quotes Hillary Clinton saying that her opposition to the surge in 2007 was political. There is more than enough to outrage partisans—and even non-partisans—on both sides of the political spectrum. But outrage about the book will only further the very problem Gates was trying to highlight. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War is a lengthy lament that far too few leaders in Washington, civilian or military, Democratic or Republican, understand that the United States was—and is—at war. Even fewer understand what that means. This critique is right and important, and it highlights a great peril to the nation in a dangerous time.
America is still at war. Tens of thousands of American soldiers are fighting and occasionally dying in Afghanistan. If President Obama heeds the advice of his military and considers the long-term interests of the United States, there will still be thousands of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Changing the name of their mission and declaring “combat operations” to be over will not change the reality. When soldiers go into the field against enemies trying to kill them, they are at war. When they are at war, we as a nation are at war, or should be. That is the central point Gates was trying to get across.
Why are we at war? Gates is at pains to avoid relitigating the invasion of Iraq or operations in Afghanistan, and quite rightly. We are where we are. And that is in a war that we did not begin and that we cannot unilaterally end. The war began in 1993 with al Qaeda’s first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center. The United States did not recognize that attack as the start of a prolonged conflict. If we had, we might have been less phlegmatic about it, about the al Qaeda attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and about the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. We might have responded to each of those battles in Osama bin Laden’s campaign with something more than cruise missile strikes that hit nothing and criminal investigations that went nowhere.
We need not have invaded anywhere in the 1990s to have averted the disaster that struck us in 2001. The camps from which bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks were protected by both the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. Both groups were fighting a civil war against their former anti-Soviet allies, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, led by Tajik fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud. The United States had supported Massoud, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), as it had also supported the Haqqanis and five other major Afghan factions. We knew Massoud, and we knew what was going on inside Afghanistan in the 1990s. We also should have known Jalaluddin Haqqani, the man who was sheltering bin Laden, and known him for the militant Islamist that he always was. We believed that we had no dog in that fight, however, after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, and we offered no meaningful assistance to anyone.
Yet Haqqani and the Taliban did not have an easy time defeating Massoud—whom al Qaeda assassinated on September 9, 2011, to weaken their most immediate foes right before launching another attack on what bin Laden referred to as “the far enemy.” U.S. assistance to him could have helped a great deal—assistance like advisers, equipment, and training. Massoud did not need troops—he had troops. They were the same troops with which his successors toppled the Taliban in a few weeks in late 2001, once supplied with limited American assistance and almost no boots on the ground. Massoud needed outside help to counterbalance the enormous amount of support the ISI continued to give his extremist foes after cutting him off when the Soviets left. The United States was somnolent. Then we were attacked, devastatingly, at home.
We stand today in a similar situation in the very same war. We drove al Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2002 and have largely kept it out—the only enduring success we have had in this conflict. President Obama completed the efforts of his predecessor to find and kill Osama bin Laden, yet Ayman al Zawahiri replaced him almost without missing a beat. Now we are trying to tell ourselves that we no longer have a dog in the Afghan fight—again. We are trying to convince ourselves that al Qaeda franchises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa—groups that have formally sworn allegiance to Zawahiri and to al Qaeda’s global Islamist ideology and have in turn received formal recognition by al Qaeda’s senior leadership—are not really a threat to us. We may indeed convince ourselves, but that will not change the reality that they are a serious threat.
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.