In the new issue of Vanity Fair, journalist Peter Bergen argues that we are, in fact, winning our war against Al Qaeda. “[I]t is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al-Qaeda,” he writes. “Above all, we need to keep al-Qaeda in perspective, remembering that its assets are few, and shrinking.”
Now, Bergen is one of the few Western journalists to meet Osama Bin Laden, and among the world’s foremost experts on Al Qaeda. He also opposed the Iraq War for the same reason President Obama did, as a distraction from the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In other words, Bergen is not just another hawk or war cheerleader, reflexively supporting military action divorced from any realistic aim. He does not claim progress in this war because he always mistakes militarism for wisdom, as, say, Republican hack Bill Kristol does. So it’s very worth taking what Bergen has to say very seriously.
Even if he is wrong about the astuteness of continuing to fight in Afghanistan, as I think he is, Bergen points to a larger truth about the vast majority of commentary and analysis about Al Qaeda: most of it focuses not on Al Qaeda but on us. Our blunders, our costs, our misguided decisions and our weaknesses. Very little looks at developments from Al Qaeda’s point of view. And from Al Qaeda’s point of view, things don’t look so pretty.
Bin Laden imagined Muslims rising up worldwide and overthrowing their oppressors after 9/11, so inspired by the attacks would they be. That obviously hasn’t happened. Al Qaeda imagined the U.S. ceasing its support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other un-Islamic regimes in the Middle East. That hasn’t happened, either. Bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, believed his organization could gain control of a state and expand its Taliban-like rule outward. Nope. In fact, all of Al Qaeda’s larger goals of restoring the caliphate and ushering in a period of worldwide ultra-Islamic rule have failed to materialize.
Nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda is much further away from achieving its primary aims than it was before the attacks, when it could at least claim to have a mini-state within Afghanistan. Yes, the U.S. has expended great resources, lost thousands of soldiers, and traded away many valuable liberties and values. I think Bergen understates these costs when he writes, “During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror—notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners—have bought bin Laden and his allies some time.”
But for Al Qaeda, bruising America is only a means to an end. The point of hurting the United States was for it to crumble, not for it to carry on in a wounded state. After America broke apart easily, like a spider web, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel would surely follow, bin Laden thought. Taking over those lands was the purpose of attacking the U.S. in the first place. What good are spectacular terrorist events against infidels if they don’t lead to the outcomes you want?
True, Al Qaeda still exists, and arguably might even still be able to execute another attack on the American homeland. But it has not done so in nearly 10 years, and not for lack of trying. The ultimate way to defeat Al Qaeda is not just to prevent it from killing Americans—though of course that is a major sub-goal of ours—but to kill or capture its current members, and convince prospective future anti-American jihadis not to join its cause. Preventing Al Qaeda from achieving its larger Islamist aims is a prime way to do that. Even the most committed ideologues can only fight for so long without making significant progress towards its goals, after all.
All of which is to say that things probably aren’t as bad as they seem. Things probably aren’t as bad as they always seem. Al Qaeda has a fundamentally unrealistic goal and a deeply unappealing ideology. As long as the U.S. and its allies refrain from making too many too mistakes, as long as we play the long game and keep Al Qaeda isolated, as long as we protect the American homeland, we will win this war. We already are.