The following is a guest column from Major General Donald Edwards, Vermont Army National Guard (Ret.), who served in the military for 37 years.
Just last week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair declared with certainty that there will be another terrorist attack aimed at the United States within the next six months. With the Obama administration pursuing record numbers of drone attacks and taking out top al-Qaeda leaders, it’s hard to understand how this could be the case. But the paradox becomes clearer if we take a quick trip back through time to examine the track record of one particular individual: Vice President Dick Cheney.
As a former military officer, it is immensely difficult to speak out against our former vice president. While he was in office, I believed that it was inappropriate to criticize Dick Cheney. But now that he is no longer in government, I am compelled to speak my mind about his disastrous national security policies.
In the days and years following September 11, 2001, Vice President Cheney stood out as the chief architect of a calamitous approach to U.S. foreign policy that resulted in a weakened United States and the recruitment of a new generation of terrorists dedicated to anti-American jihad. The Bush-Cheney contribution to terrorist recruitment is clear from the numbers: In 2000, there were 423 international terrorist attacks. The Iraq War heralded a sharp spike in terrorist attacks, which continued with a 607 percent average yearly increase. Eight years later, there were 11,770 international terrorist attacks, as the terrorists birthed by the Bush-Cheney policies grew up.
Unlike Dick Cheney, who glorifies conflict but has never put his own body on the line, I am a retired military officer. I know firsthand the long list of security threats that our country faces. And I know that Cheney’s reckless strategy, out of touch with today’s threats, made that list longer. The first rule of grand strategy – from Sun Tzu to General Petraeus – is to choose your own battlefield. On September 12, 2001, the United States was in a position to frame the security threats of the new century as the world united against violent, radical extremists. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, was eager to frame his battle as the West versus Islam. The Bush administration walked onto al-Qaeda’s battlefield and began fighting Osama bin Laden’s war.
As even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld realized, winning the fight against al-Qaeda requires killing more terrorists than we create. Instead, Cheney served as a prime recruiter for our enemies. Al-Qaeda featured Guantanamo Bay in its recruiting videos, citing its evasion of the Geneva Conventions as “evidence” of American’s lack of moral standing and antipathy toward Islam.
Defeating al-Qaeda turns on human intelligence, which requires careful infiltration, relationship-building, cultural research, and triangulation of information. But conservatives based their intelligence-gathering tactics on Hollywood movies: bust a knee cap hard enough, and the truth will pour out like blood. In reality, interrogators rarely know whether they have the right knee cap — and even if they do, actual intelligence agents know that busting it is likely to yield a string of lies, misinformation, and false leads. Instead of generating information and creating leads, Cheney’s strategy led to an Arab generation growing up on images of Abu Ghraib.
Finally, quashing al-Qaeda requires focusing on the countries where the movement had built relationships and infrastructure. For over a decade, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership had lived in and erected training camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Meanwhile, Bin Laden’s roots lie in Yemen, and he repeatedly recruited the radically loyal tribes originating in that country for his riskiest missions. Yet the past administration ignored Yemen and starved Afghanistan for troops in order to launch a war in Iraq, where there were no terrorists. Terrorist attacks spiked following the invasion of Iraq, and have continued to grow since.
For a generation of young Arabs now in the prime terrorist age range of 18-25, September 11 was their first political memory. The Bush-Cheney strategy handed Al Qaeda the colors they needed to paint a false picture of “America versus Islam.” It produced hundreds of terrorists who learned that they could be heroes by fighting the West — the West that tortured and indefinitely detained Arab brethren and killed women and children.
And to think we had an opportunity, in the wake of 9/11, to bring about a smarter, more hopeful strategy. America was unified and ready to sacrifice on September 12. If our leaders had called on the best and brightest to learn Arabic or join the CIA, we would now have a flood of fresh intelligence experts. If they had asked us to declare our independence from oil – demanding that auto companies innovate and asking environmentalists to accept a resurgence of nuclear power – we would have stopped funding the bullets that are now going into terrorist guns.
We have not heard the last from Cheney’s terrorists. We cannot waste another day. We must act immediately to build the covert networks we need to fight terrorists. We must prioritize shutting down Guantanamo — a gift that keeps on giving for Al Qaeda — and not make it a political football. And we must understand that, as we did during the fight against the Soviet Union, claiming the higher ground in the debate is strategically important. Cheney sold America’s greatest weapon – our moral authority and our freedoms — on the cheap. Let’s win it back, before more of Cheney’s terrorists strike again.
Update: The original version of this piece did not include the author’s full rank and title. We regret the error.