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Rethinking the post-9/11 strategy

Analysts debate the rhetoric of war as part of the fight against terrorism.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2008

War talk: President Bush talks of a 'global war on terror' in a recent speech at the Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/file


New York

During the seven years since 9/11 there hasn't been a successful terrorist attack within the United States.

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And Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the downing of the World Trade Center, has been pushed back in Iraq where it continues to lose support.

But the core of Al Qaeda continues to thrive, according to security analysts, who note it has increased the number of attacks worldwide since 9/11 as well as its geographic reach.

Those facts have led to two starkly different assessments of where the United States stands in its fight against terror – as well as sharp disagreement on the strategy needed as the country goes forward.

This week the RAND Corp. sparked renewed debate about the nation's strategy when it released a report done for the Defense Department that concluded that the so-called "war on terror" has so far failed to significantly undermine Al Qaeda's capabilities. It suggested it was time for "fundamentally rethinking post-Sept. 11 US counterterrorism strategy."

A top recommendation is to replace the phrase "war on terror" with the more low-key term counterterrorism.

"Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism," says Seth Jones, the study's lead author. "With the growing number of attacks and an expansive reach, one could argue [Al Qaeda] is even growing stronger."

That assessment prompted derision among some conservative security analysts who contend the "war on terror" is being waged successfully and should continue as is.

They argue that the number of terrorist attacks around the world has actually been declining since 2003. The only reason US intelligence assessments indicate an increase is because they include terrorist attacks in Iraq. These analysts argue those should be categorized as war crimes, not terrorist attacks.

"We are winning the war on terror, in fact we've almost won the war on terror," says the Heritage Foundation's James Jay Carafano.

"Terrorist attacks have been declining since 2003," he says. If you look at the polling numbers on [Osama] bin Laden ... they're way down in the Islamic world. Essentially, the only thing left to be done is to get into Pakistan and root out the tribal areas" where Bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

Security experts who favor a change in antiterrorism strategy agree there have been some successes in the fight against Al Qaeda, particularly in Iraq. But they disagree with Mr. Carafano's analysis on several fronts. First, they contend it's important to look at the number of attacks carried out by Al Qaeda and its sympathizers separately from other global terror attacks. That's because most international terrorist attacks are not targeted at the United States, while destroying the US remains one of Al Qaeda's primary goals.