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September 17, 2007: A major problem with the war on terror is keeping score. Even if you count things like the number of terrorists killed or captured, and the number of attacks, there's no consensus on what the numbers mean. Moreover, journalists and pundits rarely take a close look at what might have happened if nothing were done. Granted, it's difficult to report on another time line that didn't happen. The government actually spends a lot of money on computer simulations that do just this. But these tend to make poorly attended news stories, so journalists avoid them. Since these simulations are not reported, they, effectively, do not exist. But consider that, without an invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda would still be flying high and exploiting its popularity to carry out more attacks in the West.

Meanwhile, the real war on terror started off well enough, with the invasion of Afghanistan a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Taliban government was overthrown within two months, but most of the terrorist leaders escaped to the tribal territories in Pakistan. Oops. That was widely interpreted as a defeat. The problem was, explaining the details of all this was rather more than the media could handle.

Military planners were better at sorting things out. But they had to be, and they had plenty of practice. Secrecy was necessary to make military operations effective, and that secrecy meant not telling the media, or anyone else, lots of interesting things. Despite that restriction, that's a lot that is known via open sources.

Start with Afghanistan. The area has been in a state of perpetual civil war for thousands of years. The tribal thing. Neighboring powers (Mongols, Iranians) have conquered the region, but only when it was worth the effort. That means controlling Afghanistan no longer mattered after the "silk road" trade routes became useless after the 16th century (when European ships became capable to reaching the Far East faster and more economically than the caravans moving from China to the Middle East). After that, the tribes were largely left alone. If there was too much activity by tribal raiders, the more civilized neighbors (Russians, Iranians, British in India) would raid right back until the tribes agreed to cool it. The tribes were always a nuisance, they were never stronger militarily than they more numerous, civilized and better armed, neighbors.

No central government has ruled the Pushtun tribes in northern Pakistan for centuries. Knowing that, it made sense that Osama and his Taliban buddies would flee for the Pakistani border, and sanctuary with the Pushtun tribes on the other side, when it became obvious that the American smart bombs were giving the rebellious (against the Taliban) tribes of northern Afghanistan an insurmountable advantage.

In the last six years, Pakistan has been unable to assert control of the tribal territories, where numerous terrorists are hiding out. You can complain about that all you want, but that's that. Sending American troops into Pakistan risks turning the entire country against the invaders. It's not like the Pakistanis are pro-terrorist, most are not. But they have been living with the tribal problem for thousands of years, and don't want foreigners coming in and making things worse. Some U.S. Special Operations officers have urged that some quick operations inside Pakistan be undertaken. But the risk of success (grabbing Osama and company) is too low, and the chance of creating a lot more hostile Pakistanis is too great. It's a stalemate, with the Taliban setting up shop in northern Pakistan and sending raiding parties into Afghanistan. This greatly upsets the Afghans, but they don't want war with Pakistan either. So there you are, a problem with no easy solutions.

Then there's Iraq. The idea of taking down the nastiest dictator in the Middle East had lots of support, until someone actually did it. Few in the U.S. government like to admit it, but this is a very clever strategy. It's known, since antiquity, as "taking the war to the enemy." Setting up a democracy in a region that has none (at least among the Arabs), and suffering nearly 30,000 casualties (so far) to help it get established, is bold. Al Qaeda hates democracy, and considers it un-Islamic. Planting U.S. troops in Iraq, and holding elections put Shia Arabs in power. Al Qaeda howled even louder, as Sunni Moslems (which al Qaeda represents) consider Shia Moslems to be heretics. Now al Qaeda was forced to turn its attention from attacks in the West, and concentrate on its own back yard. That went very badly for the terrorists. Practicing their usual tactics on Moslems, even if most of the victims were Shia, hurt their popularity in the Islamic world. Eventually, even their Sunni Arab allies in Iraq turned against them.

Establishing democracy, and efficient government, in the Arab world is another front in the war on terror that did not get the attention it deserves. Establishing an Arab democracy has never been done before, and it is key to doing something about the corruption and poor government that has created terrorist organizations in the region for centuries. Al Qaeda is not the first group of religious fanatics to appear and try to "purify" the Islamic world. Until there is some serious reform, al Qaeda won't be the last lot of murderous advocates for change.

Another front of the war is the media battle. Here, al Qaeda has been most successful. Those who oppose the U.S. in general (for a variety of reasons) have become allies (openly or covertly) with Islamic radical groups. That made al Qaeda look better than it really is. But, in general, the terrorists have been taking a beating. It's not newsworthy to admit this, but there it is.

 


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