Tony Karon has a provocative piece in TIME arguing that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have failed regardless of how many innocents they have killed or will kill. He’s only half right.

The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington — like those that preceded it in East Africa in 1998 and those that followed in London, Madrid, Bali and other places — were tactical successes, in that they managed to kill hundreds of innocents, grab the world’s headlines and briefly dominate the nightmares of Western policy makers. But the strategy of which those attacks formed part has proven to be fundamentally flawed. Terrorism departs from the rules of war by deliberately targeting the innocent, but it shares the basic motive force of conventional warfare — “the pursuit of politics by other means, ” as Clausewitz wrote.

The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not simply to kill Americans; they formed part of bin Laden’s strategy to launch a global Islamist revolution aimed at ending U.S. influence in Muslim countries, overthrowing regimes there allied with Washington, and putting al-Qaeda at the head of a global Islamist insurgency whose objective was to restore the rule of the Islamic Caliphate that had once ruled territory stretching from Moorish Spain through much of Asia.

Today, however, al-Qaeda is believed to comprise a couple of hundred desperate men, their core leaders hiding out in Pakistan’s tribal wilds and under constant threat of attack by ever-present U.S. drone aircraft, their place in Western nightmares and security assessments long-since eclipsed by such longtime rivals as Iran, Hizballah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. This year’s official threat assessment by the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence cited the primary security challenge facing the U.S. as the global economic downturn. The report cited “notable progress in Muslim public opinion turning against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda” and said no country was at risk of falling to Qaeda-inspired extremists. It argued that sustained pressure against the movement’s surviving core in the Pakistani tribal wilds was degrading its organizational cohesion and diminishing the threat it poses.

This is true as far as it goes. Indeed, I wrote much the same thing in a January 2006 piece for TCS Daily.

[W]ars are fought for strategic goals. Al Qaeda announced theirs in a 1998 declaration of Jihad. As summarized by Michael Scheuer, they were:

  • The end of U.S. aid to Israel and the ultimate elimination of that state;
  • The removal of U.S. and Western forces from the Arabian peninsula;
  • The removal of U.S. and Western military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands;
  • The end of U.S. support for the oppression of Muslims by Russia, China, and India;
  • The end of U.S. protection for repressive, apostate Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, et cetera;
  • The conservation of the Muslim world’s energy resource and their sale at higher prices. How is it going for the Jihadists?

The reality:

  • Israel is stronger than ever and U.S. support could hardly be stronger. The 9/11 attacks, if anything, solidified U.S.-Israeli relations, since it brought home the everyday fear of terrorist attacks Israelis endure on a daily basis.
  • Western forces have indeed left Saudi Arabia, only to be mobilized and reinforced in Arab lands.
  • Western forces are deeply entrenched in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands and have toppled the first two regimes and strongly influenced the direction of others, notably Pakistan.
  • The U.S. still does not support oppression of Muslims in Russia, China, or India but is certainly less sympathetic to the Chechnyan cause than before 9/11.
  • The U.S. has drawn closer to the governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan, although it is pushing for serious democratization.
  • Oil prices have gone up rather dramatically, although owing more to economic growth in China and India than events in the Middle East.

Aside from a modest chill in US-Israeli relations owing to changes in both governments, that all remains the case.

But Osama’s failure to achieve his objectives does not translate into us winning.  This is an asymmetric war, not only in terms of means and tactics but also of objectives.  

As Mother JonesKevin Drum has pointed out,

9/11 touched off two wars; a regime of officially sanctioned torture by the United States; a massive increase in our surveillance apparatus; a population grown so fearful that it’s meekly accepted a new routine of intrusive security checks that would have been unthinkable a generation ago; and a multi-trillion dollar debt that’s still growing without end.  Osama didn’t get his caliphate, but still: if what he got at the cost of 19 lives and few box cutters was a failure, I’d hate to see what counts as a success.

I might quibble with some of that but he’s essentially right:  The damage from 9/11 was much more than the 3000 killed and three buildings hit that day; indeed, the costs continue to mount.  As I wrote in another TCS essay in August 2006, Naval Postgraduate School political economist Robert Looney puts the direct costs of the attack at $27.2 billion but, “Given how tremendously wealthy the United States and other Western nations are, however, the most significant cost has been in diminished freedom.”

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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