So who says Islamic fanatics don’t celebrate Christmas? This week our friends in Al Qaeda sent Americans a little present in the form of a massive murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Jidda that, after three hours of vicious gun play, left nine people dead. Happy Holidays.
Readers should excuse my cynicism about the brutal attack, but a certain amount of cynicism is perhaps in order when you consider that after two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and months of not very successful counter-insurgency warfare in the latter country, Al Qaeda remains entirely capable of launching the very kind of onslaught it just did. What does that tell us?
What it told President Bush is that “the terrorists are still on the move,” a sentiment which for once is unexceptionable. “They’re interested in affecting the will of free countries” [Presumably he means Saudi Arabia.] They want us to leave Saudi Arabia [That also is true, and why shouldn't they?] They want us to leave Iraq [right again, though it might be noted that only since the U.S. invasion of Iraq has Al Qaeda played any role in that country.] They want us to grow timid and weary in the face of their willingness to kill randomly and kill innocent people. [Yes, that's more or less the terrorist strategy]. And that’s why these elections in Iraq are very important. [Hello?]”
Well, what the attack in Jidda tells Mr. Bush is one thing, but what it should tell us (and him) is that the great war on terror has been pretty much of a flop. We should have known that from the Madrid bombing last spring, and we should certainly have known that from the protracted unpleasantness in Iraq itself, where the guerrilla insurgency (or, if you prefer, terrorism) continues to flourish, despite months of American casualties and combat. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, fresh from a cheery review of the smashing success of the “war against terrorism” in Iraq, now pronounces that we can probably pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in four years.
That’s after the troop increase the Pentagon has just called for, and it will depend on “the progress that Iraq’s civilian government and security forces made by then,” as the New York Times reports. So there’s no guarantee whatsoever that we will be able to withdraw in four years at all.
Meanwhile, the president of Pakistan informed Mr. Bush last week that his government has not the foggiest idea as to where the fabled Osama bin Laden might be. A few weeks ago, U.S. authorities were claiming they had the terrorist mastermind in their gunsights, but President Musharraf has a different tale. “He is alive,” he affirmed,“but more than that, where he is, no, it’ll be just a guess and it won’t have much basis.”
It’s not all his fault, he also says, because the United States just doesn’t have enough troops in Afghanistan to ferret Osama out of his den and because it’s hard to tell who is and who isn’t really part of Al Qaeda and because of all sorts of other reasons, most of which add up to one nightmarish conclusion: The “war on terror” to which Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have committed this country is not really winnable at all.
It is not winnable because it is not a war in the conventional sense that Western nations have historically fought wars. Western wars, from the Middle Ages on, have consisted of fairly brief periods of conflict between discrete forces. After a bit, one side or the other is exhausted or defeated, and the war is over. That is not how gentlemen like Osama bin Laden and his friends fight “wars.”
War for them is a way of life, which is why you don’t hear much from them for long periods of time, when they suddenly blow up a couple of skyscrapers or hit a consulate or slaughter several dozen civilians. War—”jihad”—is not a deviation from the normal course of affairs for them. It is the normal course of affairs.
And it’s also a process that makes no distinction between civilian and combatant, which is why we call it “terrorist.” Hence, it’s impossible to protect against. If you protect the skyscrapers, they hit the commuter trains. If you cover the commuter trains, they hit the shopping malls.
Finally, it is a war we, the West and the United States, don’t have to fight at all, or at least one we didn’t have to fight before Mr. Bush and his advisers had the brilliant idea of dragging us into it. It ought to be obvious to everyone today that we will not and cannot win it. The question now should be, how do we get out of it?