Advertisement

Thursday will mark the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington, DC. It's impossible to discuss the consequences of these attacks without also examining the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What have and haven't we learned from these events?

Probably the single most important lesson is that terrorism is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. The war in Afghanistan began a month after the attacks and continues to this day. An international effort led by the United States attempted to root out Al Qaeda from its safe base there. It did not, as Osama bin Ladin and the Al Qaeda leadership took refuge from U.S. airstrikes in more inaccessible mountain regions and across the Pakistani border. The consequence of the George W. Bush administration's decision to abandon its pursuit of bin Ladin was continued growth of Al Qaeda's influence among Islamist militants. Al Qaeda and terrorist groups associated with it have launched hundreds of bombings, assassinations and suicide attacks on American and European diplomatic missions, economic interests and military installations since Bush declared in 2003 that he was not concerned with capturing bin Ladin and turned his attention to Iraq.

Advertisement

Many lessons are to be found in the conduct of the Iraq war. Doubtless, the most important one is to have a plan to restore order once the fighting ends. Just weeks after Operation Iraqi Freedom started, Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. His administration believed that a grateful nation would transform itself from a country with a long history of tribal conflicts and no history of democratic institutions into a model of American democracy and a reliable, stable ally in an important part of the world. Unfortunately, America, as the occupying power, lacked any plan to restore Iraq's infrastructure, both physical and political. The power vacuum created by disbanding the Ba'ath military was enough to allow Al Qaeda in Iraq to establish itself and recruit followers, many of them former Ba'athist military. Rather than stabilizing Iraq, removing Saddam Hussein fragmented it. America ignored the lessons it learned after World War II and the Marshall Plan, that it takes time, money and ongoing commitment to rebuild nations after wars wreck them.

Let's flip forward to the most current crisis in Iraq, the rise of ISIS and its barbaric beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Reaction to their murders has largely been to call for some form of increased U.S. involvement in Iraq. Some of our political leaders believe that we need to put boots on the ground in Iraq and destroy ISIS. Others call for attacking ISIS in Syria. And still others demand that we arm those who oppose ISIS. Public opinion may swing back to favoring greater military involvement in Iraq, believing it better to fight them in Iraq than in America. ISIS would love to draw America into another war in Iraq. To them, America is the source of evil, and what better recruiting tool do they have than pictures of weeping parents mourning their children after an American air strike of some small village? Didn't we learn anything from this summer's Israel-Hamas flare-up?

Before we put a single soldier on the ground in Iraq, we need to apply the lessons we spent nearly $2 trillion and tens of thousands of American casualties acquiring. Military power alone cannot stop terrorists, and it takes years to build a society strong enough to sustain itself against the terrorist attacks Al Qaeda and their evil twin, ISIS, like to engage in.

President Barack Obama's statement, "We do not have a strategy," drew great criticism from his political opponents. He would have done better to say we are still planning and evaluating alternatives with our allies to build the broadest possible coalition against ISIS and to develop the most effective plan we can to defeat them both militarily and politically. Such a statement would give us hope that our leaders have learned the lessons our last war laid out.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com

Advertisement
Advertisement