In every battle, whenever the enemy achieves surprise—from Pearl Harbor to the Bulge, Chosin Reservoir to Tet—everyone is stunned. But within a decade, the number of those who were stunned drops off, and the world is filled with people who knew it was coming. In every intelligence service, there are bits of information pointing at the absolutely obvious fact that an attack was coming. But they only point to anything after it happens.
So too with September 11, 2001.
I know of two classes of people. There are those who knew all along that this was coming. And there are those who are convinced that the government knew or should have known. There is a guy at a mobile hot-dog stand on K Street in DC. He will swear that he passed on conclusive warning of the attack and was ignored.
Retrospective genius or expectation of genius is part of our culture.
What Happened That Day
When I reconstruct my own experience of the day, I recall being appalled and terrified. I was appalled that al-Qaida seemed to be superb at covert operations. The attackers entered the United States, received instructions and money, communicated with each other, and carried off the attack without detection. They seized aircraft to serve as their air force and their weapon.
I was also terrified. Many covert operatives are willing to risk their lives, even at great peril. The al-Qaida team was prepared to go to its certain death. I had read of the Japanese kamikaze and the manner in which they had wreaked havoc on the US fleet at Okinawa.
It is very difficult to defeat someone who has decided to die. The most important question to me was how many other trained and suicidal operatives there were. For me, a team that was able to evade US intelligence and counterintelligence in the United States for over a year, while being trained in flying aircraft, all the while aware that they would die, represented a profound threat to everything I loved (including my own body parts).
A Country at War
This is the point where the US went to war. A group had attacked the United States. We did not know how large the group was. We did not know how many more were in training in the US or elsewhere. We did not know what kind of weapons they had (though it was possible they could have had nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union black market, or perhaps, the Pakistanis).
It is one thing to miss a surprise attack. But US intelligence had failed more fundamentally. It seemed not to know too much about the enemy.
The war began with a fundamental lack of definition. Were we in a state of war? Or were we involved in a criminal investigation? The difference is fundamental. In wars, you kill members of enemy armies regardless of what they did. In a criminal investigation, you bring criminals to court.
The president kept talking about both—fighting al-Qaida and bringing people to justice.
The argument was made that you can’t make war on a non-state actor. Of course you can. Thomas Jefferson did this with the Barbary pirates. Not anticipating this situation was a defect in international law (one of many).
President George W. Bush, following the precedent of Korea and Vietnam, failed to declare war. He then compounded the problem by talking about criminal law. The war started in fundamental confusion.
Working with Limited Intel
We knew that al-Qaida’s home base (al-Qaida means “the base”) was in Afghanistan. Not knowing al-Qaida’s capabilities or intentions, it was logical to strike at its home base to decapitate, or at least, destabilize it.
The problem was that it takes the US months to mount an invasion, and the US didn’t have months. So it adopted an alternative strategy.
The US had good relations with those Afghans it didn’t betray after the fall of the Soviet Union. By good relations, I mean they would take money and, in return, strike at who the US told them to. There was never a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. A handful of Army Special Forces, the US Air Force, and about 500 marines rushed into a place called Camp Rhino. The Special Forces were identifying targets for airstrikes and hunting for al-Qaida, and the Air Force was blowing things up.
The Taliban were never defeated. They withdrew under heavy bombardment in the cities and dispersed. Over the years, they regrouped. In Afghanistan, the power is in the countryside… not in the cities. The Taliban knew that. The US failed to capture the al-Qaida senior staff for lack of sufficient forces. They evaded the US at Tora Bora and slipped into Pakistan. They were destabilized but not destroyed.
Undefined War and Mission Creep
The problem the US faced in Afghanistan defined everything that came after. The strategic purpose of the attack was not to create a new, democratic government in Afghanistan (lying about doing it is OK, but actually thinking you will do it is troubling). The strategic purpose was the disruption of al-Qaida. The US had a few choices.
It could follow al-Qaida into Pakistan, but war with a country of 150 million people is tough. It could try to force Pakistan to destroy al-Qaida, but that would lead to a civil war. The Pakistanis weren’t about to do that, and the US didn’t have the force to compel them. Or the US could withdraw forces from Afghanistan, accepting the mission had failed, and focus on covert operations against al-Qaida’s leadership as well as finding and destroying cells in the United States.
The choice the US made would set the stage for everything that came later. Rather than withdraw, Washington decided to remain and build up forces in Afghanistan. The mission was unclear. If it was to create a pro-American government in Kabul, that was only possible if the US surrounded the city and protected the government. If it was to destroy the Taliban, there were two problems. The Taliban lacked the skill and interest to attack the United States. They were not al-Qaida, and their interest was Afghanistan. Plus, an extended guerrilla war had nothing to do with the primary mission, destroying al-Qaida.
But the decision was made to remain in Afghanistan. That meant that the US waged an ineffective war against the Taliban and that the government it created would be regarded as a US puppet. The decision to remain in Afghanistan with significant force turned the war from a war against al-Qaida to a war of occupation.
A war of occupation is the hardest kind to fight. It is easier to defeat an enemy force than to occupy a country with a hostile population. The rationale for occupying Afghanistan was to prevent the return of al-Qaida’s leadership there. This was a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the war.
Where It Went Wrong
A covert force was operating against the US. Its connection to Afghanistan was pure political convenience. It was at home in Pakistan or anywhere in the Islamic world. By committing to a war of occupation, the US lost sight of the purpose of the war… making it about Afghanistan. It also committed the US to waging a war in what may well be the most inhospitable environment for occupation in the world. The British and the Russians were unable to pacify Afghanistan. The United States would do no better.
Al-Qaida was a global, sparse, and covert network. It could operate anywhere, as the 9/11 attack showed. It had very few members, which meant detection was difficult. It was covert, in that it was trained to blend into the population. Fighting al-Qaida required a global and highly mobile capability with the means of identifying operatives like needles in a haystack and the military to disrupt their covert flows of information, money, personnel, and all the rest. This was a hugely difficult mission that required an utterly different analysis of war, and it was needed in 2002.
From my point of view, and this is not entirely retrospective, the war against jihadist forces did not go wrong in Iraq as most people say, and it did not go wrong because al-Qaida did not need to be fought. It went wrong in Afghanistan. The first failure was at Tora Bora where Osama bin Laden and his staff escaped. But that happens in war.
The biggest mistake was in shifting from a war against al-Qaida to a simultaneous war against al-Qaida and an occupation of Afghanistan. Beating al-Qaida was a very tough mission, but necessary. Occupying Afghanistan kept al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, but it didn’t need Afghanistan. Neither did the United States.
The True Nature of the War
The mixed model of warfare, in which one part focuses on finding and defeating the enemy, suffers from a deep misunderstanding of the enemy. The enemy is not a particular organization. It is that strand of Islam, however large or small, that wages jihad. The occupation of various countries simply increases the size of the jihadist strand and overburdens the covert force.
This was a covert operation from the start, and it is one that international law does not account for. As I said, that is a defect in international law because al-Qaida launched a war. The 9/11 attack was an act of war, not a criminal act, and had to be treated as a legitimate form of warfighting. The confusion over the nature of al-Qaida’s covert operation—criminal or warfare—made everyone more comfortable with the occupation of countries.
And so today, the network remains—global, sparse, and covert—but it has a new name. We are still trying to build countries—from Libya to Syria and on. And we still do not have a handle on the jihadists or even a name for the war. The beginning of the war was frightening. After 15 years, the situation has simply gotten more confused. And it all began 30 days after 9/11, with the first airstrikes in Afghanistan. By the time we went to Iraq, the confusion had been institutionalized.