This story ran on page E7 of the Boston Globe on 11/11/2001.
A war to end the terrorist era
By Thomas W. Simmons Jr., 11/11/2001
WE ARE NOW into the long haul of the new kind of war that began for us Sept. 11. Victories on the ground are few or invisible; we hear more and more about the need for patience; we speak more and more about quagmires.
Discouragement comes naturally. It may help to recognize that this conflict in Afghanistan will almost certainly be the last such conflict we will ever need to fight. The reason is that the current crisis combines three disparate elements which have never combined before and which we can prevent from ever combining again.
First there is the Islamist radicalism represented by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It seeks to oust sitting governments in certain countries with Muslim populations and return them to the perfect Islamic arrangements of the seventh century. (It also goes after their protectors.) The urge has been there since that seventh century; what has made it powerful over the past 30 years were purely modern circumstances rooted in the 1950s and 1960s in the Middle East.
In the 1970s and 1980s this political Islam battered governments throughout the area and further afield. But it crested then and has never recovered its original energy.
Repression, the end of the Cold War, and battle fatigue have all taken their toll. Before Sept. 11 the trends in terrorist attacks and casualties were downward from their 1980s highs. Many radicals have turned from revolutionary political action to missionary work in society. For their part regimes have taken to adopting Islamic symbols, even some Islamic law, and to opening some spaces in the system for moderate radicals.
This stealth accommodation has meant that while radicals work on in big cities, increasingly they can operate in strength only from the fringes and extremities of the Islamic world.
Second, a unique space was there for bin Laden to run to and work from when he was harried out of Sudan in 1996. Large, rugged, and sparsely populated, Afghanistan has seen its human and physical infrastructure decimated by 22 years of international and civil war. Only in such a landscape could a movement of backwoods Islamic rigorists like the Taliban conquer most of the country. And only such a landscape could make a Saudi Islamist with good jihad credentials but only modest wealth so attractive to the Taliban that they gave him the protection he needed to spin the webs that led to Sept. 11.
Third, until Sept. 11 he also enjoyed a unique double layer of protection, for neighboring Pakistan supported the Taliban regime that protected him. Half-hearted and partial, Pakistani support was still real enough to make bin Laden's sanctuary stronger than anything any other Islamist radical enjoyed.
Islamist radicalism desperate for space, a ruined Afghanistan, a double layer of protection: These strands of crisis will never come together again.
There will still be Islamist radicals, since the circumstances that gave birth to political Islam persist in many places. We should of course work to drain the swamp of uneven development, injustice, and humiliation that gives them birth. That will be slow work, however, and even if we flush bin Laden and his companions from their Afghan sanctuary, others like them will come forward to fight elsewhere. But whether or not their numbers are rising, their space is shrinking, and we can help shrink it to the point where they can mount an attack like Sept. 11 only by a miracle.
It will not be easy. We will need to help rebuild an Afghanistan that is inhospitable to them, to stay alongside Pakistan as its leaders take courage to face them down at home, and to squeeze down the few other places that could still offer them the space to operate as bin Laden has.
Sudan appears to be rethinking its support for them, and it is good news that we are cooperating with the Philippines in the southern islands against the Abu Sayyaf group. In Indonesia, northern Sumatra with its Islamist separatism is another such trouble spot. Both are at the end of the world, but easier to reach than Afghanistan. And when we feel discouraged in the current gray phase of the struggle, it is worth remembering how unlikely it is that we will ever fight another battle of this magnitude.
Thomas W. Simons Jr., the US ambassador to Pakistan from 1996-98, is consulting professor of history at Stanford University.