This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
It has now been nine years since al Qaeda
attacked the United States. It has been nine years in which the primary
focus of the United States has been on the Islamic world. In addition to
a massive investment in homeland security, the United States has
engaged in two multi-year, multi-divisional wars in Iraq
inserted forces in other countries in smaller operations and conducted a
global covert campaign against al Qaeda and other radical jihadist
In order to understand the last nine years you must understand the
first 24 hours of the war — and recall your own feelings in those 24
hours. First, the attack was a shock, its audaciousness frightening.
Second, we did not know what was coming next. The attack had destroyed
the right to complacent assumptions. Were there other cells standing by
in the United States? Did they have capabilities even more substantial
than what they showed on Sept. 11? Could they be detected and stopped?
Any American not frightened on Sept. 12 was not in touch with reality.
Many who are now claiming that the United States overreacted are
forgetting their own sense of panic. We are all calm and collected nine
At the root of all of this was a profound lack of understanding of al
Qaeda, particularly its capabilities and intentions. Since we did not
know what was possible, our only prudent course was to prepare for the
worst. That is what the Bush administration did. Nothing symbolized this
more than the fear that al Qaeda had acquired nuclear weapons and that
they would use them against the United States. The evidence was minimal,
but the consequences would be overwhelming. Bush crafted a strategy
based on the worst-case scenario.
Bush was the victim of a decade of failure in the intelligence
community to understand
what al Qaeda was and wasn’t. I am not merely talking about the
failure to predict the 9/11 attack. Regardless of assertions afterwards,
the intelligence community provided only vague warnings that lacked the
kind of specificity that makes for actionable intelligence. To a
certain degree, this is understandable. Al Qaeda learned from Soviet,
Saudi, Pakistani and American intelligence during the Soviet occupation
of Afghanistan and knew how to launch attacks without tipping off the
target. The greatest failure of American intelligence was not the lack
of a clear warning about 9/11 but the lack, on Sept. 12, of a clear
picture of al Qaeda’s global structure, capabilities, weaknesses and
intentions. Without such information, implementing U.S. policy was like
piloting an airplane with faulty instruments in a snowstorm at night.
The president had to do three things: First, he had to assure the
public that he knew what he was doing. Second, he had to do something
that appeared decisive. Third, he had to gear up an intelligence and
security apparatus to tell him what the threats actually were and what
he ought to do. American policy became ready, fire, aim.
In looking back at the past nine years, two conclusions can be drawn:
There were no more large-scale attacks on the United States by militant
Islamists, and the United States was left with the legacy of responses
that took place in the first two years after 9/11. This legacy is no
longer useful, if it ever was, to the primary mission of defeating al
Qaeda, and it represents an effort that is retrospectively out of
proportion to the threat.
If I had been told on Sept.12, 2001, that the attack the day before
would be the last major attack for at least nine years, I would not have
believed it. In looking at the complexity of the security and execution
of the 9/11 attack, I would have assumed that an organization capable
of acting once in such a way could act again even more effectively. My
assumption was wrong. Al Qaeda did not have the resources to mount other
operations, and the U.S. response, in many ways clumsy and misguided
and in other ways clever and targeted, disrupted any preparations in
which al Qaeda might have been engaged to conduct follow-on attacks.
Knowing that about al Qaeda in 2001 was impossible. Knowing which
operations were helpful in the effort to block them was impossible, in
the context of what Americans knew in the first years after the war
began. Therefore, Washington wound up in the contradictory situation in
which American military and covert operations surged while new attacks
failed to materialize. This created a massive political problem. Rather
than appearing to be the cause for the lack of attacks, U.S. military
operations were perceived by many as being unnecessary or actually
increasing the threat of attack. Even in hindsight, aligning U.S.
actions with the apparent outcome is difficult and controversial. But
still we know two things: It has been nine years since Sept. 11, 2001,
and the war goes on.
What happened was that an act of terrorism was allowed to redefine U.S.
grand strategy. The United States operates with a grand strategy
derived from the British strategy in Europe — maintaining the balance of
power. For the United Kingdom, maintaining the balance of power in
Europe protected any one power from emerging that could unite Europe and
build a fleet to invade the United Kingdom or block its access to its
empire. British strategy was to help create coalitions to block emerging
hegemons such as Spain, France or Germany. Using overt and covert
means, the United Kingdom aimed to ensure that no hegemonic power could
The Americans inherited that grand strategy from the British but
elevated it to a global rather than regional level. Having blocked the
Soviet Union from hegemony over Europe and Asia, the United States
proceeded with a strategy whose goal, like that of the United Kingdom,
was to nip potential regional hegemons in the bud. The U.S. war with
Iraq in 1990-91 and the war with Serbia/Yugoslavia in 1999 were examples
of this strategy. It involved coalition warfare, shifting America’s
weight from side to side and using minimal force to disrupt the plans of
regional aspirants to gain power. This U.S. strategy also was cloaked
in the ideology of global liberalism and human rights.
The key to this strategy was its global nature. The emergence of a
hegemonic contender that could challenge the United States globally, as
the Soviet Union had done, was the worst-case scenario. Therefore, the
containment of emerging powers wherever they might emerge was the
centerpiece of American balance-of-power
The most significant effect of 9/11 was that it knocked the United
States off its strategy. Rather than adapting its standing global
strategy to better address the counterterrorism issue, the United States
became obsessed with a single region, the area between the
Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush. Within that region, the United States
operated with a balance-of-power strategy. It played off all of the
nations in the region against each other. It did the same with ethnic
and religious groups throughout the region and particularly within Iraq
and Afghanistan, the main theaters of the war. In both cases, the United
States sought to take advantage of internal divisions, shifting its
support in various directions to create a balance of power. That, in the
end, was what the surge strategy was all about.
The American obsession with this region in the wake of 9/11 is
understandable. Nine years later, with no clear end in sight, the
question is whether this continued focus is strategically rational for
the United States. Given the uncertainties of the first few years,
obsession and uncertainty are understandable, but as a long-term U.S.
strategy — the long war that the U.S. Department of Defense is preparing
for — it leaves the rest of the world uncovered.
Consider that the Russians have used the American absorption in this
region as a window of opportunity to work to reconstruct their
geopolitical position. When Russia went to war
with Georgia in 2008, an American ally, the United States did not
have the forces with which to make a prudent intervention. Similarly,
the Chinese have had a degree of freedom of action they could not have
expected to enjoy prior to 9/11. The single most important result of
9/11 was that it shifted the United States from a global stance to a
regional one, allowing other powers to take advantage of this focus to
create significant potential challenges to the United States.
One can make the case, as I have, that whatever the origin of the
Iraq war, remaining
in Iraq to contain Iran is necessary. It is difficult to make a
similar case for Afghanistan. Its strategic interest to the United
States is minimal. The only justification for the war is that al Qaeda
launched its attacks on the United States from Afghanistan. But that
justification is no longer valid. Al Qaeda can launch attacks from Yemen
or other countries. The fact that Afghanistan was the base from which
the attacks were launched does not mean that al Qaeda depends on
Afghanistan to launch attacks. And given that the apex leadership of al
Qaeda has not launched attacks in a while, the question is whether al
Qaeda is capable of launching such attacks any longer. In any case,
managing al Qaeda today does not require nation building in Afghanistan.
But let me state a more radical thesis: The threat of terrorism
cannot become the singular focus of the United States. Let me push it
further: The United States cannot subordinate its grand strategy to
simply fighting terrorism even if there will be occasional terrorist
attacks on the United States. Three thousand people died in the 9/11
attack. That is a tragedy, but in a nation of over 300 million, 3,000
deaths cannot be permitted to define the totality of national strategy.
Certainly, resources must be devoted to combating the threat and, to the
extent possible, disrupting it. But it must also be recognized that
terrorism cannot always be blocked, that terrorist attacks will occur
and that the world’s only global power cannot be captive to this single
The initial response was understandable and necessary. The United
States must continue its intelligence gathering and covert operations
against militant Islamists throughout the world. The intelligence
failures of the 1990s must not be repeated. But waging a
multi-divisional war in Afghanistan makes no strategic sense. The
balance-of-power strategy must be used. Pakistan
will intervene and discover the Russians and Iranians. The great
game will continue. As for Iran, regional counters must be
supported at limited cost to the United States. The United States should
not be patrolling the far reaches of the region. It should be
supporting a balance of power among the native powers of the region.
The United States is a global power and, as such, it must have a
global view. It has interests and challenges beyond this region and
certainly beyond Afghanistan. The issue there is not whether the United
States can or can’t win, however that is defined. The issue is whether
it is worth the effort considering what is going on in the rest of the
world. Gen. David Petraeus cast the war in terms of whether the United
States can win it. That’s reasonable; he’s the commander. But American
strategy has to ask another question: What does the United States lose
elsewhere while it focuses on the future of Kandahar?
The 9/11 attack shocked the United States and made counterterrorism
the centerpiece of American foreign policy. That is too narrow a basis
on which to base U.S. foreign policy. It is certainly an important
strand of that policy, and it must be addressed, but it should be
addressed through the regional balance of power. It is the good fortune
of the United States that the Islamic world is torn by internal
This is not dismissing the threat of terror. It is recognizing that
the United States has done well in suppressing it over the past nine
years but at a cost in other regions, a cost that can’t be sustained
indefinitely and a cost that could well result in challenges more
threatening than a rising Islamist militancy. The United States must now
settle into a long-term strategy of managing terrorism as best as it
can while not neglecting the rest of its interests.
After nine years, the issue is not what to do in Afghanistan but how
the global power can return to managing all of its global interests,
along with the war on al Qaeda.