Then came 9/11. It was a wake up call of major proportions, but the West did not learn the lessons of that experience. It looked at it and subsequent major terrorist acts in London, Madrid, Bali and others as brush fires to be put out by pouring special operations forces on them to put them out. In a move that totally ignored the causes of this non-state movement, the US attacked and occupied Iraq in 2003, only throwing oil on the fires of Muslim resentment and anti-Westernism. Saddam was a madman and a threat to the Middle East, but he never made war against the West. It was good that Saddam was removed, but he could have been contained without the ruinous cost associated with his removal. Although little attention has been given to the impact of the US engagement in Iraq on the 2008 recession, it is hard to imagine that such a monumental financial expenditure of making war in the 21st century--i.e. expensive--would not have contributed to the financial debacle along with the sudden dramatic strike in oil prices of that year. The housing crisis of course was the straw that broke the camel's back, but Iraq was clearly a pillar of the US policy of spending beyond its means, in this case to carry out ill thought out policies with little understanding of the Muslim world, or the world at large for that matter.
As wrong as the Iraq was, it was a genie that could not be put back in the bottle. Although the US and its allies managed to quell Al Queda in Iraq, due largely to the global movement's own brutality and insensitivity to tribal structures and affinities, which caused a massive movement of the tribes to ally themselves with the US, especially in Al Anbar province, Iraq, including the indignities of Abu Gharaib and the images from Guantanamo, could be interpreted by global jihadists as proof of the war of the West against Islam itself. This spurred a huge growth in the Muslim world, in the hands of radical, resentful mullahs, of youths willing to fight and die for in a cause they little understood but for which they were willing to commit suicide. Iraq may have been saved, although its future remains clouded by ethnic and religious cleavages, but the global jihad continues.
The battleground has returned to Afghanistan, where it started and should have remained, but was abandoned by the West. The process is well documented in Ahmed Rachid's book, Decent into Chaos: the US and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, so I will not dwell on it. What has emerged, however, from the lessons of Iraq and a shift in leadership both military and civilian in the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, is a new/old strategy of counterinsurgency or COIN in the military jargon.
As a former pacification advisor in rural Vietnam in the early 1970s, everything that has emerged in General David Petraeus's new concept of COIN, promoted by his Australian advisor David Kilcullen (who has written his own book, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One), is totally familiar. It is what came to be called disparagingly "Winning Hearts and Minds." But the concept was never a bad one, just poorly implemented in Vietnam because the grass roots level efforts to win over the Vietnamese peasantry was never matched at the national level by democratic leadership and governance. Instead, corruption and a tenacious will t retain power were the dominant leitmotifs of the Vietnam conflict.
There is no question that we are in a war of the world with radical, militant, intolerant Islam. The cause of the Muslim people, and all the resentments of a people whose place in history was diminished in 1492 with the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula and the late colonization of the Muslim world by the European powers in the early 20th century has been assumed by this movement. We used to be able to ignore other parts of the world, especially those whose customs and mores were quite different from our own. We did not consider human rights to be possible to apply all over the world at a pace that was not consistent with local cultural norms and doubted whether underdeveloped countries could possibly become democracies except as a long-term process of development. However, the attack upon the West does not allow us to ignore the roots of the issues that caused young men to commit suicide in pursuit of a new militant and aggressive ideology to reestablish a Muslim Caliphate.
One of our biggest problems, however, is that the American public does not yet understand that we are in a war of the world, not the one mentioned by Niall Fergusson to describe the 20th century's linked world wars, but the new one that pits the liberal, progressive and "modern" parts of the world, including not only the West, but also the more educated and globalized elites and middle classes of the rest of the world, against a medieval yet newly empowered movement of young, resentful, self-righteous and restless Islamist crusaders. What makes this war so critical is the ability of even a small number of militants willing to kill thousands of innocents and commit suicide in so doing and the advent of weapons of mass destruction that makes such a toxic mixture of human motivation momentously threatening. It is not inconceivable that members of this movement could detonate a small atomic device or a "dirty bomb," or unleash deadly chemicals or biological agents in the middle of a major Western city, at the very heart of our civilization, threatening tens or hundreds of thousands of people and triggering monumental economic, social and, ultimately, political consequences.
For the above reasons, it is imperative that we "get it right" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This also means that a new generation of American and European youth recognize the nature of the challenge and understand the need for a new sense of patriotism and sacrifice. Despite the positive nature of the Millennial Generation, it is not evident that it has awakened to either the threat or the responsibility for preserving not just Western Civilization but Civilization itself. Nor have our leaders yet awakened in them this urgent necessity. A true revolution in consciousness is necessary to raise the new generation to the challenges of the 21st century. The very freedom and relative high-tech comfort in which they find themselves may depend on their willingness to defend them and the pillars which sustain them. And an understanding on their part that the globalization has reached a point where it is impossible for one part of the world to ignore what is happening in other, even remote parts of the world is imperative. One of the hardest things to preach, without sounding like a doomsday soothsayer, is that our current way of life can be instantly transformed by unexpected world events. We seldom feel the ground shifting under our feet until the earthquake is upon us. These techtonic shifts are what we need to begin to steel and prepare ourselves for. One hopes that a liberal democracy can--as in WWII--call a great generation to the challenge.