A development over the weekend in Pakistan seems to underscore the progress made in our decade-long war against al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al Qaeda’s top operational planner, was killed by an American aerial drone in the remote mountains of Pakistan, yet another elimination of a top al Qaeda member as the U.S. appears to be inflicting devastating losses on its nemesis since killing Osama bin Laden. In 2001, the US military sent a limited number of personnel into the deserts of Afghanistan to cooperate with indigenous groups from across the region. Within the year, they successfully toppled the Taliban and severely weakened al Qaeda’s presence. Having accomplished these victories, American forces turned in 2002 to another strategy, which would prove far less successful in the long term: reforming the “Graveyard of Empires” from the top-down, through stabilizing its central government institutions. From then on, the situation worsened: Afghanistan’s own police forces collapsed, al Qaeda grew again in strength, American casualties escalated, and billions more dollars were spent on the war as the months went by. Military advisor and future RAND scientist Seth Jones observed it all while on duty in Afghanistan, while also watching Pakistan become increasingly unstable and the painful lessons from the 9/11-inspired invasion of Iraq. There have been unquestionable victories: first elections in generations in Iraq and Afghanistan; the killing of bin Laden and the erosion of al Qaeda’s operational capabilities; the demonstrated incredible dexterity of the American military that’s been asked to perform every imaginable operation, from nation building to city destroying, since 9/11. But have the immense costs been worth the victories? As we continue to look at the post-9/11 world we ask whether our decade of warfare was ultimately worth all of the sacrifices.
Seth Jones, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation; former representative & advisor for the commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations