WASHINGTON – The war on terror might eventually be won, depending on one’s definition of winning.
Victory might mean a drop in the number of terror attacks, or a drop in the death tolls they inflict. But almost no one foresees a complete end to terror tactics that have succeeded in getting attention for Islamic extremists and others. Witness the Middle East, for example.
President Bush ignited a continuing controversy early this week by saying he doesn’t think the war is winnable; then he reversed himself, saying flatly that it is.
The truth is probably more nuanced, say experts on the military, Islam and international issues.
And though Bush asserted that the United States is winning now, there’s wide disagreement on that as well.
It won’t be time to even think about declaring victory until the United States goes “many years” without a catastrophic attack like the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults that killed some 3,000 Americans, said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst for the liberal-oriented Brookings Institutions, which operates as a sort of loyal-opposition commentator here when Republicans hold the White House.
Even then, O’Hanlon said, attacks would continue, perhaps at the level of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen that killed 17 sailors.
“The best we can hope for is to reduce the level of conflict, the deadliness of conflict and the frequency,” agreed Shireen Hunter, Islam specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national security-oriented research group.
That will require protecting the homeland, crushing the current generation of al Qaeda and it’s sympathizers and stemming the rise of new generations of like-minded Islamic radicals, analysts said.
Americans are split on how it’s going. A survey last month showed four in 10 saying the war is being won, four in 10 saying that it isn’t and the rest not sure.
Analysts appeared more worried.
The war’s not being won, O’Hanlon said, “because we’re doing a good job against the first generation of al Qaeda but not … the second.”
Al Qaeda was scattered from its haven in Afghanistan, arrests of some leaders and operatives have been made around the world and international coalition efforts have stemmed the flow of some money used to finance terrorist activities.
“We are doing damage to the other side,” said Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute.
At the same time, some U.S. actions have increased contempt for America among Muslims, thus helping terrorists recruit new followers, O’Hanlon and others said.
For instance, though Bush says the Iraq war is part of the counterterror war, critics say it was a setback and unnecessary diversion from the real battle because of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction there – or any proof of a working link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.
Even those supporting the administration’s invasion of Iraq say almost nothing has been done toward the long-term task of changing minds in the Middle East, the breeding ground for most Islamic terrorism.
It will take a long and difficult political and information campaign to convince that region’s governments and societies that terrorism is not an acceptable way to express political grievances, said Muravchik.
“We have not at all gotten our act together to do that operation,” he said.
Others say it will take far more than that.
“We need to address the whole issue of why it is that people turn to such ideologies and become so hateful of America and the West,” Hunter said, citing a lack of jobs and educational opportunities as among the factors behind the bitterness.
U.S. support for governments that rule such societies also has engendered much of the contempt, said Hunter.
“As long as there is disappointment and dissatisfaction in society and no adequate channels of directing these frustrations … you will have terrorist groups,” said Hunter.
“We’re not winning the hearts-and-minds campaign within the broader Muslim world, and if we don’t do that we’re not going to win” the war, said Hunter.
Asked “Can we win?” in an NBC television interview Monday, Bush said “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the – those who use terror as a tool – are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and running mate John Edwards quickly responded that the war is “absolutely” winnable. And on Tuesday, the president sought to quell the controversy, saying in a campaign speech:
“In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table. But make no mistake about it, we are winning and we will win.”
Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, was still trying to explain the comments Wednesday, likening the task to settling the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland.