How the United States Enabled Al Qaeda

This was the war that should have ended years ago. The 9/11 attacks revealed a ruthless and agile enemy, one demanding unrelenting focus and smarts. Instead, we made major errors.

Some were tactical, such as the CIA failure to raise the alarm about the two operatives of Al Qaeda living in the United States before the attacks. For reasons still unclear, they avoided serious attention until airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Other mistakes were strategic. The biggest was to ignore al Qaeda in Pakistan to invade Iraq, which, at that point, posed no serious threat. The Bush administration underestimated Osama bin Laden’s resilience, trusted the generals of Pakistan, and focused on the wrong battlefield. Bin Laden recognized our misstep early, and set a trap in Iraq, urging jihadists to travel to this latest front, even before the invasion. Trusting Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s president, to fight on our side against Bin Laden and the Taliban was another strategic failure. “Our man” in Islamabad turned out to be helping the Taliban regroup while bin Laden hid out in his front yard, living in plain sight of Pakistan’s most elite military academy for years. And when Musharraf faltered, we still tried to prop him up. Our desperate attempt to save Musharraf failed to keep the dictator in power, further alienated the Pakistani people, and, tragically, ended with Al Qaeda’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and Pakistan’s best hope.

But al Qaeda also made its share of mistakes. The terror group’s lack of a vision is an existential lapse. By offering only violence and death, it denies Muslims what they yearn for, such as democracy and a just peace settlement for the Palestinians. And by killing thousands of fellow Muslims and blowing up civilians in the streets and markets of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda has alienated its own constituents by drowning them in blood.

Now the death of Bin Laden and the revolutions sweeping the Middle East provide the United States with an opportunity to right its wrongs. In countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, where brutal dictators have finally been toppled, we must help citizens build accountable governments, not new police states. Reducing debt burdens and trade barriers will help these emerging democracies achieve equal footing. Meanwhile, in places where people are still struggling against oppression (Yemen and Syria come to mind), we should help the opposition take power and restore law and order. Finally, we urgently need an American vision for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—not just to veto Palestinian dreams. Otherwise we risk jihadists blowing up the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel. And another Arab-Israeli war would be the realization of the most fervent fantasy nurtured by al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Pakistan remains the epicenter of the global jihad. And while drones put pressure on militants, they also alienate civilians, creating the next generation of militants. Drones alone won’t win the war. What we have to do is assist those Pakistanis who are fighting and dying in this ongoing battle, people like Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor who courageously fought extremism before he was murdered earlier this year by his own bodyguard. On Aug. 26 his son was kidnapped. Our enemy is still formidable, and the task isn’t easy. But this time we have to get it right to avoid spending yet another decade fighting.