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The War on Terrorism: The Big Picture

Peter W. Singer

“Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?

“Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions. . . . Is our current situation such that ‘the harder we work, the behinder we get’?”1

—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Such are the big-picture questions for the War on Terror, the kind that should have shaped Pentagon strategy from the start. Unfortunately, they apparently weren’t asked by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld until 16 October 2003, in a private memo that he issued to his top staff. While the media focused on his admission of a “long, hard slog” in Iraq, contrary to the rosy predictions made earlier, the true surprise was that Secretary Rumsfeld questioned even whether we are “winning or losing the Global War on Terror.” He described how his office had yet to enact a “bold,” measurable, or even systematic plan to win the War on Terror, despite being two years and two ground wars into the fight. In short, what Rumsfeld’s memo admitted was a shocking absence of strategic thinking.

One hopes that the “12-step” programs are right, and that admitting one’s errors is the first step to solving them.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has expended an immense amount of blood and treasure in the pursuit of security for its citizens and punishment upon those who would do them harm. Yet while the US military has successfully overturned vile regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Secretary Rumsfeld’s internal memo disclosed his frank assessment that we appear little closer to resolving the actual challenge that drives us, eradicating the group that carried out the 9/11 attacks and preventing any repeats. While the United States and its allies have seized a portion of al Qaeda lieutenants and assets, the organization remains vibrant, its senior leadership largely intact, its popularity greater than ever, its ability to recruit unbroken, and its ideology and funds spreading across a global network present in places ranging from Algeria and Belgium to Indonesia and Iraq. Of greatest concern, its potential to strike at American citizens and interests both at home and abroad continues. After the Madrid bombings, some worry that its capabilities may even be growing.2


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