The events of the last month in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have opened up—for the first time since September 11, 2001—the possibility of a final American victory in the War on Terrorism.
The key developments have been covered in TIA Daily in the past few weeks. On Tuesday, I linked to a story on the dramatic turn in Pakistani public opinion against the Taliban, which is making possible a new assault against the main Taliban stronghold in Waziristan. (That link has since disappeared, but see an analysis by a Pakistani liberal describing, with only a little skepticism, the Pakistani army's new seriousness.)
This Pakistani campaign is already choking off the supply of weapons and money to the Taliban in Afghanistan, just in time for America's "surge" into Helmand Province, a key enemy stronghold. The elements are falling into place for a big defeat for al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Af-Pak theater, which would further discredit al-Qaeda and destroy whatever is left of the Bin Laden mythology.
Things are looking even worse for the other center of Islamic terrorism, the theocratic regime in Iran. The regime has been branded as illegitimate by a prominent association of religious scholars, which ought to be a death-blow for a theocracy, and the Iranian establishment is now locked in an internal battle between hard-liners and more liberal reformists—shades of the Soviet Union circa 1985. The street protests, which had been suppressed for more than a week, are back. A New York Times report on protests earlier today features this line: "'Tell the world what is happening here,' one 26-year-old engineering student said. 'This is our revolution. We will not give up.' Asked what he wanted, he said, 'We want democracy.'"
The collapse of the Iranian theocracy by the overwhelming opposition of its own people would be to Islamism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to Communism. And as with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would have a beneficial effect around the world, depriving despots and killers of a key ally and sponsor. Imagine in particular the panic that would strike the government of Syria, or the collapse of Hamas in Gaza, or the advantage that young liberals in Lebanon would gain when Hezbollah loses its source of money and weapons.
Taken together, the trends of the past few weeks could mean the beginning of the end of the War on Terrorism.
How do you judge victory in war—especially a war like this, which does not simply require the defeat of an organized nation-state with a conventional army? You judge victory by assessing the enemy's strategic objectives and our strategic objectives and determining which side achieved its objectives and which side failed.
In this war, the enemy's strategic objective was to use terrorist attacks to intimidate the West into pulling its military forces from the wider Middle East and ending all of our intervention in the region, leaving the terrorists free to take over existing Middle Eastern governments and set up a theocratic Islamic "caliphate" (according to Osama bin Laden) or a new Islamic superpower (according to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). In the longer term, this caliphate or superpower was supposed to serve as the base for an eventual Islamist conquest of Europe, India, and the rest of the world.
We can safely say that the enemy has already failed in its objectives.
What was our objective? Our objective is, or should be, to permanently suppress the threat of Islamic terrorism by overthrowing regimes that sponsor terrorism, destroying the terrorist organizations themselves, and as a consequence discrediting the theocratic ideology on which these regimes and organizations are based. In the longer term, this is a springboard for spreading our values and our political system—representative government and the recognition of individual rights—across the Middle East.
How are we doing? Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has already been overthrown and replaced with a relatively liberal, peaceful government. If the Iranians manage to do the same thing in their own country, and if al-Qaeda and the Taliban are finally routed from their last safe haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, then our objectives will have been substantially achieved.
Analysts on TV like to talk about the "end game"—a reference to the point in a chess match when the players can begin to project the exact series of moves that will lead to a check mate. Well, the end game is now in sight in the War on Terrorism.
It is within sight, but it is still several steps away. The regime in Iran is dying, but it is not yet dead. Pakistan is finally recognizing that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are a mortal threat and for the first time is taking serious action against them—but it may prove incompetent at fighting that threat, or its resolve may weaken. We are finally implementing a real counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan—but victory requires dogged persistence and is moved forward by the active support of a commander-in-chief who insists on victory. Yet our president is disengaged from foreign policy and has proven to be generally opposed to the assertion of America's interests in the world.
So note that this article is about why we can win. It's too late to talk about why we might win, because winning is no longer just a vague potentiality; the events that will lead to victory—if they continue—are already in motion. But it's too early to say that we will win, because such an outcome is far from inevitable.
So what is making this even a possibility? I have to admit that I am surprised at the positive turn of events, because these are not the consequences we would expect from Barack Obama's policies. They are happening despite his apologies to the Muslim world, despite his passivity on Iran, despite his neglect of Iraq, and despite his general disengagement from foreign policy. Instead, all of these positive developments are consequences of the policies put in place by George W. Bush—particularly our victory in the counter-insurgency war in Iraq and our establishment of a semi-free government there. That is what discredited al-Qaeda, which was turned on and violently rejected by its local allies. That is what demonstrated how an insurgency can be defeated and provided us with military leaders who have actually done it—and who are now running the war in Afghanistan. And Iraq is what provided an example of a relatively free society whose religious leaders advocate representative government and political freedom, a model the Iranian people now want to emulate.
If it turns out that President Bush did just enough for victory, it still seems so little compared to what he might have done. I will not rehearse here the many lost opportunities in Israel and Lebanon and elsewhere, or Bush's failure to act to destroy Iran's nuclear program. Yet what he did do is nevertheless working.