In the minds of most Americans, al Qaeda descended from the heavens in Wagnerian-opera fashion, on September 11, 2011, putting the organization today at the beginning of its second decade. But al Qaeda was formally established in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988. It claims connection with assaults on American forces in Somalia and Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, declared war on the United States in 1996, and launched its terrorist campaign in earnest in 1998. By 2001, the struggle was already in its second decade.
Whether al Qaeda is in its third decade or third century matters little to its leaders, who see the current conflict as the continuation of centuries of armed struggle between believers and infidels, and who expect it to transcend their lifetimes.
This is unnerving to Americans, who seek precision in dating their wars. The American Revolutionary War began when the Minutemen opened fire on advancing British troops on April 19, 1775. The Civil War began when Confederate forces began shelling Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. World War II began with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Americans seek equal precision in ending conflict.
The almost continuous bloodshed between white settlers and Native Americans on America’s frontier does not lend itself to this kind of bracketing. There were identifiable campaigns, varying levels of violence, but the unequal conflict continued for centuries. Without implying any insulting comparison, it was, in fact, America’s only experience with continuous warfare.
Given that wars must have precise beginnings and endings, Americans want to know precisely where they are in the contest with al Qaeda. Who is winning? What’s the score? When will what has become America’s officially longest war be over?
Ten years after 9/11, there is still remarkable lack of consensus among analysts’ assessments of al Qaeda’s current condition. Almost every issue is debated: Whether America has won the operational battle but lost the ideological contest; whether homegrown terrorism is a growing threat; whether the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is dangerous; whether maintaining American troops in Afghanistan is essential; whether the United States ought to declare on its own an end to the war on al Qaeda. Part of the debate is driven by political agendas, but the arguments derive from the fact that al Qaeda is many things at once and must be viewed in all of its various dimensions.
This essay examines a number of these issues in light of recent developments—the death of Osama bin Laden, the Arab Spring, the American withdrawal from Iraq. In each case, it drives toward a bottom line. In the final analysis, it is a personal view.