"Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." -- President Bush, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Six years after the most spectacular, horrific attacks on U.S. soil in the nation's history, President Bush has failed to keep his promise. Usama bin Laden quickly went from America's most wanted man—a man President Bush himself said he wanted "dead or alive"—to a man of whom the president said just months later, "I truly am not that concerned about."
We now have 168,000 troops in Iraq, a country that the president himself concedes had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, but that now, thanks to our continuing presence there, has become a breeding and training ground for radical Islamic terrorists. It was a war that we now know Bush had planned on waging well before the attacks, but that his administration nevertheless attempted to tie to Sept. 11 in order to shore up public support for its waging.
None of the 9/11 highjackers came from Iraq. There's been no credible link established between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. Our "allies" in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, in fact, have far more credible ties to and histories of cooperation with Islamic terrorists.
Yet the war in Iraq has become the most significant, lasting, and notable U.S. reaction to the attacks six years ago. Nearly 3,500 U.S. troops have died. We've spent a half trillion dollars. And we're likely to have a military presence in Iraq of some kind for another decade or more.
Meanwhile, a continent away, Al-Qadea leaders Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri sit in the remote mountains of Pakistan, where they periodically send taped audio and video recordings mocking our inability to capture them and, as President Bush promised, to bring them to justice. We seem to have lost interest in them, the two men most responsible for bringing down the World Trade Center.
Lawrence Wright's incredible, 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Looming Tower," goes back decades to trace the rise of Al-Qaeda and the events leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. Wright interviewed hundreds of people for the book, including a number of Islamic militants and their sympathizers.
One thing that's unmistakable throughout the book is that without Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, there could not have been a Sept. 11. Bin Laden's money, devotion, and mythical stature in the more radical Muslim world are the driving force behind, and inspiration for, Al-Qaeda. And it was al-Zawahiri's misapplication and bastardization of the tenets of Islam that gave quarter to the idea that it's justifiable to murder innocents in pursuit of jihad.
The capture, conviction, and/or death of these men, the men who orchestrated, funded, and perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks, should have been our highest priority over the last six years. Their capture or deaths would not only have brought closure and justice to a wounded country, it would have demystified them in the Muslim world, and drained momentum from Al-Qaeda.
Instead, we've not only allowed them to survive, we've given them more ammunition for recruiting more terrorists to their cause. And when you consider Bin Laden's grand plan for America, our morass in Iraq becomes not just frustrating, but chilling.
Wright explains that Bin Laden's goal was to goad the United States into a long, drawn-out war with Isalmic mujahadeen, the same way he did with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviets left a decade-long war battered, dejected, and demoralized, and though the real victors were the Afghan resistance fighters themselves, Bin Laden was able to claim credit for helping to stave off a world super-power, despite being outmanned and outgunned.
He had hoped to lure the United States into the same sort of protracted quagmire, where U.S. troops would have no choice but to occupy a tattered, dangerous country, while—as in the Soviet-Afghan war—radical Muslims would come from all over the world to help humiliate another world power.
The thing is, Bin Laden thought this second war would also be in Afghanistan. He hoped first to lure the U.S. through the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. When President Clinton didn't react, Bin Laden went about planning the Sept. 11 attacks. The U.S. had to act after Sept. 11. And we initially thwarted Bin Laden's plan with a decisive, overwhelming victory in Afghanistan.
Wright writes that Bin Laden was dejected at the ease with which U.S. military power dispatched with the Taliban, which then sent him into hiding. But instead of seeing that operation through to its logical conclusion—the capture of Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri and the rest of the Al-Qaeda leadership—we turned our attention to Iraq.
We have created in Iraq the exact type of scenario Bin Laden was hoping (but failed) to lure us into in Afghanistan—an unwinnable war where we're isolated from the world, our troops are walking targets for guerilla terrorists, and our only options are bad (pull out and hope for minimal carnage) and worse (stay in, where our troops will continue to die, and where there's no prospect for stability in the near future).
A loosely-connected, (relatively) poorly funded, backward-thinking organization like Al-Qaeda could never inflict significant harm on the United States, at least not in a straightforward war. Their best hope is to scare us into rash, ill-considered actions like overextending our military, alienating our allies, and doing away with the open society and civil liberties that define who we are.
Six years have passed since Sept. 11. That's enough time and distance for us to take a couple of steps back, look at that horrible day with some perspective, and reevaluate if the course we've charted is the correct one. We should bear in mind that Al-Qaeda could never defeat us on its own. It can only frighten and trap us into defeating ourselves.
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.