But there was a broader issue. The war in Afghanistan was not the main war. Afghanistan happened to be the place where al Qaeda was headquartered on Sept. 11, 2001. The country was not essential to al Qaeda, and creating a democratic society there -- if it were even possible -- would not necessarily weaken al Qaeda. Even destroying al Qaeda would not prevent new Islamist organizations or individuals from rising up.
A New Kind of War
The main war was not against one specific terrorist group, but rather against an idea: the radical tendency in Islamism. Most Muslims are not radicals, but any religion with 1 billion adherents will have its share of extremists. The tendency is there, and it is deeply rooted. If the goal of the war were the destruction of this radical tendency, then it was not going to happen. While the risk of attacks could be reduced -- and indeed there were no further 9/11s despite repeated attempts in the United States -- there was no way to eliminate the threat. No matter how many divisions were deployed, no matter how many systems for electronic detection were created, they could only mitigate the threat, not eliminate it. Therefore, what some called the Long War really became permanent war.
The means by which the war was pursued could not result in victory. They could, however, completely unbalance U.S. strategy by committing massive resources to missions not clearly connected with preventing Islamist terrorism. It also created a situation where emergency intrusions on critical portions of the Bill of Rights -- such as the need to obtain a warrant for certain actions -- became a permanent feature. Permanent war makes for permanent temporary measures.
The break point came, in my opinion, in about 2004. Around that time, al Qaeda was unable to mount attacks on the United States despite multiple efforts. The war in Afghanistan had dislodged al Qaeda and created the Karzai government. The invasion of Iraq -- whatever the rationale might have been -- clearly produced a level of resistance that the United States could not contain or could contain only by making agreements with its enemies in Iraq. At that point, a radical rethinking of the war had to take place. It did not.
The radical rethinking had to do not with Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather with what to do about a permanent threat to the United States, and indeed to many other countries, posed by the global networks of radical Islamists prepared to carry out terrorist attacks. The threat would not go away, and it could not be eliminated. At the same time, it did not threaten the existence of the republic. The 9/11 attacks were atrocious, but they did not threaten the survival of the United States in spite of the human cost. Combating the threat required a degree of proportionality so the fight could be maintained on an ongoing basis, without becoming the only goal of U.S. foreign policy or domestic life. Mitigation was the only possibility; the threat would have to be endured.
Washington found a way to achieve this balance in the past, albeit against very different sorts of threats. The United States emerged as a great power in the early 20th century. During that time, it fought three wars: World War I, World War II and the Cold War, which included Korea, Vietnam and other, smaller engagements. In World War I and World War II, the United States waited for events to unfold, and in Europe in particular it waited until the European powers reached a point where they could not deal with the threat of German hegemony without American intervention. In both instances, it intervened heavily only late in the war, at the point where the Germans had been exhausted by other European powers. It should be remembered that the main American push in World War II did not take place until the summer of 1944. The American strategy was to wait and see whether the Europeans could stabilize the situation themselves, using distance to mobilize as late as possible and intervene decisively only at the critical moment.
The critics of this approach, particularly prior to World War II, called it isolationism. But the United States was not isolationist; it was involved in Asia throughout this period. Rather, it saw itself as being the actor of last resort, capable of acting at the decisive moment with overwhelming force because geography had given the United States the option of time and resources.