What Comes After the Long War?


What Comes After the Long War?

Jan 16th, 2012 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Each war's end produces an iconic visual. World War II had "The Kiss" -- a nurse and sailor in lip-locked celebration at Times Square.

Vietnam had a far different final image -- the last helicopter lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

What visual will come to symbolize the end of the Long War on terrorism? After all, it can be argued that the conflict is over.

Historians may point to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the tapering off of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, and the death of bin Laden as landmark events signaling the end of hostilities sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

The Long War doubtless will go down as one of the strangest wars in history. Americans could not agree on who they were fighting -- or even what to call the conflict. Some criticized calling it a War on Terrorism, noting terrorism was just a tactic.

A bizarre objection, to be sure. The Cold War wasn't a battle against hypothermia. The War of Jenkins' Ear was not a conflict over a body part. South America wasn't a battleground in either World War, so they weren't really "world" wars after all.

War titles are meant to be evocative -- not literal -- to remind a generation of something important about the war. That was what Paul Rosenzweig and I sought to do when we initially dubbed this conflict "The Long War" (a phrase later popularized by theater commander Gen. John Abizaid and President Bush). And, whatever else you might say about this conflict, you'd have to agree that we were right: It was long.

On matters other than length, however, few firm assessments of this conflict can be made -- other than that it ended more ambiguously than either side had anticipated.

Yes, bin Laden is dead. Yet President Obama's determination to pull out from Afghanistan means the U.S. will leave the field with the enemy still standing.

Furthermore, after the American withdrawal, the Taliban may well sweep back and re-establish control of parts of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda could well follow, even as it continues to build up bases of operations elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

The American homeland also remains a target. At least 44 Islamist-related terrorist plots on the United States have been hatched and, thankfully, thwarted since 9/11. And the pace of these attempts has increased, even as Obama wound down U.S. action in the war.

A war's end is not always unmitigated good news. Especially if the way it ends sows the seeds of future conflicts.

When Americans abandoned South Vietnam in 1975, we paid a heavy price. The Soviets interpreted the U.S. withdrawal as a sign America was in retreat.

The Kremlin redoubled its nuclear weapons building program, sowed dissent in Western Europe, instigated insurgencies in Africa and South Africa, funded transnational terrorist attacks on the U.S., and invaded Afghanistan. The world became a more dangerous after we ran away from Vietnam.

A belligerently aggressive Iran ... an anti-democratic Russia ... an expansive China ... a wet-behind-the-ears "Dear Leader" in North Korea ... enduring threats from narco-terrorists and Islamist terrorists ... there is every sign that, when Obama's four years are up, the world will be a potentially far more dangerous place than it was when he first took office.

Whatever iconic image comes to mark the end of this Long War, it may also be regarded as the harbinger of the next one.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Examiner