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Is the War on Terror Really "Over"?

by Daniel Halper
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The Middle East has undergone systemic and radical change since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring over a year ago. The leaders in Egypt and elsewhere are different-and in their place, well, there is not overwhelming evidence to suggest that the new guys are any friendlier to the West than the old ones.

But that's not all. The change has also had a major impact here, at home, as policymakers desperately try to cope with new realities, trying to figure out how U.S. policy can remain current.

Who, policymakers try to figure, will the United States be dealing with in these Arab countries over the next couple years? Should the U.S. support uprisings (as was done in Egypt, but not in Syria)? And, perhaps most challenging, how will the U.S. conduct its foreign policy if, as expected, members of Islamist parties, say in Egypt, take control? After all, these new partners might be members (or were in the past members) of parties designated as terrorists groups by the U.S. government.

These are all difficult questions.

So it's with that backdrop in mind that we try to understand the meaning behind an unnamed senior State Department official's statement to a reporter that, "The war on terror is over."

But if the war on terror is over, who won?

The war on terror as we know it began when al Qaeda attacked America on September 11, 2001, destroying the World Trade Center's Twin Towers with two hijacked airliners, flying another airliner into the Pentagon, and attempting to do the same to the Capitol building before that plane was brought down in a Pennsylvania field after courageous passengers fought the hijackers. Terrorists murdered nearly 3,000 Americans that day.

President George W. Bush struck back, targeting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and declaring a war on terror-and telling the rest of the world to either take our side or be considered our enemy. And for the last decade, American foreign policy has aimed at how best to stop a repeat of September 11.

But that has all come to a halt in the Obama administration. Al Qaeda, according to the State Department official, has been decimated. And it's true: There have been some notable successes, particularly in the killings of al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

But does that mean the United States has won the war on terror, therefore making the fight against terrorism a thing of the past? Or is the State Department's new language simply indicating that if you cannot end a war by winning (which President Bush wanted to do) or if you cannot end a war by leaving (as President Obama has wanted to do), the solution is to change the terms?

The problem is that rhetoric and reality don't quite match up here. That is, if the war on terror is over, not everyone in the Obama administration got the memo.

For instance, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters the other day that terrorism still exists, and the back channels are growing across the globe. When asked about the Iranian influence in Latin America on his way down to Bogota, Colombia, Panetta expressed concern that the mullahs were "expanding terrorism."

"Well, we always have a concern about in particular the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and the efforts by the IRGC to expand their influence in ­- not only throughout the Middle East but into this region as well. And, that, in my book, that relates to expanding terrorism," said Panetta. "And that's one of the areas that I think all of us are concerned about. And I hope that we can work together to make sure that all the steps are taken to ensure that anything that encourages terrorism can be fought against."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes the U.S. has defeated al Qaeda, but concedes that even now in Afghanistan terrorism has not been eradicated.

"Now, will we ever to our satisfaction find that the Afghan safe haven for terrorist groups is reduced to our satisfaction? And the answer is probably not. Part of that may be Pakistani will - I mean, that's to be determined. Part of it is probably their capability. Again, that's a very long stretch of what has traditionally been lawlessness. And I believe they will do the best they can, but it may not be enough for us."

Indeed, tens of thousands of American soldiers are still fighting - and dying - in Afghanistan. The fight continues, regardless of what State Department officials are willing to call it.

While al Qaeda might have been defeated - though that assessment appears to be premature - there are undoubtedly other bad actors. So while the battle over semantics rages, and while the "war on terror" is retired, the fight against terrorism continues, alas.

Meanwhile, the larger questions of how to deal with a changing Middle East still loom - becoming more and more pressing as every day passes.

Daniel Halper, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is deputy online editor at The Weekly Standard.

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