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By Bill Shunas
Since the beginning, this country has had national security concerns. It was worrying about the British counter revolution in the early days and on down to confronting Al Qaeda today. There have been varying degrees of threat in different periods of time. There have been varying degrees of exaggeration of those threats.
In our lifetime, national security was concerned with the communist menace up until 1989. Since then it has been the terrorist menace with brief diversions concerning Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein and Monica Lewinsky. I'm sure that many in and out of government have viewed the Communist and terrorist menace as being of equal magnitude. You can't compare the two. At the beginning of the nuclear age the US and the Soviet Union had these new nuclear toys which were tempting to use. At some point - probably around the Cuban Missile Crisis - both sides probably figured out that they were unusable. This threat became idle. Otherwise, forty years of Cold War never found the Soviets or the Chinese or the Cubans or the Eastern Europeans killing American civilians except maybe an occasional individual involved in espionage. There was direct contact only in wars started by Americans. These wars did not threaten American citizens, American freedoms and least of all the US nation.
Al Qaeda, on the other hand, may not be threatening our nation, but is targeting Americans. They target our military personnel stationed where they are not wanted, but more of their targets seem to be civilians. They were active in the decade before 9/11. Some of their operations were successful including the Trade Towers in 1993, the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Other attacks were carried out without their intended result such as the bombing of the hotels where US troops stationed in Yemen were billeted. That bombing failed to kill Americans, but resulted in the deaths of locals and an Austrian tourist. Then there were some plots that never came off or were thwarted by police work such as plans to blow up a terminal at the Los Angeles airport or airliners in flight and various Y2K actions.
The point of the above is that this is real. I think that many on the American left do not acknowledge that Al Qaeda is a serious threat on which our government should act. We were so used to belittling our government's Cold War anti-communism as a cover for the military expansion of American capitalism that we tend to overlook that the same national security forces who cried wolf for decades might actually be correct about the dangers of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda wannabees.
While we were becoming aware of the Al Qaeda danger there was a return to the old way of thinking on the part of the Bush administration when we went to war in Iraq. The Bush people - in a position to know better - also belittled the danger of Al Qaeda by using 9/11 in the same way as cold War anti-communism. Instead of focusing on Al Qaeda they went to war to spread American imperialism in the Middle East.
If an act of war is committed against any nation - such as the crashing of hijacked airliners into buildings resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians - I think that nation has a right and an obligation, if possible, to act against the perpetrators. The complication with 9/11 is that this act of war was done by an organization. Yes, that organization retreated to Afghanistan. Should we therefore have gone after them in the sovereign nation of Afghanistan. I think yes. It should have been done as a search and destroy mission while Al Qaeda was not yet in a defensive position. What actually happened was that the US had a few advisers for the Northern Alliance, but basically no boots on the ground for two months. Osama escaped and lived to inspire more followers.
Al Qaeda has training camps in Afghanistan, training both military fighters and saboteurs (aka terrorists). It would be nice to militarily eliminate these camps, but it would be a hard and costly job. Check out your history. The British and the Russians both received an ass-whipping in Afghanistan.
Now we are stuck in Afghanistan to fight through the Taliban before we can reach and fight Al Qaeda. Afghan civilians who likely were not fans of the Taliban are being turned into Taliban supporters because of American heavy-handedness. They are becoming nationalists, opposed to American involvement, same-same Vietnam. It may be wrong to use the word "nationalist" because their allegiance is often tribal, but you get the idea. This war will go on and on. The price to pay to bring down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has become too great. We blew it when we had the chance in 2001 so it is time to exit. That is something that many are reluctant to do. At some point, the cost in terms of troops, money and respect becomes too great. I think we are past that point.
The best way to deal with the Al Qaeda threat is through a combination of police work, a change of foreign policy in the Middle East and limited military action when and if possible. We need to forego the avenging of 9/11 for now.
You might look at Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda spin offs as fish at home in the sea of the Islamic world. Here they receive support in terms of finances and places to locate because they are standing up to the Americans. In this part of the world there seem to be four major complaints against the US: (1) stationing troops in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia; (2) supporting the perceived suppression of the Palestinians; (3) being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children after the Gulf War through bombings and UN sanctions and (4) supporting what they consider apostate governments in the Arab world.
If US policy could adjust in some of these areas of concern to the Arabs, support for Al Qaeda would begin to loosen. If enough changes happen, it could loosen to the point where Al Qaeda becomes irrelevant in the Islamic world and to us. Of the four points mentioned, we can't bring back the Iraqi children (although we could apologize), and it may not be politically possible to change Israeli attitudes at this time, but if we were to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia and distance ourselves from governments like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the perceived need for Al Qaeda in this part of the world would diminish. Such is the best hope to end the so-called War on Terror.
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author and VVAW member in the Chicago chapter.