USA Today | September 19, 2014
A little more than 13 years ago, as nearly 3,000 Americans lay murdered by terrorists on our own soil, the nation confronted a new threat. We wrung our hands at our missed opportunities to nip terrorist threats in the bud, over treating al-Qaeda as a law enforcement problem, and over our passivity as Afghanistan’s civil war left a sanctuary for terror in its wake.
We recognized the war on violent extremists would be a long one. We pledged “never again,” and promised every killer would be brought to justice and every safe haven denied to the terrorists. We understood this war was a battle of ideas, a struggle within Islam between violent radicals and moderates who, like us, want peace.
How far we’ve come from that darkening autumn of 2001. Our memories grew hazy as time passed and we returned to business as usual. After two costly wars, we wanted to put agonizingly complicated foreign conflicts in our rear-view mirror.
Since 2009 the president has played to war-weariness, falsely telling us the tide of war was receding and the back of al-Qaeda had been broken rather than being honest with the American people about the continuing threat.
Iraq was written off, and the president made clear his commitment to Afghanistan was time-limited, a worrisome message to our Afghan allies who face a rejuvenated Taliban, a determined Haqqani network terrorists, and a resilient if weakened al-Qaeda.
Terrorism became a law enforcement problem. Meanwhile, the president’s efforts to release terrorists from Guantanamo continue despite the fact that released terrorists have returned to the battlefield. We may have declared our war against terrorists over, but their war against us rages on.
Even when the administration has used military force, it has done so without a strategy for success. In Libya, it brought down Moammar Gadhafi’s regime without a plan to win the peace, and then was willfully blind to the growing threat posed by terrorists and extremist militia who leaped into the security vacuum there.
We were all sickened by the result of this wishful-thinking strategy when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were slaughtered by Islamist terrorists in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. But what has happened since is even more revealing. The administration explained away the terrorist attack as merely a demonstration gone out of control, and has also done virtually nothing to address the underlying threats emanating from Libya. Today, Libya is Hobbesian wasteland and a sanctuary for terrorists that will only become a tougher challenge if nothing is done to arrest its death spiral.
ISIL dominates headlines today, but it is merely a symptom of this administration’s failed counterterrorism efforts and of a broader jihadist threat. Nor is the threat ISIL poses a surprise. It was not a Jayvee team in 2006 when, under the name al-Qaeda in Iraq, it was the vanguard of the terrorist insurgency. Our partners in the region have begged the U.S. for years to quarterback an effort to confront both terrorists like ISIL and the Iranian-backed Bashar Assad regime in Syria. The Iraqi government unsuccessfully pressed the Obama White House more than a year ago to provide it better capabilities so that it could go after ISIL.
If we are to avoid another 9/11 on American soil now is the time for us to confront our enemies. Though I am wary of the president’s commitment to see this fight through, I support the use of force against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. But more must be done.
First, in the days ahead, it is critical that the president is clear with the American people about the threat posed by these terrorists and his strategy to defeat them. The reality is that airstrikes alone may not get the job done and we should acknowledge this reality. Certainly we will not reoccupy Iraq, but some special operations forces may be necessary to supplement our airpower and augment the capabilities of moderate indigenous forces we want to see ascendant when the smoke clears. We must not take options off the table against a brutal and determined enemy.
Second, while the focus today is on ISIL, we must recognize that ISIL is but a part of the global jihadist threat we face. Preventing the next 9/11 requires that we confront the reality that al-Qaeda has metastasized, and that radical terrorists operating out of sanctuaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere that pose a threat to the United States must be destroyed. This begins with recommitting ourselves to winning the war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is on the offensive and al-Qaeda is almost certainly not far behind.
Third, Congress and the president must work together to rebuild America’s military strength. If we do not have a military that can credibly deter and respond to threats around the globe, we will see our adversaries grow more emboldened. We will see more Russian and Chinese provocations. We will see allies hedge their bets. And we will have less influence in regions of critical interest to the U.S.
The president who has made ending the war on terrorism the central focus of his foreign policy must now make winning it a priority. I, and many of my colleagues on both sides of aisle, stand ready to work with him to achieve the victory that American security requires.
Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the House majority leader.