Five years ago, the United States fired its first shots in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror here in Afghanistan, evicting al-Qaida and toppling...

Share story

KABUL, Afghanistan — Five years ago, the United States fired its first shots in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror here in Afghanistan, evicting al-Qaida and toppling the Taliban regime that hosted Osama bin Laden’s network.

Today, the United States and its allies are struggling to halt advances by a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in large swaths of this still desperately poor and unstable country.

The trends in Afghanistan appear to mirror the global war on terror a half-decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The Bush administration and allied governments have won battle after battle, but appear to be in danger of losing the war.

Indeed, a growing number of analysts, many of them former top government counterterrorism officials, argue that the very notion of a “war” on terrorism is the wrong strategy.

In relying overwhelmingly on bombs and bullets, they say, the United States has alienated much of the Muslim world, driving away even moderates who might be open to Western ideas. The West has largely failed to offer a positive vision or deal with the root causes of Islamic extremism.

The “tactical firefighting” of disrupting terrorist cells and stopping attacks “works pretty well,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College. “But it’s not resolving the strategic problem. The ranks keep on coming.”

A global counterinsurgency strategy would put “more emphasis on political reform, economic development, information operations, and less emphasis on the kinetics — the killing and capturing,” said Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t be killing and capturing terrorists. But … we’ve had a disproportionate emphasis on that as a solution.”

On the ground, the good news is that bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, which executed the Sept. 11 attacks, has been badly damaged, perhaps even crippled, by a multipronged international assault by soldiers, spies, policemen and bankers, according to senior U.S. officials and private analysts.

But bin Laden’s warped message of violent jihad has spread, with help from the Internet, like a virus. The ranks of potential terrorist recruits — while still representing a small, embittered minority of the Muslim world — appear to be swelling.

To them, around-the-clock TV images of the war in Iraq and the U.S.-backed Israeli bombardment of Lebanon are proof of bin Laden’s contention that the West is waging war on Islam.

Iraq invasion a “grave misstep”

Many — if not most — counterterrorism experts now see the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as a grave misstep in the struggle against Islamic extremism.

The U.S. intelligence community reported more than a year ago that al-Qaida’s leaders, weaned on the conflict against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, would be replaced by a new generation of terrorists trained on the battlefields of Iraq. European and Arab nations are bracing for the day when citizens who went to join the jihad against U.S. troops return home.

“The terrorists have found in Iraq a better sanctuary, training ground and laboratory than they ever had in Afghanistan. They have also been given what they desire most: American targets in close proximity,” former White House counterterrorism officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon wrote in their 2005 book, “The Next Attack.”

With the United States bogged down in Iraq, some specialists say they worry that America’s enemies feel emboldened. Some of the early gains after Sept. 11 — when al-Qaida was ousted from Afghanistan and countries from Iran to Libya avoided confrontation with Washington — may be dissipating.

A new report by the respected British research group Chatham House concludes: “There is little doubt that Iran has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror in the Middle East.”

In Lebanon, Iranian proxy Hezbollah is resurgent after Israeli bombs failed to dislodge it. Islamists control ever-larger swaths of lawless Somalia, while in nuclear-armed Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf walks a tightrope between counterterror cooperation with the West and appeasing his own Islamists.

In Afghanistan, which has been viewed as one of the enduring successes against terrorism, the Taliban appear stronger than at any time since Sept. 11.

Despite successions of offensives and airstrikes more intense than those in Iraq, the Taliban and their sympathizers now operate freely in six southeastern provinces and control pockets of them, said officials from the U.S. and Afghan governments and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

And despite elections, a new Parliament and a new constitution, President Hamid Karzai’s government is hampered by corruption, insecurity and runaway opium production. The enthusiasm that accompanied him into office two years ago has waned.

But Afghanistan is not without progress.

After the fall of the Taliban, many feared civil war would break out between rival ethnic and political factions, as happened previously in Afghanistan and has since occurred in Iraq. That hasn’t happened. Karzai has held his weak government together, but at a cost — by striking a Faustian bargain to accommodate warlords, many of whom are now the sources of the discontent and insecurity that bedevil the government.

In the capital of Kabul, foreign troops, aid workers and returning refugees have imported an international flavor. There are now diversions unknown during the Taliban time — movies, private television and cell phones. Music blares from wedding halls, and private vehicles fill the streets. Simple pleasures forbidden by the Taliban — kite-flying, furtive flirting among couples on picnics in the park — are now taken for granted.

But the foreigners also imported un-Islamic temptations — alcohol, prostitution, revealing clothing — that provide evidence for Taliban propagandists that Afghanistan has become a Western outpost of sin.

New motivation, recruits

And many Afghans — now with access to internationally funded free media — cite the war in Iraq and U.S. support for Israel in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories when they accuse President Bush of waging war on Islam in the guise of fighting terrorism.

That perception also has brought new motivation and recruits to the Taliban.

Western and Afghan officials insist that it’s not too late to stem the crisis if the United States and its allies devote more reconstruction resources, time and troops.

In Washington, a senior counterterrorism official said the international community never fully delivered on its postwar promises to Afghanistan, and now the opportunity to do so is fading.

“We failed the Afghan [people] in the last several years, I believe,” said the senior official, who requested anonymity.

There have been, of course, major counterterrorism successes in the last half-decade, and no terrorist attacks have occurred on U.S. soil.

As an operational organization, al-Qaida “is crippled forever and will eventually be destroyed,” said the senior official.

But it remains dangerous nonetheless. U.S. counterterrorism officials, confirming Pakistani accounts, say there’s evidence that al-Qaida played a role in the alleged plot to bomb U.S.-bound trans-Atlantic jetliners with liquid explosives smuggled onboard.

Outside the Middle East, and often under the radar, U.S. interagency teams have helped local governments develop successful counterinsurgency strategies in places as far-flung as Colombia and North Africa.

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are working more closely together and have shrunk the terrain in Southeast Asia where al-Qaida affiliates can operate. Two groups, Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, are “in the hurt locker,” the senior official said. Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible for the October 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, that killed more than 200 tourists.

Yet a growing number of specialists — and some U.S. political leaders — say a fundamental overhaul of the West’s counterterrorism strategy is needed.

They advocate a defter approach, one that focuses less on bombs and bullets, and more on winning hearts and minds, efforts to end regional conflicts that spark resentment, development aid and trade.

Increasingly, the face of terrorism is no longer that of bin Laden, who’s believed to be hiding in some Afghan cave or Pakistani city, but of self-generated “pop-up” cells of disaffected young men living on the margins of society in Western Europe. The attacks they plan, such as the July 2005 bombings of London’s transportation system, which killed 52 and injured more than 700, may bear only passing signs of al-Qaida’s guiding hand.

While terrorist recruitment numbers are impossible to come by, poll after poll shows deep anger at the West, and analysts say a small fraction of the embittered will turn to violence.

Few countries have thought through strategies to counter such radicalization, said Swedish expert Ranstorp.

“I don’t see a lot of headway on this issue” in Europe, he said. “And that’s a great failure.”

Henry Crumpton, the CIA operative who designed the campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and who is now the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, recalled a meeting he had before Sept. 11 with the legendary Afghan resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaida agents on Sept. 9, 2001, asked him whether the U.S. government was more interested in defeating al-Qaida or helping the Afghan people, he said. Crumpton reluctantly replied that it was the former.

“That still resonates with me,” Crumpton recalled. “You can’t do one without the other. You can’t defeat a terrorist enemy without denying a safe haven to the enemy and without replacing that safe haven” with something better. “It’s a lesson for us all. You’ve got to do both.”

Information from the Philadelphia Inquirer

is included in this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.