September 10, 2013: Remarks to the American Enterprise Institute
Sep 10, 2013
Congressman Tom Cotton
Al Qaeda Today
Remarks to the American Enterprise Institute
September 10, 2013
Thank you for that kind introduction, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. It’s an honor to be back at the American Enterprise Institute. The scholars of AEI and the Institute for the Study of War have made significant contributions to understanding and confronting threats to our national security.
Most famously, they helped develop the strategic underpinnings for the Iraq surge of 2007. For much of 2006, I fought in the streets of Baghdad as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne. My soldiers and I knew in a concrete, personal way that the United States needed more troops and a new strategy, even if few could articulate exactly what it would be. I am grateful for your work that gave voice to our experience and salvaged our sacrifices. Now that I’m off the streets of Baghdad and in the halls of Congress, I can assure you that your work is no less consequential there.
Today, I want to share some thoughts on al Qaeda. To put it simply, al Qaeda today remains a grave threat that too many policymakers misunderstand or want to wish away. We have to recognize and understand this threat if we are to defeat it. And we need to have strength and confidence in fighting al Qaeda, using all the tools and resources that have been proven to work over the years.
Let’s consider first what al Qaeda is today and how it got here. Twelve years ago, few people were aware of al Qaeda—its leaders, its mission, its operational accomplishments, or its relationship to radical Islam. Outside of a small number of intelligence professionals and a few prescient policymakers, it’s safe to say there was little public awareness of the very real threat al Qaeda posed. Despite its declaration of war against the United States, the East African embassy bombings, or the attack on the USS Cole, Americans were understandably focused on a faltering economy.
Because of the 9/11 attacks and our subsequent attack against al Qaeda in its Afghan safe haven, that would all change. Well before Kabul fell to our amazing military, most Americans would know al Qaeda was our avowed enemy and the Taliban was an outlaw gang aligned with al Qaeda. All would know the name Osama bin Laden. And all understood that our troops were fighting in Afghanistan to bring justice to the terrorists who had attacked our land and to deny them a haven from which to launch future attacks.
Our troops accomplished that mission. Kabul fell. The Taliban and al Qaeda were routed. They retreated into the mountainous region on the Afghan-Pakistan border. They moved constantly because they lived in constant fear of a daisy cutter or the silenced muzzle of an American operator’s rifle. As an old fighter, let me say that’s a miserable existence. When you have to worry about personal security, you barely have time to plan a meal, much less plan and execute a mass attack on the other side of the world.
The American people understood that mission, they supported it, and they applauded it. In spite of Afghanistan’s forbidding history, the new nature of the enemy, and the absence of an unconditional surrender on the deck of a battleship, there was a certain public focus and a pretty clear understanding about the threat we faced and what needed to be done. Today, this focus and understanding seems to have receded as al Qaeda has evolved into something again new and different.
Al Qaeda was once a highly centralized organization located in a specific (though changing) area, but is now a dispersed, highly networked organization. Al Qaeda has many cells across Africa and Asia today, many with regional objectives, but also with aspirations to and connections with global jihad.
In many ways, in fact, al Qaeda has made real gains over the last four-and-a-half years. Today, al Qaeda has significantly expanded the territory it controls. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabaab, and increasingly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al Nusra—all these are growing in their global footprint, to say nothing of the forces upon which they can draw; the skill and experience of those forces; and their morale, discipline, and determination to strike. And this is to say nothing of sympathetic associated forces like the Haqqani Network in the Afghan-Pakistan border area and others elsewhere.
Yet many Americans know little of these terrorist groups. Similarly, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new emir of al Qaeda, is not exactly a household name, though he was there at the beginning of al Qaeda, as anyone who’s read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright knows.
Regrettably, too many Americans believe that the threat from al Qaeda ended with the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden and too many policymakers in Washington want to believe these terrorist groups aren’t affiliated with each other or what might be called core al Qaeda. In some ways, we’ve become like a cancer patient who believes the disease will go away if he simply stops thinking about it.
That’s not going to happen. We know that. These al Qaeda franchises want to strike the United States, our citizens, and our interests no less than did the old core al Qaeda. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, received his training from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yes, he failed. But terrorist incompetence is not exactly a sound counterterrorism strategy. We tragically saw that a year ago in Benghazi, when four Americans were murdered in a terrorist attack on our consulate—which is to say, on American soil—including terrorists associated with Ansar al-Sharia and AQAP.
Instead, if ignored, the cancer of al Qaeda will only grow worse and may even pass the stage of feasible treatment. And that’s why it’s so important to diagnose the disease properly (as Katie Zimmerman tries to do) and understand the symptoms it’s presenting (as Jessica Lewis tries to do). I have limited power to add to your understanding beyond their important efforts.
But perhaps I can reflect on what all this means for us and what we should do about it. It’s been twelve years now since the United States joined the war against radical Islam. You’ll note that I did not say the United States started a war on terror in 2001. That distinction is important.
First, terror is simply a tactic, not an enemy. It’s an illegitimate and barbaric tactic, to be sure, but not an enemy to meet on the battlefield. Our enemy is radical Islam, practiced most violently against the West—though, of course, not only—by al Qaeda. I don’t object to the name “war on terror” as it’s become commonly understood to mean our war against radical Islam—as long as we don’t forget that understanding. It’s not a war against extremism. It’s not a war against terror. It’s a war against radical Islamists who hate us, not because of what we do, but because of who we are.
Second, the United States only joined this war in 2001. We didn’t start the war. Radical Islamists started it and waged it against us for decades before we joined it. In just the eight years before 9/11, we suffered the first World Trade Center bombing, the Khobar Towers bombing, the bombing of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the bombing of the USS Cole. In no case did we retaliate in an effective and strategic way to those attacks. It took the terrible attacks of 9/11 for us to join this war.
What lessons can we take? Although al Qaeda has changed, the face of our enemy has not. Radical Islamists hate us no less than they once did and they want to kill us no less than they once did. Unfortunately, though, in some ways they are more dangerous now. That’s in part because we have neglected what kept us safe in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: being the strong horse.
Osama bin Laden famously said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Before 9/11, bin Laden and his followers believed that al Qaeda was the strong horse and the United States was the weak horse. Sadly, one cannot say they were mistaken given our inadequate responses to so many provocations. After 9/11, though, al Qaeda—not to mention every friend and foe around the world—knew that the America was, once again, the strong horse.
Is the United States viewed around the world as the strong horse today? Increasingly, I fear not. There can be no doubt that the American people are war-weary. This should not be surprising when the commander-in-chief is the weariest of them all. The president often seems incapable of speaking of victory or defeat, which I assure you are the terms our enemies use.
Instead, he speaks of wars “ending.” Wars are not movies; they do not merely end. Wars are won or lost; they only end in victory or defeat. Likewise, the president often says “the tide of war is receding.” Wars are not tides, either. They aren’t governed by mechanical, impersonal forces; they are governed by human will, courage, and skill. Unfortunately, the only thing receding in our war against radical Islam is American influence. He also says “al Qaeda is on the run.” Maybe so, but only in this regard. At Fort Benning, I learned a basic infantry doctrine: the infantry is on offense when it is moving and it is on defense when it is not on offense. Al Qaeda is only on the run in the sense that it is on offense against the United States.
It’s time to put al Qaeda back on defense and the United States back on offense. And the way to do that is to recommit to the strong-horse approach. We have to face, and explain, in a clear-eyed and hard-nosed manner the threats that America faces from a reconfigured al Qaeda, which is as, or in some ways more, dangerous than core al Qaeda was twelve years ago. The American people need to know that the threat is real and gathering. It is our responsibility—my responsibility and my colleagues’—as leaders to explain this threat. It’s also our responsibility to project strength and confidence in the defense of American interests and principles.
That starts with taking pride in the accomplishments of our military and intelligence professionals over the last decade and preserving the programs that have worked so well. For example, we should applaud the incredible advances in unmanned-aerial-vehicle technology—drones—and the skill of military and intelligence personnel in employing these drones against al Qaeda around the world.
Drones are simply another step in the evolution of military weapons that provide our warriors the safety of stand-off distance, an evolution that goes back at least to the longbow or the slingshot. Our drone “pilots” are certainly safer than aircraft pilots, and drones can be more precise and cause fewer civilian casualties than do traditional aircraft or naval gunfire. Thus, drones allow the United States to strike terrorists in inaccessible regions, like the ungoverned lands in Yemen, where a president might be understandably hesitant to send manned aircraft or special-operations forces. And the psychological effect of drone killings is significant, too. When an American drone unexpectedly brings justice to Anwar al-Awlaki, it powerfully reminds all terrorists that their safe haven may not be so safe after all.
Far from restraining the use of drones through unwise and unconstitutional mechanisms, we should continue and probably expand their use in our war against radical Islam. Yet, we cannot view drones as a silver-bullet program. In many cases, for instance when terrorists are inaccessible or a threat is imminent, drones are our best tool. But in other cases, it’s always preferable to capture, detain, and interrogate terrorists so their intelligence value can be exploited fully.
And, in fact, our detention and interrogation programs are also key programs that have worked well. As policymakers, we should not lament or apologize for them. We should defend their successes. The killing of Osama bin Laden is perceived as the signal accomplishment in our war against radical Islam over the last twelve years. But that operation, so skillfully conducted by Navy SEALs, almost certainly wouldn’t have happened were it not for the years-long interrogation of detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at Guantanamo Bay. If we want such successes in the future, perhaps we shouldn’t expose those intelligence professionals involved to repeated investigation.
Nor should we close Guantanamo Bay. That facility, created out of exigency and necessity, has evolved into a modern, safe, humane, and effective detention center for some of the world’s worst terrorists. The persons held there are not innocent goat-herders; they are masterminds, bomb-makers, and other hardened al Qaeda shock troops. By detaining them at Guantanamo Bay, we ensure that they aren’t released onto American streets and that American communities don’t become targets for terrorism. By appeasing the propaganda of our enemies and the moralizing of others, we only reveal ourselves as a weak horse.
Of course, it’s far better to stop an attack than to detain terrorists after the fact. That’s why we also must preserve the intelligence-gathering programs that have helped to foil so many plots. Many of these programs have come to light because of the criminal Edward Snowden unlawfully released partial details about them. To take just one example, everyone now knows that the National Security Agency collects telephone “metadata,” essentially a record of phone numbers called and called to and the date, time, and duration of calls—but no personally identifiable information and certainly no recorded content.
Some voices in both parties have expressed alarm at this program. The program, though, not only has been invaluable in our war against radical Islam, but also is constitutional, authorized by statute, and overseen thoroughly by the courts and Congress. Now, I understand, and I certainly share, the skepticism of this administration after scandals like the IRS’s targeting of political opponents. It’s not fair, though, to conflate the two. The IRS is full of political partisans like Lois Lerner who violated their mandates by targeting American citizens for constitutional abuses. The NSA, by contrast, is full of career military officers who follow the law by targeting foreign terrorists to protect American citizens. As a Congress, we can exercise vigorous oversight of the one, without undermining the other.
These and so many other policies and programs have kept America safe. They don’t deserve the criticism and diffidence they have evoked. It only betrays a weak-horse mindset. Even worse, though, is what we’re doing to the single organization that has done more than any to keep America safe: the military. Our Armed Forces are the strong horse on which our national security has ridden for a decade—symbolized by the Army Green Berets’ use of horses in the early days of the Afghan war. Yet we are hobbling that horse with radical budget cuts.
These cuts, which both preceded the Budget Control Act and are deepening because of it, are unwise and unfair. Although the military represents barely one-fifth of the federal budget, it’s bearing one-half of sequestration and other cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act. The consequences will be historic, and not in a good way: the smallest ground force since before World War Two, the smallest Navy since before World War One, and the smaller Air Force ever. The chiefs of each service have explained that these radical cuts will impair the United States’s ability to conduct even one major war, much less other contingencies or two wars.
Some might say that our military needs to reorient itself away from major wars and toward smaller, counterterrorism operations. One can agree with that statement, and even want to reorient our overseas force posture, yet still see the need for a global military capable of projecting power anywhere within a moment’s notice. Drones need bases from which to fly. Special-mission units need bases from which to strike. Aircraft carriers enable speedy and effective responses in crises, while collecting critical intelligence in routine times. Allies like France need logistical support like aerial refueling and strategic airlift when they take the lead on the ground in places like Mali. Now, perhaps some might say we have no business in places like Mali. But Mali—or other far-off, little-known places—in 201, if ignored, can become what Afghanistan was in 2001: a safe haven from which our enemies plan and launch devastating attacks.
Others contend that, after a decade of major war, we can no longer afford such a large military. I disagree. In most government operations, the budget must drive the strategy. When it comes to national security, though, the strategy must drive the budget. Moreover, any fair-minded assessment of our fiscal woes must admit that domestic spending is the key driver of our staggering national debt. Defense spending remains at or below historic norms as a percentage of both the federal budget and the economy.
I fear, in fact, that these declining defense budgets reflect an even worse problem. For all these radical cuts, our military is still the finest in the world, by far. But these cuts, in some ways, are a symptom of lost will and confidence in the war against radical Islam. Our enemies, as we’ve seen, didn’t lose their will to win despite the massive defeat they suffered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, they reconstituted themselves in a new and dangerous form. Have we yet demonstrated the will to confront fully that evolved threat?
Perhaps nowhere is this loss of will and confidence more dramatic than the president’s abdication of leadership in Syria. The United States should have led the way two years ago when the Syrian people rose up against the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian patrons. Instead, the president’s inaction has complicated the situation on the ground and allowed al Qaeda to gain a foothold there. Now, their presence is seen not as an error to correct, but yet another reason for continued inaction.
This is exactly the wrong lesson to draw from Iraq and, especially, Afghanistan (both before and since 9/11). What worked in both countries was supporting the large number of the local Muslim population that rejects al Qaeda, what it stands for, and what it does. That’s what will work in other countries, too: engagement in a smart and tailored way. Such engagement will rarely, and may never again, look like what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. In some places, it may be little more than small-scale, military-to-military training of the kind the Army Green Berets have conducted for decades. In others, it may mean direct cooperation with intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. And in others, it may mean assistance for rebel forces.
What it will not mean is indifference or quasi-neutrality in the war against radical Islam. We can see the consequences of that policy in Syria today. The surest way to strengthen the al Qaeda groups there is to abandon the Sunni population to the depredations of the Iran-Hezbollah-Assad Shiite axis. I saw this exact dynamic on the front lines in Iraq. Few things can strengthen al Qaeda like Shiite sectarian violence and Western indifference. It allows al Qaeda to pose as defenders of the Sunni faithful and it drives Sunni communities toward them for protection. This is the happening today in Syria and it’s why Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are growing in strength and making progress toward establishing a genuine safe haven. Those who argue that inaction or leaving Assad alone is some kind of bulwark against al Qaeda have it exactly backward.
In the end, the key trait of the strong horse is the will to win. America had the will for a long time. I believe strongly that most Americans still do. I know that our troops and our intelligence professionals do. But I worry that many of our elected leaders do not. This is dangerous because, in the end, the strong horse does win.