The most striking sentence of President Obama’s eloquent speech to the nation Tuesday night came very near the end: “This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.”
Would that it were so. Would that it were so that the Sept. 11 attacks marked the beginning of a period whose end is soon approaching. The president thinks this, and the American people would like it to be so. It’s an attractive view, with the great political merit of offering hope of a relatively early and clear end to “this time of war.” And it’s not an intellectually incoherent view: The 9/11 attack was launched by al-Qaeda based in Afghanistan. Our war aim has been and is to destroy al-Qaeda and prevent the use of Afghanistan as a base for future attacks. When we’ve achieved this objective, the war will end.
But what if the reality is that, from Pakistan in the east to Tunisia in the west, and most visibly now in places such as Iran and Yemen and Somalia — and not just in Afghanistan — we are at war with political Islamism, a movement whose ability to find state sponsors and enablers is not limited to just one country or two? This isn’t a pleasant reality, and even the Bush administration wasn’t quite ready to confront it. But President George W. Bush did capture the truth that we are engaged in — and had no choice but to engage in — a bigger war, a “global war on terror,” of which Afghanistan was only one front.
There are, of course, problems with “global war on terror” as a phrase and an organizing principle. But it does capture what we might call the “big” view of 9/11 and its implications.
It would be wonderful if Obama’s view of 9/11 and its implications were correct. But if it’s not going to be true that Afghanistan is where “this time of war . . . will end” — even if Afghanistan is pacified and we’re no longer fighting there — then the American people should know that.
This doesn’t mean we need to be deploying troops and fighting ground wars all around the globe. After Korea and Vietnam, we conducted the rest of the Cold War without major combat operations. But that “time of war” didn’t end after the armistice in Korea or the retreat from Vietnam. Unfortunately, the war in which we are engaged won’t end with peace in, or withdrawal from, Afghanistan.
William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.