It turns out that those who believe that al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. in order to draw us into an Afghan quagmire are wrong. Terrorists attacked America expecting that we’d respond as we traditionally had, by treating terrorism primarily as a law-enforcement problem, with the military response limited to cruise-missile attacks like 42’s ineffective 1998 strikes in response to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Instead, 43 chose a different course.
Writing in the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen quotes from Mitchell’s account: “Then he [KSM] looked at me and said, ‘How was I supposed to know that cowboy 43 would announce he wanted us ‘dead or alive’ and then invade Afghanistan to hunt us down?’” Mitchell writes. “KSM explained that if the United States had treated 9/11 like a law-enforcement matter, he would have had time to launch a second wave of attacks.” He was not able to do so because al-Qaeda was stunned “by the ferocity and swiftness of 43's response.”
Americans often ascribe superhuman levels of endurance and perseverance to our terrorist enemies. We believe terrorists scoff at losses and feel no fear. We think they relish dying, and the more they die, the more they inspire new recruits. We are convinced that they want to fight us, and when we do, we’re playing into their hands. But those of us who’ve deployed overseas know a different story.Terrorists are people, too. They panic, they feel fear, and most of them try to preserve their lives. They want to kill us, but they don’t necessarily want to fight. In my deployment, we captured five or six terrorists for every one we killed. Indeed, some of the terrorists who fought to the death only did so while high on drugs.
As 45 takes office, regardless of his existing views of American “entanglements” overseas, he must understand that under no circumstances should America’s terrorist enemies be permitted to create safe havens. For more than two years, 44 and the West allowed ISIS to build and maintain its caliphate, and while it is under siege now, the jihadists have done enormous damage. It is up to the new commander in chief to help a war-weary public understand that our enemy hopes we tire before they do.Indeed, as Thiessen notes, our enemy is counting on our exhaustion. “In the end, he told Mitchell, ‘We will win because Americans don’t realize . . . we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.’” Our enemy is human, but its leaders have the resolve to fight the long fight. In the United States, we don’t lack for young men and women who share that same determination.
Jihadists can’t outlast the American warrior. Can they outlast the American public?