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Is the United States winning the war on terror? Following Sept. 11, President Bush vowed a global fight against terrorism. Eighteen months later, experts disagree on how it's going. (opinion).

YES The U.S. is winning the war on terror. This war has two parts: the protection of the American homeland from attack and the overseas war against terrorists.

Let's take protection of our homeland first. Before Sept. 11 there were few serious obstacles to stop terrorists. The FBI didn't even talk to immigration and border-control authorities. This meant that dangerous people could--and did--just walk right in to the U.S. The airlines managed security themselves. On Sept. 11, all four groups of terrorists breezed through airport security, proving how ineffective it was. Even if the Sept. 11 terrorists had made some big mistakes, they still would have gotten through.

This is all changed now. We'll never be able to stop every single terrorist, but procedural changes since Sept. 11 have closed the major loopholes. Today, U.S. government departments share information--something they seldom did before. The FBI regularly gives lists of suspects to the border-control officials. Airline security is now handled by the government.

Internationally, the U.S. has also made great progress in the war on terror, killing many terrorists and putting others on the defensive. Afghanistan was a hotbed of terrorists who planned attacks against the U.S., thinking that they would be safe from any counterattack. That's no longer true because the U.S. military defeated the terrorists and militant rulers of Afghanistan (the Taliban) who protected them. Osama bin Laden may still be alive, but he's probably hiding in a cave, afraid for his life. The U.S. offensive has put the terrorists on the run.

The key question in the war on terror is, What is the standard of victory? The answer is twofold: denying terrorists the protection of a country like Afghanistan, and making it much more difficult to carry out attacks in the U.S. By this standard, we're doing a good job. We cannot eliminate root causes of terrorism like poverty and injustice--at least not in the next few years. In the meantime, we have to defend our country and our friends against those who would like to destroy us.
Political Science Professor
Yale University

NO The war on terror is destined for failure, in part because war is the wrong metaphor. Individuals may be killed and groups may dissolve, but terrorism is a longstanding problem that cannot be conclusively defeated.

Consider this: America has had a war on drugs for decades, but how many communities are there where one can't find illegal drugs? Sure, we will have victories, and we will defeat certain groups, but these problems aren't going away.

Our main target now in the war on terror is Al Qaeda, a group with probably less than 1,000 fighters worldwide. So far, we've been unable to track down its leader, Osama bin Laden, even though he apparently has no trouble finding the world's media (several messages reportedly from him have appeared in various news outlets). Even if we defeat Al Qaeda, it does not mean an end to terrorism. In fact, Al Qaeda's success at drawing the full attention of the world's greatest superpower probably encourages others opposed to us and our policies to use terror as a weapon.

We can spend an infinite amount of money trying to defend ourselves against terrorism. We can put cement barricades around potential targets, place metal detectors everywhere, and put everyone under surveillance. But we rarely know what is effective prevention--we only know what is ineffective, after it fails.

What's more, our single-minded focus on fighting terrorism may be aggravating our international situation. A recent survey found an increasing number of people around the world are hostile to the U.S. We shouldn't seek merely to be popular, but we can't ignore that being unpopular carries costs too.

Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, and other countries have been fighting terrorism much longer than we have. Not one has eliminated it; in some cases, it's gotten worse. Our current emphasis--law enforcement and intelligence work--has never been enough to stamp out terrorism. We can fight terrorism, but a war on terror cannot possibly make terrorism go away.
Center for Strategic and
International Studies
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Author:Alterman, Jon
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 21, 2003
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