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May 16th, 2008
09:40 AM ET

McCain, 2013 and the End of the War on Terror

Peter Bergen
CNN National Security Analyst

In a speech in Ohio on Thursday John McCain laid out his vision for his putative presidency. Perhaps the most striking part was the claim that by the end of his four year-term in 2013 the global war on terrorism would be effectively over—Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants would be behind bars or dead; al Qaeda would no longer have a safe haven on the Afghan-Pakistan border; the Taliban would be largely out of business; al Qaeda in Iraq defeated; the Iraq War “won,” and no major terrorist attack would have taken place in the United States.

It’s undeniably an attractive vision of the future, but how plausible are those claims? Given the fact that bin Laden remains at large today more than six years after 9/11 it is wishful thinking that he will be caught in the next five years. There hasn’t been a solid lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts since the battle of Tora Bora in December of 2001 when radio intercepts definitively placed him in the mountain redoubt in eastern Afghanistan.

But since then the al Qaeda leader hasn’t talked on a cell or satellite phone so there is no signals intelligence on his whereabouts, and it is quite unlikely anyone in his immediate circle will drop a dime on him for a large cash reward as there have been no takers for the millions of dollars of bounty on his head that the United States has advertised since 1999.

Similarly, absent a massive terror attack on the United Kingdom or the United States traceable to the tribal areas on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will do what is required to wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership headquartered there. The Pakistanis have proven to be either unwilling or incapable of doing so since 9/11, and now the newly elected government in Pakistan has negotiated a peace agreement with militants in the tribal regions that is reminiscent of past ‘peace’ agreements in 2005 and 2006 that simply gave the militants more room to maneuver.

And rather than withering away, the Taliban in Afghanistan may survive for decades because they are benefiting from the most important products of the Afghan economy–opium and heroin–which are pumping large amounts of cash into their coffers. A more plausible outcome for the Taliban than defeat on the battlefield is that they increasingly mimic the FARC in Colombia, which started life in the 1960s as an ideologically-driven Marxist guerilla movement and has increasingly devolved over time into a powerful and long-lived drug cartel.

Al Qaeda in Iraq today is a wounded organization, but writing its obituary is premature. The number of foreign fighters coming in to Iraq has declined from 120 a month in 2007 to 40 or 50 today and, according to the US military, foreign fighters are now trying to leave the country. However, the future inevitable withdrawals of American troops from Iraq will obviously help Al Qaeda’s ability to operate in the country. Al Qaeda has a ‘paper tiger’ narrative about the United States based on American pullouts from Vietnam during the ‘70s, Lebanon in the ‘80s and Somalia in the ‘90s. Obviously, US drawdowns from Iraq will be seen as confirming this narrative.

More importantly, Al Qaeda also has a strategy laid out by al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, who wrote in his November 2001 Knights under the Banner of the Prophet, that “victory by the armies cannot be achieved unless the infantry occupies territory. Likewise, victory for Islamic movements against the world alliance cannot be attained unless these movements possess an Islamic base in the heart of the Arab region.” Obviously, securing such a safe haven in Iraq is a primary goal of al Qaeda and will remain so whatever the scale and timing of an American withdrawal.

And it seems unlikely that the U.S. will “win” the Iraq War by 2013 if winning, as McCain suggests, means that Iraq is a “functioning democracy” and violence is only ‘spasmodic”. In the five years since the U.S. has occupied Iraq virtually no significant steps have been taken by the Iraqis to bring out about genuine political reconciliation between the Sunni and the Shia, so why would the next five years be significantly different? Indeed, in an authoritative study of 91 insurgencies in the past century, Seth Jones of RAND found that it takes 14 years for the government to win against the insurgency, and 11 years for the insurgents to win against the government. Either way by 2013, a decade into the Iraq War, historical trends suggest that is highly unlikely that the Iraq war will be “won”. Rather the future of Iraq looks more like the histories of Afghanistan or Lebanon over the past two and half decades—weak states that are continuously racked by militia infighting and general instability.

The one claim that McCain made that is entirely plausible is that there won’t be a major terrorist attack in the United States over the next five years. That’s because of a more vigilant American public; a country that is much harder for jihadist terrorists to enter; an al Qaeda organization that is not as strong as it was on 9/11, and the wholesale rejection of bin Laden’s ideology by the American Muslim community. All of those factors will continue to hold true whoever is sitting in the Oval Office in 2009.


Filed under: John McCain • Peter Bergen • Raw Politics • War on Terror
soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. J.V.Hodgson

    It took 6 years to get into this mess and what can now be best described a Guerilla warfare, or an actual civil war, or war among religiuos sects with the added element of terrorism.
    There are many global examples of such wars nor being won. More to the point until the foreign element (in this case) the USA departs from Iraq. Mr McCain is only right in that a sensible withdrawal might take 4 years, but the reality is the quicker it is done the better.
    Further aid internationally to Iraq should be based on achieving the milestones ( new timetable) already existent.
    It will certainly concentrate minds and leave Iran and any other middle east government with no excuse to interfere inside Iraq and leave the Iraq government to determine how to fight Al Qaeda within its borders.
    For me the same applies to Afghanistan.
    The really urgent need for diplomacy should be on Palestine and Israel.
    If those 3 are resolved much of the raison d' etre for terrorism dissappears.
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    May 19, 2008 at 2:46 am |
  2. Anban

    I have deep concerns about McCain’s age and health history. I totally disagree with his commitment (or hypocrisy) on Iraq war. Any person who fails to understand that Iraq war has dragged down America does not deserve to be our president. Obama is basically a fraud candidate, as clearly evidenced from his misguided associations with controversial figures such as Rev Wright , Bill Ayers, and Tony Rezko; his wife’s standing on races and America; and his smoking and drug history. Hillary Clinton is the only qualified candidate remaining. She has the broadest support. She can win the general election. However, her nomination has been screwed up by the faulty selection process in the Democratic Party. What a mess for this year’s election!

    May 18, 2008 at 6:21 pm |
  3. lb/NY

    WHERE IS MCCAIN ROCKING CHAIR? PLEASE GET IT TO HIM.

    HE IS SUCH A SAD STORY ALONG WITH HIS PARTNER BUSH, WHO ALWAYS HAVE HIS BIG FOOT IN HIS BIG MOUTH, AND ALWAYS SAYING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

    If the folks that voted for bush are around i am sure they are kicking themselves a million time over.

    May 18, 2008 at 5:18 pm |
  4. joe

    mcain cristal ball,2009 i see more soldiers dieing,2009 i see gas price rising to record numbers,2010 is health care in shamble,2010 i see another war with iran,2011 the american economy is in serious trouble,2011 the american people revolt,2011 mr mcain impeached from the presidency and 2013 the economy is still a mess

    May 18, 2008 at 4:35 pm |
  5. beth

    Obama is just dividing us more! He is weak but acts tough. I don't want my Presient to have an ego so huge that he can't and won't see others views. We are in trouble with this guy. Vote Ma Cain if Obama ends up with the nominee. You will be VERY happy you did.

    May 18, 2008 at 4:10 pm |
  6. Pat M

    After two consecutive Bush reigns why would any American vote for John McCain, Bush's most loyal supporter during his Presidential Campaign and a bonifide Bush Clone? The only difference between John and George is John is much closer to the onset of senility.

    A vote for John McCain is a vote for continuing the Iraq War indefinitely, the same chaos and violence in the Middle East with no thought towards negotiations for Peace, a total disregard for the US economic disaster and in short, business as usual in the White House.

    McCain would bring Change? How?

    May 17, 2008 at 1:47 pm |
  7. Tina

    Instead of an entire Army of our very best, did anyone stop and think just a few good women could most likely get that job done? Ha.

    May 17, 2008 at 1:30 pm |
  8. edwin

    john mccain's senility is starting out where Reagan's left off....I still need to understand what he did during the Vietnam war besides survive being captured be considered a war hero...is that the same as charging a machine gun bunker? or falling on a grenade? and what wisdom does that impart to him over a survivor that completed his mission?

    May 17, 2008 at 12:12 pm |
  9. Robert - Kansas City

    John McCain is out of touch with reality.

    May 17, 2008 at 10:31 am |
  10. Tammy, Oregon

    I'm sorry McCain is to old to be President. This guy can't even reach down to tie his shoes. America needs energy, innovation and new message to the world. McCain is Bush 3rd term. So the choice is your America do you want to ride in a new car or a old beater.

    I want to ride in style vote Obama!

    May 17, 2008 at 3:23 am |
  11. nella

    McCain is running for president of the Israel not USA.

    May 17, 2008 at 1:26 am |
  12. john

    can we really afford 5 more years in iraq at the cost of $5000. per second? whats mccain going to do about halliburton in iraq? the state of R.I. is $450,000,000 in the hole, their bridges are falling apart, they had to lower the weight limit to 18 tons on a bridge on interstate 95.this is serious. oh and that money we're spending daily, we're borrowing it from china

    May 17, 2008 at 1:24 am |
  13. Bonnie

    It amazes me that the (old) politicians of today still conduct themselves the same old way. Thinking they can tell us their interpretation of what others say and wanting us to believe them. Wake up America, it is time for change. Like Bill RIchardson said of Barack Obama, "he is a once in a lifetime leader." I cannot believe there is anyone out there that thinks we have bettered ourselves in the past 8 years. Please give Barack the chance. He is the only candidate in a long time that has not bashed his opponets, unless he has been a target first. This kind of behavior is so childish, it makes us put the person on a pedestal that is being bullied and criticized. Let me point out that if John McCain can predict the future for Iraq, then why did he not use his crystal ball before now? The different countries are like gangs, fighting to resolve any differences. The only way to change anything is by communication. SO again, Barack is correct, at least it is worth a try to discuss opinions first, instead of fighting all the time. OLD SCHOOL. It is time for a complete overhaul of our government, Corruption has to go along with old ideas. As far as experience, no one person is ever qualified to do a job, unless he or she has done that job before. I do not think Hillary or John McCain have ever been President before, So this notion that the;y are more qualified is nonsence. Again, let's not waste time on insults, let's get down to finally solving our problems. How ironic that Democracy and the name Democrats are the same, and isn't this what we strive for around the world. One thing to remember is that there is never anyone person who is always right, (Take heed Bush) or anyone person who is always wrong. Let's take this chance to try and finally change Washington, as difficult as it mayu seem. AND always remember that anyone can tell you anything, that does not make it true. The name Karl Rove makes me shutter, would anyone believe this pile of lard?????? Shame on you. Start using your brain and do not let others(Bush) brain wash you.

    May 17, 2008 at 12:40 am |
  14. steven

    i am for Obama but what bothers me is that McCain said that the war in iraq would come to an end in 2013. bbut he said he wanted a 50-100year war. also he did not say how he would do all of this. i believe that he is just saying all of those things to get support. i believe he is lieing and should not take office in novemder because, if we are in a ressestion, how can we trust someone that everyone knows that he cant talk well about the economy

    May 16, 2008 at 11:18 pm |
  15. Len

    A million Iraqis have died in the Bush/McCain war already. Perhaps what McCain means by "victory" is that by 2013, they'll all be dead. He's failed to provide any other definition for the word.

    May 16, 2008 at 11:03 pm |
  16. Bill

    I've seen the statement that Obama made about McCain losing his bearings while discussing issues related to the campaign, and it seems obvious that Obama was not talking about McCain's age.

    McCain has flipped about three times on just this single issue about the "War in Iraq," which is not constitutionally a war, that it makes me wonder about McCain's age affecting his decision making ability. If it isn't McCain's age causing him to act the way he is, then what is it? Whatever it is, it is a real concern.

    May 16, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  17. angie tennessee

    /@ annie kate ..... how much more time do you need????? our troops are tired and dying..what are we there for, oil???? it's time our boys ad girls come home. we shouldn't have been there in the first place. this is a war we wont win..can't win..it's time to stop our soilder from dying..haven't you been listening to the ones who are home the trama they are going through. but if you feel so strongly for them to stay i say you go for them.

    May 16, 2008 at 4:20 pm |
  18. suki

    Your analysis proves how out of touch McCain is with reality

    Please have this discussion on CNN so that millions can learn from your wisdom and not be swept up in more lies and fairy tales spread by the Republicans

    May 16, 2008 at 4:17 pm |
  19. Chris, San Antonio

    I fully agree with these people. McCain is portraying that he will follow in Bush's footsteps. I don't know how he can announce that by Jan 2013 that the war will be over and Osama will be captured or killed. We have been over there in Iraq for almost 7 years and we aren't really any closer to it all ending than we were when we got there. The only thing that has come from this is some fellow U.S. military members getting sent home in body bags. So many people have died over there that the Army has lowered it's standards on new recruits. They are accepting felons and their education requirments have stooped to if they can read or not. We are taking anyone that we can, handing them a gun and sending them to Iraq to be killed by roadside bombs and insurgents. We need to get out of that theater, bring our men and women home and worry about our own problems in our own streets, with our own economy.
    Advice: McCain, don't preach to us that you don't care how long it takes in Iraq, we'll be there until it's all over. (Whatever those requirements are) and then when you realize that a vast majority of the U.S. citizens want us out, don't turn around and backtrack with this bogus look into the future of what you think we want to hear.
    I want to hear facts, actual ways things are going to be done differently in order to fix the problems that face our country. I don't want to be told stories and I especially don't want to see a flip-flop in your ideas that play to what your advisors think will get you more of the American vote. Because we have to think you are serious and genuine in what you say.

    May 16, 2008 at 3:17 pm |
  20. Larry

    Where was the post listing everything that Clinton & O-Ba-Ma would have accomplished by the end of their 1st term?

    Good to see that Obama wants to do away with affirmative-action, since he & Michelle don't need it anymore.

    May 16, 2008 at 3:14 pm |
  21. Paris

    Maybe because McCain actually has the leadership to be able to
    act when he is told we can get Bin Laden un like Bill Clinton.
    Maybe because McCain has the experience to be able to finish the job.
    Because McCain is the one that said from day one we need a different approach to this war unlike Bush.
    Maybe because he actually fought with the administration to implement Petraeus strategy that he know it would work. And he defended the strategy when it wasn’t popular to do so.

    Maybe because everything that Obama says he will do McCain has already done. Show me one example that Obama crossed party lines.
    John McCain has his records, what does Obama have other than words that are cheap and his doctrine of negotiating with Terrorist?

    May 16, 2008 at 1:54 pm |
  22. robert

    Will McCain still be alive in 2013? The guy is as old as dirt and I dont want him running the bingo hall, let alone the USA.

    May 16, 2008 at 1:34 pm |
  23. Teresa, OH

    Well, as a democrat, I'm gonna have to jump ship and vote for McCain. Not only can he walk on water like Obama, but he is gonna end all terrorism and lock up dem bad guys maybe even kill somes.

    X McCain

    Now, how did he say he was gonna do that?

    May 16, 2008 at 1:03 pm |
  24. Michelle

    Thank you Mr. Bergen for your insightful analysis.
    Some of the issues you raised should have been
    raised by the press.

    May 16, 2008 at 12:43 pm |
  25. Kent, Illinois

    Bin Laden was a threat back when Bill Clinton was in office. They knew where he was and failed to apprehend or kill him. These Middle East wars have been going on for hundreds of years. The US was smart not to get involved before. I guess we lost our bearings and got involved. Good thing McCain can end all this strife in 4 years...lol. What a crock.

    May 16, 2008 at 12:28 pm |
  26. Francys

    I wonder on want kind of medication he must be on these days. Must be some pretty good stuff because the way he spoke makes me feel like he must see flying pink elephants around his home. Perhaps we will learn it when the doctors who toolkcare of him will talk about his health shortly. It is a sad thing to see for America and for the rest of the world.

    May 16, 2008 at 12:27 pm |
  27. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    McCain is saying nothing more but "vote for me, I will continue Bush's fear factor, it worked for Bush so I'll try it". The mind set of McCain is just as poison as Bush and our country will never move forward with their policies.

    May 16, 2008 at 11:41 am |
  28. Kevin

    This outlook in McCain’s World sounds the same as Bush, we will win, it will be easy, we have won, mission complete. God Help Us.

    May 16, 2008 at 11:37 am |
  29. concerned karen

    I think that people should start understanding that McCain is the biggest liar and will sell his soul to the devil to get elected. Does this sound like the same guy who said we will be in Iraq for 100yrs. He looks down on his own adopted child too. THis is a man of no morals. The dems have to take the white house. I am tired of these nasty lies.

    please post thanks

    May 16, 2008 at 11:31 am |
  30. Annie Kate

    McCain may be overly optimistic in his stated goals but at least he gave the war more time for the US to win it – the Democratic candidates want to cut and run in their first year of office.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 16, 2008 at 11:22 am |
  31. LARRY

    WE WENT FROM 1OO YEARS TO 4 YEARS, GIVE ME A BREAK.

    May 16, 2008 at 11:18 am |
  32. Charlotte D

    Peter, Peter. You negelected to consider the "worst nightmare" factor. As the terrorists' worst nightmare, McCain will frighten them to flip on bin Laden. I know he frightens me.

    Charlotte D
    Stockton CA

    May 16, 2008 at 10:32 am |
  33. Marc, Canada

    Barack Obama understands the world court of opinion and what it will take to heal many of the ill feelings towards Americans these days. John McCain is lost without a teleprompter.

    A vote for John McCain, his temper and his seemingly eagerness to continue meaningless wars and perhaps adding wars will likely necessitate the return of the DRAFT.

    John McCain's experience and track record are over-rated. 5 years in a cage isn't experience. His voting record is clear and he has changed his mind more often than any other politician I know except perhaps Mitt Romney.

    May 16, 2008 at 9:48 am |