On Tuesday, Joe Biden presented his first UN General Assembly speech as president, and proclaimed: "I stand here today for the first time in 20 years with the United States not at war." It was an odd boast, considering how the United States left Afghanistan and what it means for the future. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)
On Tuesday, Joe Biden presented his first United Nations General Assembly speech as president. I labored through almost 32 minutes of the speech when a most profound announcement was proclaimed: "I stand here today for the first time in 20 years with the United States not at war."
It was an odd boast, considering how the United States left Afghanistan and what it means for the future.
Our retreat from the Afghanistan battlefield left behind thousands of friends and allies and billions of dollars' worth of equipment.
We were never at war with Afghanistan. Our enemy was – and continues to be – individuals who take inspiration from a strict interpretation of Islam and employ terrorist tactics to press their cause.
Politically, we left the country as we found it – led by the same Islamist radicals who controlled the country 20 years ago. Despite what the Taliban might say, U.S. intelligence estimates that al-Qaeda could be fully reconstituted in Afghanistan in a year or two.
What happens after that? The president's UN speech did not look forward. If anything, his inaccurate statement that we are no longer at war anywhere in the world indicated his belief that the war on terrorism is over.
I never liked that term, "war on terror." Terrorism is a tactic; it is not the enemy we fought every day. The term has done more to confuse us than enlighten us. Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush told Congress that those who attacked us were:
- "a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al-Qaeda." It "is to terror what the Mafia is to crime."
- "terrorists (who) practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism."
- "a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam."
- "traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself."
Bush recognized that he had to put some context with the word terrorist so that the world would better understand the threat we were facing as well as the tactics that they would employ.
"Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda," he said, "but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."
We are still a long way from that goal, which means the threat to the homeland endures.
Reflecting on Bush's speech, one can see why the phrase "war on terror" became the widely accepted nomenclature. It was neutral. Gone would be the difficult references connecting the terrorist movement to Islam and Muslims. The need to define good Muslims versus bad/extremist Muslims would be eliminated. We would just paper over the difficult discussions that needed to take place but did not.
The terrorists, and their Islamist apologists in the West, actually used our response to their benefit. They widely labeled those who tried to connect al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to Islamic dogma as Islamophobes and anti-Muslim.
It did not matter that the terrorists invoked Quranic passages as justification, or that groups such as ISIS and others explicitly state that their ultimate objective is a global Muslim state governed by religious law.
For much of the last 20 years, the lack of clarity as to who the enemy was and why they attacked us has eluded us. It has made it difficult to focus on what needed to be done and what victory might look like.
So barely a month after the U.S.'s disgraceful disengagement in Afghanistan, the president of the United States can declare that we are not at war. Words have meaning. The president cannot just declare that the war on terror is over and walk away. The enemy still exists. Those individuals described by President Bush in 2001 are still out there. Today, they are reinvigorated by their perceived success in Afghanistan. They are better equipped than any terrorist organization in the world because of what was left behind in Afghanistan, and they continue to be inspired by their view of the religion they are attempting to hijack, Islam.
No, President Biden can say what he wants but that does not mean it is so. The other side has a say in this. And as we saw as we were leaving Kabul, the jihadists spoke clearly, they are still at war with us. If the crack team of foreign advisers that the president is relying on, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, advised him that the United States is no longer at war, the world is in serious trouble.
The jihadists have not surrendered; they have not gone away. As a matter of fact, the world is a much more dangerous place than what it was just a few short months ago. The jihadists will be back. When they strike us again, let us hope that our leaders provide the necessary clarity this time around to identify the enemy and defeat them once and for all.
Ambassador Pete Hoekstra (retired), served 18 years in Congress and was Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2004-07. He is a Senior Fellow with the Investigative Project on Terrorism.