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The Pentagon and the War on Terror

The September 11th attacks on the United States had a huge impact on the missions and capabilities of the U.S.military. Five years later, the Defense Department is still working to meet the new challenges it faces.

When American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on the morning of September 11th, 2001, its impact not only killed nearly 190 people, it also blasted the U.S. military into a new era, an era that has included two wars and a global confrontation with terrorist networks that experts say after five years is still only in its opening phases.

A Turning Point

By using commercial airliners to attack the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers in New York, with another target saved by the passengers on a United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, the terrorists put themselves at the center of U.S. military efforts. Before that, terrorism had been just one item on a long list of potential concerns as U.S. officials sought a focus for foreign and defense policy, following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research organization. "It certainly was a turning point. We have a clearer sense of what we have to do now with our strength, with our superpower role, with our military," says O'Hanlon.

In a VOA interview, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry also said the September 11th attacks thrust the United States into a new kind of warfare.

"Now we find ourselves with a principle enemy out there that's not a nation-state, and doesn't have armies and navies. And how do we go about combating those? So, irregular warfare has been a major drive in trying to build up those capabilities," says Henry.

"Irregular warfare" generally means using small units and high technology to fight terrorists and insurgents. The U.S. military had some of that capability five years ago, but it had to move quickly to develop more. It is also reorganizing itself into combat brigades, smaller, more-capable units than the old "division" structure provided. Researcher Michael O'Hanlon says the military has not done enough to adjust its capabilities in the last five years, but he says it has done some things.

"I think it really was 9/11 that led to the next leap in capability. I think the military is creating capacity to be better at counter-insurgency, to be better at intelligence sharing, better at training other countries' militaries, better at limited roles for
Special Forces in a combat capacity when necessary," says O'Hanlon.

New Priorities

At the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Clinton administration defense department official Michele Flournoy says although the military was given a new priority and lots of additional resources after the September 11th attacks, it has not done enough with them.

"The military is the one instrument we've put on steroids. And everything else is on life support. I personally like to see the military on steroids. But I don't think we've used the resources we've given to the military as effectively and efficiently as possible," says Flounroy.

Ryan Henry, the principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, says the department is focused on doing all it can to improve its ability to fight a new kind of war, and to simultaneously win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to Henry, "We're at war. We've lost over 2,500 of our brothers and sisters. That's something that each and every one of us feels dearly. So that is a very focusing element of what the department does and the business it does. Strategic victory in Iraq and Afghanistan is the number one priority of everyone in the department."

But Secretary Henry and the analysts agree that the war on terrorism will not end in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that victory will not come from military might alone."What will give us eventual strategic victory in the war is being able to counter the ideological support from which terrorism derives its energy, one in which individuals believe that they can use terrorism, the massacre of innocent life, to be able to get political gains. We have to defeat that. We have to defeat the acceptance of that in the countries which it emanates from today." Henry says the goal is to end the threat to the American way of life posed by international terrorism. He says that precise moment will likely be difficult to pinpoint. But he says five years after the September 11th attacks, the U.S. defense department is continuing to build the capability to do its part to get there.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.