The "Overseas Contingency Program" — the "war on terror" — is back at the center of the political world, thanks to the uncertain prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.
As President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Congress and the generals in the field contemplate the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t consequences of Afghanistan, terror has reappeared in the American vernacular.
"America is still a salient target and attractive target for terrorists," says Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA counterterrorism official who heads security studies at Georgetown University.
And while such terms as "Islamic terrorist," "jihad" and "Muslim extremist" have been scrubbed from administration chatter, we remain at risk.
Pillar points out that this administration continues the commitments and policies of the Bush years.
Those security and intelligence programs irritate radicalized Muslims who want to harm Americans — and chill left-leaning Democrats who fervently opposed Bush.
Pillar dismisses the notion that Americans’ memories of 9/11 have faded: "If you look at the current debate about Afghanistan, it illustrates that we still equate Afghanistan with terrorism."
The public’s turn away from the topic of terror is understandable: In light of the economic crisis, health care controversy and unprecedented government spending, the focus is on swift-changing pocketbook issues.
Last month’s arrest of Afghan-born alleged terror-plotter Najibullah Zazi ran as "B-roll" on TV news and "below the fold" in most newspapers, though authorities called his plot one of the most significant terror threats since 9/11.
If the bad guys unleash one or two suicide bombings in the heartland, our country would become paralyzed economically and mentally.
"The various agencies of government, like the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, remain fully engaged, as well as state and local law enforcement," says Mark Davidson, a former member of the Clinton administration and a Navy Reserve captain. "The general public, the press and many politicians, on the other hand, apparently are not."
Davidson explains that the only measure is "Have we been attacked?" The public’s answer since 9/11: "No."
Almost from the start, the Obama administration distanced itself from war-on-terror language.
Yet "Overseas Contingency Program" doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
The irony is that the war on terror has been ongoing since the 1970s, including airliner hijackings, Olympic athletes killed in Munich and the Berlin disco, Pan Am Lockerbie and Beirut Marine barracks bombings.
Davidson says that war only became more intense after the collapse of the Soviet regime in Afghanistan and the crystallizing of extremist elements bent on hatred of the West (which, ironically, supplied the weapons and training to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan).
As for Americans no longer listening to talk about the threat, Davidson says the Obama administration lowered the volume: "Frankly, the American public was burned out by the color-code threats and rhetoric coming from the previous administration. Creating a perception of constant fear and using that fear for political gain is very dangerous."
That may be why many Americans and the media paid little attention to the Zazi arrest.
Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung in that direction for some members of Congress and the administration. The president’s challenge is that a left-leaning minority brought him his party’s nomination, partly based on war opposition.
"This minority wants to withdraw from Afghanistan," Davidson adds. "Such a withdrawal may prove to be a disaster as our allies see a lack of commitment, Pakistan suffers a Taliban blitzkrieg and violent extremists possibly gain access to highly sensitive material in a Taliban-influenced Pakistan."
Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the military men in charge of Afghanistan strategy, know how to engage and defeat insurgencies. We know how to pursue violent extremists.
Let’s hope the debate — and the White House’s war-policy "review" — leads us to a sensible conclusion, defeating al-Qaida and leaving Afghanistan as stable as possible and able to fend for itself.