I spent 26 years as an imagery analyst for the Air Force, and retired as a MSgt (E-7) in 1991. I spent several years of that time helping to develop and test various contingency war plans. I haven't had access to classified information since then. Still, I can deduce much of President Bush's plans by the actions he's taken.
We've been at war with militant Islam since at least 1972 (Munich Olympics - I was stationed in Germany at the time), possibly even longer. The 9/11 attack was the first major attack against our home soil, and finally forced Washington to a) admit there was a problem, and b) determine a proper response.
The attack on the Taliban government was crafted to achieve a number of different goals. Among those goals was the elimination of the ability for Al Qaida to operate openly in training further jihadis. A second goal was to remove the Taliban government and replace it with one that was less inimical to the United States. A third goal was to send a clear message to Islamic terrorists that the "law enforcement" method of responding to terrorist attacks was no longer the chief foreign policy of the US government. While the Taliban (and al Qaida) can still stage terrorist attacks, the majority of the people, the government infrastructure, and the majority of facilities and equipment are no longer available to our or Afghanistan's enemies.
The policy with Iraq is another story. Again, there were multiple goals, and an equally numerous reasons for establishing them. The primary goal was to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but not just to thwart his ability to manufacture and/or distribute chemical, biological, and/or chemical weapons, or to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. There are a handful of other nations where the same types of weapons can be acquired: Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Sudan, even to some extent Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria and Libya. No, the main reason for attacking Iraq was twofold: to rid the world of another state sponsor of terrorism, but more importantly, to establish a base of operations in the heart of the Islamic world.
The President had a choice between three locations for such bases - Syria, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia. The rationale for attacking any of those bases except Iraq would be hard to explain to the American people. We had plenty of reasons to attack Iraq, however. Hussein had never complied with the conditions for the cease-fire following the Kuwait invasion. He'd attacked US aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone. There were already a number of Security Council resolutions he was in non-compliance of. He supposedly had the largest, best-trained army in the Middle East, and crushing it would give concern to anyone else that might oppose our operations in that part of the world. Finally, Saddam Hussein was a slimebag who had threatened the life of George Bush's father and a number of other US citizens. He was not only the least objectionable target, he was also centrally located. Overthrowing Hussein would give the United States greater flexibility in how we might fight the rest of the war against militant Islamists.
The war itself went very well. The follow-on was more chaotic and disorganized than it should have been, but the US forces (and the government leadership) adapted and overcame most if not all of those difficulties. Attacks are down, and are usually less successful, from what was the "norm" a year ago. The Iraqis just conducted their third free, democratic election, in a year. The people are optimistic about their future, and al Qaida and the Ba'athist insurgency are both in decline. This battle's over, and now we're beginning to win the peace.
Today, the US has 150,000 people in Iraq, and an admitted 19,000 in Afghanistan. Iran lies between these two nations, and must keep its eyes on both areas AND the Indian Ocean. The United States could also strike Syria, invading from Iraq and the Mediterranean with an amphibious landing anywhere from Latakia to Tartus. Just as the US military moved out of Kuwait to attack Iraq, it could just as easily move out of Iraq to attack Saudi Arabia, if that was considered necessary.
There have been many unexpected consequences, both positive and negative, as the result of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has become a center for militant Islamic attacks against US forces, resulting in the deaths of more than 16,000 "jihadi warriors" and suicide bombers, with growing difficulty in recruiting their replacements. The United States sent a clear and unambiguous message that we will respond to all future attacks, in the manner we deem most appropriate. There have been tremors sweeping the entire Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia, with militant Islam becoming less and less appreciated - or even defended. There are growing trends toward democratic revival throughout the Muslim world. Syria is out of Lebanon, there is a democratic government in the Ukraine, and even Egypt is relaxing its grasp on political dominering and allowing more open elections.
The people of the United States are becoming much more aware of the potential for violent behavior from Muslims, even the so-called "moderate" ones. There is a growing consensus among English-speaking nations that western culture must have a strong deterrent capacity, which requires the ability to operate offensively anywhere in the world. The United States and its allies have a much firmer understanding of who our "allies" are, and also who cannot be trusted to secure our flanks, much less our backs. Our military is learning the difficult tactic of flexible response, becoming battle-tested veterans that will be invaluable in any future conflict.
We've also exposed some weaknesses. There are too many self-imposed restraints upon how we deploy and use our military forces. There are far too many members of Congress that put party loyalty above national survival. There are far too many generals that are not adequately flexible to respond to new demands in non-traditional ways. We have a military that was "downsized" too fast, with too little thought toward consequences.
The war against militant Islam will be a generational war, longer than the Cold War, and far more likely to require sacrifices of both men and money. Western civilization and individual freedom are just a small part of what is at stake. We need a plan that can protect us against such losses, whether that plan takes a decade or a century to succeed. Our government at the moment is moving in the right direction. We all must understand what's at stake here, and how we fit in the current war. We must also accept that there IS a plan, that it's based on reality, and it's currently working. We must strive to continue to let that plan work, for all our sakes.