US leaders yet to learn the lessons of the war on terrorism
On September 11, 2001, 19 men armed with box cutters forever changed Americans’ sense of their security. A country bordered by vast oceans on the east and west and friendly neighbours to the north and south learned how vulnerable it was to a gang of religious extremists whose leader lived in a cave in Afghanistan.
On orders from that leader, Osama bin Laden, those 19 al-Qaeda terrorists targeted the symbols of American capitalism — the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre — and American global military might — the Pentagon. Al- Qaeda overnight became a household word in the United States and a new term entered the American lexicon: the War on Terrorism.
This would mark the third global war fought by the United States since December 7, 1941, the day that Japan attacked the US Navy fleet at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The global war against the axis powers and the subsequent war against global communism, however, were no different from great power wars since the Greeks and Persians went at it: In both cases, there was an enemy state to be defeated or deterred through the use of military power.
We knew where the enemy was and the metrics to use in gauging whether we were succeeding in meeting their challenge.
The War on Terrorism is a different animal. The instinctive US response to 9/11 was to fight traditional wars with tanks and planes and troops. It started with the attack on the Taliban government in Afghanistan, not an unreasonable move given that they were bin Laden’s hosts. Nevertheless, nearly 15 years later, US troops remain in Afghanistan, albeit in smaller numbers, and that country’s agony continues.
Then, in 2003, came the invasion of Iraq, justified on two pieces of what today would be called “fake news”: That Saddam Hussein had helped plan the 9/11 attacks (he hadn’t) and that he possessed weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t).
More importantly, the Iraq war was sold to the American public as part of a grand strategy by neo-conservatives who dominated the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency: The cause of terrorism, argued these ideologues — none of whom was a Middle East scholar — was a lack of democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The way to win the War on Terrorism was to defeat the “axis of evil,” which included Iraq and Iran — and replace them with democratic governments.
We know how that worked out.
Al-Qaeda’s leaders accomplished exactly what they wanted: Their low-budget attack on 9/11 drew the world’s greatest military power into the Middle East cauldron. The US invasion of Iraq, combined with idiotic policies such as de- Ba’athification, created more chaos and disorder — and thus more fodder for terrorism.
The US response came at a high price in lives, both of US troops and of tens of thousands of innocents in the battleground countries. There was a monetary price as well: Estimates are that the US government has spent more than $2 trillion conducting the War on Terror, roughly equivalent to India’s annual gross domestic product. This has been a boon to the US defence and security industries but like most military-related spending has had little productive effect on the economy.
US President Barack Obama heeded the call of public opinion and pulled most US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, opting to fight terrorism using a counter-insurgency approach based on air strikes, drones, special forces and training host government forces. Obama achieved the long-desired goal of decapitating al-Qaeda by killing bin Laden. However, by that point, the terrorist group had spread like metastasising cancer.
An al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State (ISIS), became the next focus of US attention in the War on Terror. ISIS made the mistake of trying to create a landed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which gave US and coalition forces physical targets to hit with conventional methods. The caliphate’s destruction was only a matter of time but ISIS succeeded in introducing a new element into the terrorist arsenal: the so-called lone wolf, individuals inspired by the group’s extensive internet presence to carry out random attacks using such weaponry as lorries and kitchen knives.
Bush announced the War on Terror on September 20, 2001, in a speech to Congress. “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.”
It should be clear by now that a traditional military approach and treating the struggle against terrorist groups as a third world war will not achieve Bush’s goal.
Jean-Marie Guehenno, former president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, said it well: “After 16 years of the war on terror, the inherent limits of military and security measures are plain to see. The threat can be reduced if we stop helping terrorists by parroting their rhetoric of a grand geopolitical struggle. By recognising and addressing the local disorder in which terrorism is born, the war on terror may finally find an endpoint.”
There is no indication the Trump administration will heed these words.