The 20th anniversary of September 11 and the recent pullout of US troops from Afghanistan have caused many to look back at the war on terror and wonder if it was successful. The general consensus is that the war was not the grand success that George W. Bush hoped for. In fact, when he launched the war in 2001 following the attacks on September 11, no one could have predicted that US forces would still be in Afghanistan 20 years later.
But hindsight is 20/20. At the time, Gallup and other polls showed that most Americans supported the war on terror. Today, considering America’s many factions, it is hard to imagine that kind of bipartisan support for any major military action.
As for the success or failure of the whole endeavor, a recent article by Hal Brands & Michael O’Hanlon cites several criteria to determine the success of the war. According to the authors, some were achieved, while others were not.
The Successes of the War on Terror
When President Bush launched the war on terror following 9/11, there were several declared objectives. The first was to protect America from physical terror attacks on the scale of 9/11. That has been achieved.
Another goal was to dismantle al Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden. While bin Laden was not killed until 2011, the war on terror dismantled al Qaeda. Once the group was hunted by the US, its leaders went into hiding and their strength never recuperated. (This fascinating article details al Qaeda’s struggles following the September 11 attacks.)
The Failures of the War on Terror
While al Qaeda was weakened, terrorism was not rooted out or destroyed in the region. Quite the contrary – different jihadi groups arose and ISIS eventually claimed the crown in terms of most powerful. This highlights a failure of one of the original goals of the war on terror: improving regional stability.
Another failure of the war is the cost, which was not anticipated in the beginning. According to a report from the Costs of War project at Brown University, the 20-year war on terror has cost the United States about $8 trillion and more than 900,000 lives. Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War project, said, “twenty years from now, we’ll still be reckoning with the high societal costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — long after U.S. forces are gone.”
What Went Wrong?
Bruce Hoffman, Professor at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service and Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations, contends that the West’s strategy of targeting terrorists without understanding the ideology that motivates them has proven futile. If the US had taken time to understand the motivation behind Islamic-driven terrorism, the results could have been vastly different.
A recent article on France24 has a similar take, saying that the US attacked the problem on the surface without looking at any underlying causes. “The strategy relied on head-on confrontation without sufficiently taking into account the breeding grounds of jihadism — war, chaos, bad governance, corruption.”
What Are the Greatest Threats to US National Security Today?
An intelligence report earlier this year stated that cyber and military attacks from China and Russia pose the greatest threats to US national security today. Following those are international and domestic terrorism. According to the report, Tehran “will seek to avoid direct conflict with the U.S., calibrating attacks so as not to provoke a response from Washington.”
So, while there are still threats from the Middle East, their position and strategy have shifted, which means that US strategy must shift as well. (The shift has already started with the pullout of US troops from Afghanistan, a move initiated by Donald Trump and supported by the majority of Americans.)
Regarding terror attacks from Islamic extremists, the report states that these are still a threat, but the extremists have been weakened considerably. The more pressing threat is domestic terror attacks, which are not limited to lone-cell jihadists but include white supremacists and/or anti-government terrorists.
The question remains: Is the downgraded threat level of Middle East terrorism a result of the war on terror, or can it be attributed to the continuously changing landscape of international diplomacy? At this point, there is no definitive answer