The War on Terror 20 Years on: Crossroads or Cul-De-Sac?

Counter-extremism

The War on Terror 20 Years on: Crossroads or Cul-De-Sac?

Commentary
Posted on: 18th March 2021
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

    As the war on terror approaches its 20th anniversary, how can the US and the West best manage an ongoing conflict that shows no signs of abating? The longstanding focus on targeting terrorist leaders and groups without effectively addressing the ideology that motivates and animates them has thus far proven powerless to halt the spread of Salafi-Jihadism, much less achieve a decisive resolution of this conflict. Breaking this stasis now is as critical as it is timely. A new, more balanced, strategy and approach that better melds the variety of vital non-kinetic tools along with kinetic ones is needed to turn the current cul-de-sac the US and its allies find themselves into a more meaningful and productive crossroads.

    Introduction

    Introduction

    The war on terror has become the longest ongoing armed conflict in the history of the United States.1 Associated Press, “U.S. Participation in Major Wars,” Fox News.com, November 25, 2006 at: https://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_wires/2006Nov25/0,4675,USWarsHowLong,00.html It has lasted longer than America’s participation in both world wars and surpassed even the period that the US military was actively engaged in combat operations during the Vietnam War. It has cost the US over $5 trillion2 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1075849/total-us-war-costs-war-terror-category/ and claimed the lives of more than 7,000 American military personnel.3 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1009819/total-us-military-fatalities-in-american-wars-1775-present/ Yet, as the war on terror enters its third decade, any kind of meaningful victory seems more distant than ever.

    Twenty years of fighting have produced mixed results. Bin Laden and al-Baghdadi are dead. But the movements they each founded and led remain active. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and other al-Qaeda operatives responsible for the 9/11 attacks are imprisoned. But none have stood trial much less been convicted of their crimes. Tens of thousands of terrorists have been killed. But hundreds of thousands of civilians have also lost their lives – both from terrorism and as collateral casualties in military operations.4 See Neta C. Crawford, “Costs Of War: Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency,” Watson Institute International & Public Affairs, Brown University, at: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Human%20Costs%2C%20Nov%208%202018%20CoW.pdf And, despite it all, there are now at least four times as many Salafi-Jihadi terrorist organisations as there were on 9/11.5 “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State. See also Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Violent Islamist Extremism: A Global Problem, September 13, 2018, pp. 9 & 13-14 at: https://institute.global/insight/co-existence/violent-islamist-extremism-global-problem and Seth G. Jones, et al., The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat: Current and Future Challenges from the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Other Groups (Washington, DC: CSIS Transnational Threats Project, November 2018).  p. iv at https://www.csis.org/analysis/evolution-salafi-jihadist-threat, which both use different metrics to arrive at the same general conclusion of a net increase of Salafi-Jihadi terrorists since 9/11.

    Bin Laden would likely be pleased if he were alive today. The war he proclaimed a quarter of a century ago continues. Al-Qaeda has survived arguably the greatest onslaught in history directed against a terrorist group. A new generation of recruits currently fights in a conflict that began before many of them were born. On the eve of the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden predicted that his martyrdom when it came “will create more Osama bin Ladens.” 6Quoted in Hamid Mir, “Many outside America want an end to the policies that may produce more bin Ladens,” The Economic Times (Mumbai), May 3, 2011 at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/many-outside-america-want-an-end-to-the-policies-that-may-produce-more-bin-ladens/articleshow/8150982.cms He was correct.

    Bin Laden would likely be pleased if he were alive today. The war he proclaimed a quarter of a century ago continues.

    As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, it is perhaps opportune to take stock of where the epochal struggle first proclaimed three presidential administrations ago stands; revisit anew why the war on terror has persisted and eluded decisive closure; and consider how it has affected the country that initiated, championed and has led it. 

    Where Did We Go Wrong?

    Where Did We Go Wrong?

    On 20 September 2001 President George W Bush addressed a special joint session of Congress and the American people. “My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of union, and it is strong,” he declared. “All of America was touched on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol singing ‘God Bless America’ … Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

    Given the polarisation permeating the US today, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a time such as the aftermath of 9/11, when both parties, the White House and the American people were united and resolutely committed to so vast an undertaking.

    The notion of the elected representatives of both the country’s two main political parties standing together and singing in unison now seems a quaint reminder of a distant, seemingly lost past. Given the rancour, divisiveness and polarisation permeating the US today, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a time such as the aftermath of 9/11, when both parties, both legislative chambers, the White House as well as the American people themselves, were all united by a common purpose and resolutely committed to so vast an undertaking.

    Bush had cautioned that this would be unlike any war the United States had fought. There would be no “swift conclusion,” he warned, as there had been a decade earlier with the first Gulf War against Iraq. Nor would it resemble the exclusive reliance on airpower in lieu of ground troops that the US had experienced in Kosovo just a few years later. “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any we have ever seen,” he explained. Even so, no one then would likely have believed that the US and its allies would still be engaged in this same war two decades later.

    The war on terror was to be different in one other key respect. It was to be a war of ideas as well as kinetics. Although Bush did not use that specific phrase in his address, the concept of bringing freedom and democracy to peoples hitherto deprived of these values as a means to counter extremism was palpable from the start. “Americans are asking ‘Why do they hate us?’,” the president famously asked. “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”7 “President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress and the nation,” Washington Post, September 20, 2001 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html

    The concept of bringing freedom and democracy to peoples hitherto deprived of these values as a means to counter extremism was palpable from the start.

    The heady, early successes achieved in Afghanistan by small numbers of US Army Special Forces soldiers and CIA Special Activities Division operatives in support of the Northern Alliance,8  See for instance, Gary Bernsten and Ralph Pezzullo, Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden And Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account By The CIA’s Key Field Commander (New York: Crown, 2005); Gary Schroen, First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (New York: Presidio, 2005); and, Doug Stanton, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode To Victory In Afghanistan (New York: Scribner, 2009. would eventually be superseded by a markedly more conventional approach. The speed and ease with which the Taliban was defeated and al-Qaeda’s presence in their country obliterated had solidified Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s conviction that the US military’s unrivalled technological mastery was unstoppable against all foes – whether conventional or irregular.

    The failure to kill or capture bin Laden and a large contingent of his fighters at Tora Bora in December 2001, coupled with the Pyrrhic US victory the following March during Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, should have raised concerns about the challenges in fighting elusive, lightly armed, irregular adversaries by relying on airpower and deliberately modestly sized ground forces.9  Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda (New York: Free Press, 2011), pp. 80-85; and, Seth G. Jones, In The Graveyard Of Empires: America’s War In Afghanistan (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), pp. 94-95 Reflecting on his own experiences during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Colonel CE Callwell explained how the Taliban’s 19th-century Pashtun predecessors had effectively countered and ultimately negated the superior technology and firepower of their Western conventional military opponents.10  Colonel C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles And Practice (Lincoln, NB: Bison Books, 1996), pp. 32-33  57-58, & 85-88. This was precisely the point made in 2007 by US Army Specialist Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the US Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, after an especially bloody engagement in Afghanistan’s Korengal River Valley. “The richest, most-trained army,” he reflected, “got beat by dudes in manjammies and AKs.”11  Specialist Sal Giunta quoted in Elizabeth Rubin, "Captain Kearney's Quagmire," New York Times, 24 February 2008. 

    By then, the Taliban had already been fighting both that country’s democratically elected government and its US and coalition allies for five long years. It had in fact taken the Taliban only months to regroup and recover from the American-led invasion. More problematical was that the US was now totally preoccupied with the impending invasion of Iraq.12  Jones, In The Graveyard Of Empires, p.xiv.

    “The richest, most-trained army got beat by dudes in manjammies and AKs.” – Army Specialist Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the US Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, in 2007

    “It did not have to be this way,” Richard A Clarke, President George HW Bush’s counterterrorist advisor who then went on to serve as the national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism under both President William Jefferson Clinton and President Bush, wrote in Against All Enemies, his 2004 account of the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks and the US response. “We did not have to go after Iraq after September 11.” Smoke was still pouring out of the Pentagon the following day,13  The building where my office was in September 2001 looked down on the southern half of the Pentagon and I recall the fire still burning there. This dovetails with the eyewitness account in Patrick Creed and Rick Newman, Firefight: Inside The Battle To Save The Pentagon On 9/11 (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), p. 404. See also, National Public Radio,” Battling the Pentagon Blaze After 9/11,” Fresh Air, May 22, 2008 at: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90696597. he recalled, when Rumsfeld fastened his attention squarely on “getting Iraq.” To Clarke’s mind, “Having been attacked by al-Qaeda, for us now to go bombing Iraq in response would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.”14  Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York:  Free Press, 2004), pp. 30-31. What he could not have known with any certainty at the time, but may likely have feared, was that, in addition to diverting vital resources from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s top commanders,15  “We’re like the Pacific theatre in World War II,” a senior U.S. Army officer on the planning staff at Regional Command—East, 82nd Airborne Division, Bagram Air Base, complained to the author on a visit to Afghanistan in March 2008. “We will get more resources after we defeat Berlin.” Quoted in Bruce Hoffman and Seth Jones, “Cell Phones in the Hindu Kush,” National Interest, Number 96 (July/August 2008), p. 45 the March 2003 invasion of Iraq would enmesh the US in a prolonged and debilitating insurgency – with lasting domestic political and economic repercussions. His objections, however, fell on deaf ears in the Bush administration’s determination to topple Saddam. The failure to uncover evidence of Iraq’s production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction – the main justification for invading the country –would also deal a grievous blow both to domestic and worldwide confidence in US leadership. America’s moral standing would suffer further with the revelations a year later of the abuses and incidence of torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.16  See Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War On Terror Turned Into A War On American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008); and, Tara McKelvey, Monstering: Inside America’s Policy Of Secret Interrogations And Torture In The Terror War (New York: Carol & Graf, 2007).

    Al-Qaeda lost little time in preparing the ground for this golden opportunity to relieve the pressure on the movement in South Asia and reposition itself firmly at the forefront in the defence of Muslims and Muslim lands.

    For al-Qaeda, the invasion could not have come at a more opportune time. It gave the movement the breathing space it needed to recoup and reorganise. The invasion further validated bin Laden’s longstanding claims that the US and the West were waging an aggressive war on Islam and Muslim peoples, which also drew recruits into its ranks.17  See, for instance, U.S. National Intelligence Council, “Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate ‘Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States’,” April 2006 accessed at: http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/Declassified_NIE_Key_Judgments.pdf; U.S. National Intelligence Council, “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland,” July 2007, accessed at http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20070717_release.pdf; Remarks by Mr. Ted Gistaro National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats, “Assessing the Fight Against Al-Qa’ida,” The Washington Institute's Special Policy Forum, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, DC, 12 August 2008 accessed at: http://www.dni.gov/speeches/20080812_speech.pdf; and, Director’s Remarks at the Atlantic Council, Washington, DC, Remarks by Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden, “Current State of al-Qaeda,” 13 November 2008, accessed at: http://www.acus.org/http%3A/%252Fwww.acus.org/event_blog/cia-director-event-transcript. Bin Laden’s “Declaration of War Against the Americans,” issued on 23 August 1996, had said as much. The al-Qaeda leader had painted a vivid picture of Islam under siege by the US and the West whose intention was to invade and occupy Muslim lands in order to control the region’s oil supplies. His jeremiad about the suffering of Iraqi children as a result of the United Nations sanctions imposed following the first Gulf War in 1991 was similarly felicitous.18  “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places: A Message from Usama bin Muhammad bin Laden Unto His Muslim Brethren All Over the World Generally, and in the Arab Peninsula,” Azzam Publications translation in Yonah Alexander and Michael S. Swetnam, Usama bin Laden’s al-Qaida: Profile of a Terrorist Network (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2001), Appendix 1 A, pp. 1-2, 8 & 19. Bin Laden’s nearly decade-old analysis must have struck both his followers and many others as prophetic. Indeed, al-Qaeda lost little time in preparing the ground for this golden opportunity to relieve the pressure on the movement in South Asia and reposition itself firmly at the forefront in the defence of Muslims and Muslim lands.

    During the weeks preceding the invasion, Saif al-Adl, one of the al-Qaeda’s most senior operational commanders both then and today, was busy resurrecting the call to foreign fighters that had sustained the mujahideen’s struggle against the Red Army’s occupation of Afghanistan 20 years earlier and would prove pivotal in Iraq both between 2003 and 2009 and later during the Islamic State’s reign over parts of both that country and Syria from 2014 to 2019. The summons to defend Muslim lands against Western invaders and other infidel influences has long been a powerful driving force of Salafi-Jihadi ideology. It was seminally articulated by Abdullah Azzam, whose message highlighting the collective obligation (fard kifayah) incumbent upon Muslims to come to the aid of Muslims wherever they were threatened, effectively mobilised international support for the Afghan jihad in the 1980s.19  Among Azzam’s seminal books on this subject are: In Defence of Muslim Lands: The First Obligation after Faith (London: Maktabah Publications, 2002); Join the Caravan (London: Maktabah Publications, 2001); and, The Lofty Mountain (London: Maktabah Publications, no date). This message continues to figure prominently in the propaganda of terrorist groups confronted by US-backed efforts and those of Western and allied countries to help build indigenous capacity to better counter these threats and enhance local, national and regional security and stability.

    In a series of articles posted on the internet titled, “In the Shadow of the Lances,” al-Adl offered practical advice to the would-be foreign fighters that al-Qaeda was summoning to fight in Iraq and explained how guerrilla warfare could be effectively employed against US and coalition forces. These calls to battle continued apace after US forces captured Baghdad in April 2003, with al-Neda, al-Qaeda’s main website of that time, trumpeting the virtues of using guerrilla warfare to target the infidel forces occupying one of Islam’s storied capital cities. Al-Qaeda’s propagandists skillfully invoked prominent lessons of history – including America’s defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet Army’s in Afghanistan – in support of this argument. Under the caption “Guerrilla Warfare Is the most Powerful Weapon Muslims have, and It is The Best Method to Continue the Conflict with the Crusader Enemy,” these treatises explained how:

    “This is the method that expelled the direct Crusader colonialism from most of the Muslim lands, with Algeria the most well known ... The successful attempts of dealing defeat to invaders using guerrilla warfare were many, and we will not expound on them. However, these attempts have proven that the most effective method for the materially weak against the strong is guerrilla warfare.20  MEMRI, “Special Dispatch—Jihad and Terrorism Studies,” April 11 2003, no. 493 quoting http://www.cubezero.nt/vhsvideo/imagis/?subject=2&rec=1043. Accessed April 13, 2003.

    Al-Qaeda thus embraced with alacrity the opportunity that Iraq presented it to engage Islam’s enemies in yet another theatre of operation. This should have come as no surprise. Bin Laden himself had long extolled the asymmetric virtues of guerrilla warfare. Addressing the US in the aforementioned “Declaration of War,” he had asserted that it “must be obvious to you that, due to the imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces, a suitable means of fighting must be adopted i.e. using fast moving light forces that work under complete secrecy. In other words, to initiate a guerrilla warfare, were [sic] the sons of the nation, and not the military forces, take part in it.”21  “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” in Alexander and Swetnam, Usama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, Appendix 1 A, p. 11. Later, in the run-up to the 2004 US presidential election, bin Laden boasted of the ease with which al-Qaeda had been able:

    “to provoke and bait this administration … [and] to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

    “This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.

    “So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah.”22  Full transcript of bin Laden’s speech, Al Jazeera, November 1, 2004 at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2004/11/1/full-transcript-of-bin-ladins-speech

    Within two years of its attack on 9/11, al-Qaeda had thus locked the US into two wars of attrition in two different regions – with all its deleterious consequences. As Rumsfeld lamented in December 2002: “We know that we’re killing a lot, capturing a lot, collecting arms. We just don’t know yet whether that’s the same as winning.”23 Quoted in Vernon Loeb, “Rumsfeld Seeks Better Intelligence on Iraqi Insurgents,” Washington Post, December 11, 2003. Nearly two decades later we arguably still don’t know.

    Around that time, too, Rumsfeld had also memorably explained how “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time” when challenged by US soldiers about the inadequacy of their equipment and insufficiently armoured vehicles.24  Quoted in Eric Schmitt, “Iraq-Bound Troops Confront Rumsfeld Over Lack of Armor,” New York Times, December 8, 2004. That statement, however, was grossly misleading. From the time that he took office as Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld had prioritised the transformation of the US military into a state-of-the-art, 21st-century fighting force. For Rumsfeld, the revolution in military affairs of the 1990s had fundamentally changed warfare and had obviated the need for large-scale troop deployments. He believed that a new generation of air-delivered, laser-guided, precision munitions coupled with enhanced ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) could expeditiously vanquish any foe. The first Gulf War had demonstrated as much against a conventional enemy and the invasion of Afghanistan had recently done so against an unconventional one.25  Donald H. Rumsfeld, “Transforming the Military,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, no. 3 (May/June 2002); https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2002-05-01/transforming-military; and, Bob Woodward, Plan Of Attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 41. “I’m not sure that much force is needed given what we’ve learned coming out of Afghanistan,” was the planning guidance that Rumsfeld dispensed to General Tommy Franks in determining the size of the Iraqi invasion force.26  Quoted in Woodward, Plan Of Attack, p. 41.

    The unimpeded invasion and rapid collapse of Saddam’s military appeared to have validated Rumsfeld’s approach. It took only 20 days to capture Baghdad and five weeks after it had begun, the second Gulf War was over. “In the battle of Iraq,” Bush famously declared on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath a banner that read, “Mission Accomplished,” “the United States and our allies have prevailed.”27  “George W. Bush Declares Mission Accomplished,” History.com, at: https://www.history.com/speeches/george-w-bush-declares-mission-accomplished But America’s terrorist and insurgent enemies had other ideas. As Winston Churchill had long ago observed: “However absorbed a commander may be in the elaboration of his own thoughts, it is sometimes necessary to take the enemy into consideration.”28 Quoted in Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Potomac, 2007), p. 69.

    For al-Qaeda, Iraq’s preeminent utility was as an effective means to preoccupy US military forces and distract American attention from South Asia and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

    Al-Qaeda’s plans to make Iraq a hell on earth for the US and its coalition partners were succeeding. On the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Ayman al-Zawahiri lauded the movement’s strategy. “The defeat of America in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, “has become a matter of time … The Americans in both countries are between two fires, if they continue they bleed to death and if they withdraw they lose everything.”29  Quoted in “U.S. faltering in Afghanistan,” CNN.com, September 9, 2004 at:  http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/meast/09/09/zawahiri.tape/index.html”Al-Zawahiri Although US military commanders optimistically described the influx of foreign fighters to Iraq occurring as a result of the invasion as having created a terrorist “flytrap” that would attract but then facilitate the killing of al-Qaeda terrorists, al-Zawahiri clearly had a different perspective.30 Quoted in “Purported al-Qaida Tape Warns of Attacks,” Associated Press, December 19, 2003. See also, Andrew Sullivan, “Bush’s Strategy in Iraq—Flypaper,” September 6, 2003 at: https://freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/980032/posts “Two years after Tora Bora,” he observed in December 2003, “the American bloodshed [has] started to increase in Iraq and the Americans are unable to defend themselves.”31 Quoted in “Purported al-Qaida Tape Warns of Attacks.” For al-Qaeda, Iraq’s preeminent utility was as an effective means to preoccupy US military forces and distract American attention from South Asia and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. At this critical moment, al-Qaeda was thus able to regroup and rebuild. The massive shift of intelligence assets and other resources from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq also likely contributed to bin Laden’s ability to avoid detection until 2011 when he was finally cornered and killed by US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the US was then in the process of completing the withdrawal of the last of its military personnel from Iraq.

    Today, stability and security in Iraq remain perishable commodities. Eighteen years on, the seeds of democracy that the invasion’s planners hoped to plant in Baghdad and thus allow to germinate across the entire region remain tragically unfulfilled. America’s melancholy experience in Iraq has produced the unintended consequences of spreading continuing misery, death and destruction there and that has spread to surrounding countries as well. And, 20 years after liberating Afghanistan from Taliban rule, the US has foolishly entered into a meretriciously rushed agreement that has every possibility of again returning them to power.32  See David Ignatius, “Afghanistan is Biden’s first big foreign policy headache,” Washington Post, February 4, 2021 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/afghanistan-is-bidens-first-big-foreign-policy-headache/2021/02/04/133e697a-6735-11eb-886d-5264d4ceb46d_story.html; Oren Lieberman, Zachary Cohen and Kylie Atwood, “Biden has no good options on Afghanistan with deadline for troop withdrawal looming,” CNN.com, February 14, 2021 at: https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/14/politics/biden-afghanistan-deadline-looming/index.html; and, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Taimoor Shah, Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink,” New York Times, February 15, 2021 at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/15/world/asia/the-taliban-close-in-on-afghan-cities-pushing-the-country-to-the-brink.html

    As Secretary of State Colin Powell had warned President Bush in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You’ll own it all.” This was Powell’s now famous “Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.”33 Quoted in Woodward, Plan Of Attack, p. 150. The passage of two decades doesn’t make that admonition any less relevant today than it was then. The role of the US, however inadvertent, in setting in motion the powerful forces that in many places continue to undermine security and stability thus imposes an enduring moral obligation not to disengage or turn our backs on problems we helped create. Indeed, al-Qaeda and ISIS and their affiliates and branches may be disproportionately powerful in many locations, but they are not yet representative of the people living there. And, despite myriad challenges and uneven progress, the democratic institutions we helped establish in Afghanistan and Iraq have nonetheless survived the vicissitudes of the war on terror’s first two decades. At this point in the war on terror, when we have reached an enormously consequential crossroads, the overriding question is whether the US and the West can summon the stamina and marshal their powerful resources and influence to help mitigate local conditions and grievances that are eagerly seized upon and exploited by these terrorist groups to consolidate their pernicious hold over local populations. The unappealing alternative is to consign these peoples and places to a theologically decreed totalitarian extremism that stands in direct contradiction to our values and national interest.

    A Way Forward

    A Way Forward

    The impetus today to end the war on terror is overwhelming. If there was one issue in the US that united Republicans and Democrats alike during both the primary campaign leading to the 2020 US presidential election34  “Read the full transcript of ABC News’ 3rd Democratic debate,” ABC News, September 13, 2019 at: https://abcnews.go.com/US/read-full-transcript-abc-news-3rd-democratic-debate/story?id=65587810; and, “Editorials: Platitudes, not plans,” Washington Post, September 14, 2019. and the election campaign itself, it was the bipartisan commitment, in former President Trump’s words, to “ending the era of endless wars.”35  Reuters, “Trump to West Point Grads: ‘We are Ending the Era of Endless Wars,” Voice of America, June 13, 2020 at: https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-politics/trump-west-point-grads-we-are-ending-era-endless-wars Writing in Foreign Affairs just as he clinched the nomination last March, then-candidate Joe Biden similarly explained how, “It is past time to end the forever wars … staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.”36 Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 99, no. 2 (March/April 2020) at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again

    Thus, as the war on terror enters its third decade, the US has to confront the question of whether it has reached a crossroads or a cul-de-sac. Is some approximation of victory still attainable and even desirable – and, if so, how? Or, is any continued effort likely to prove as ineffectual as before and hence is doomed to failure?

    “We lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.” –Henry Kissinger, in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War

    At the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, Henry Kissinger explained America’s failure to win a decisive victory. “We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”37 Henry A. Kissinger, “The Viet Nam Negotiations,” Foreign Affairs, vol 47, no. 2 (January 1969), p. 215.

    His diagnosis is especially applicable to America’s experience with its war on terror. Except for brief interludes, the US fought the war it wanted to fight, not the war that was. Like in Vietnam, the US waged an overwhelmingly kinetic war. From the start the US embraced physical attrition through invasion and occupation and when that failed, moved on to terrorist leadership decapitation – while paying insufficient attention to the broader contextual, environmental and strategic issues that both facilitate these vital kinetic processes but also critically counter popular support for terrorists and insurgents.38  See Major General Michael T. Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger, Paul D. Batchelor, Voices Form The Field: Fixing Intel: A Blueprint For Making Intelligence Relevant In Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, January 2010), p. 7 accessed at http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/AfghanIntel_Flynn_Jan2010_code507_voices.pdf

    America’s enemies were no longer established nation-states with vast military apparatus that could be found, targeted, destroyed and defeated.

    The American way of war thus has always relied on technological mastery and kinetics – a predilection confirmed by the lightning outcomes of the first Gulf War and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But, where occupation was avoided in 1991 by adhering to the United Nations resolutions 660 and 678 with respect to Iraq,39 Resolution 660 (1990)adopted by the Security Council at its 2932nd meeting, August 2, 1990 at: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/94220?ln=en; Resolution 678 (1990)adopted by the Security Council at its 2933rd meeting, November 29, 1990  https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/102245?ln=en; and, Sean D. Murphy, Humanitarian Intervention: The United Nations In An Evolving World Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), pp. 185-186. the terrorist and insurgent campaigns that emerged following the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq demanded a different strategy and more appropriate tactics. In both these situations, America’s enemies were no longer established nation-states with vast military apparatus that could be found, targeted, destroyed and defeated. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and subsequently ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) were all transnational movements whose ideology of strident defence of Muslims and Muslim lands and intrinsic narrative of grievance resonated far beyond their respective loci of conflict. Hence, while the US has been immensely successful tactically in killing or capturing key al-Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS leaders as well as their foot soldiers, we have been less successful in strategically countering their ideological appeal, ability to radicalise new recruits, and continued capacity to energise sympathisers and supporters and thereby sustain their respective struggles.

    US strategy in the war on terror also assumed that these adversaries all had a traditional centre of gravity and that they could be defeated primarily by targeting individual bad guys. The logical corollary, accordingly, was that the key commanders and their lieutenants simply needed to be killed or imprisoned and that global terrorism and insurgency would then cease. The attention of the US military and intelligence community thus focused on hunting down and eliminating militant leaders – and not necessarily on understanding the core dynamic of our enemies’ strategy which relied as much on effective information operations as violence. Decapitation strategies have in any case rarely worked in countering mass-mobilisation terrorist or insurgent campaigns, but also because with regard to both al-Qaeda and ISIS, their ability to continue to prosecute their struggles are a direct reflection of their ability to promote and ensure their durability as both an ideology and concept. As Tina Brown, the doyenne of postmodern media, memorably observed, the “conjunction of 21st-century Internet speed and 12th-century fanaticism … turned our world into a tinderbox.”40  Tina Brown, “Death by Error,” Washington Post, May 19, 2005. These messages of resistance, hatred, and intolerance have continued to resonate beyond South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant to penetrate the entire Muslim world, including its Western diasporas. This led then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to complain in 2007 that “It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America” and again a year later that “[W]e’re being out-communicated by a guy in a cave.”41  Speeches at Kansas State University, November 2007 and at the American Academy of Diplomacy in May 2008 quoted in “New DoD public affairs chief to focus on better communication,” The Gold Standard: Fort Knox, Kentucky, June 24, 2009 at: https://www.fkgoldstandard.com/content/new-dod-public-affairs-chief-focus-better-communication

    The US has swung wildly from one extreme of invasion and occupation to the other where even modest deployments of counterterrorism forces have become controversial.

    It has not helped either that the US has lacked a consistent strategy and cohesive approach to waging the war on terror. It has swung wildly from one extreme of invasion and occupation to the other where even modest deployments of counterterrorism forces have become controversial. Accordingly, a light ground force footprint relying on American technological dominance that was embraced at the start of the war on terror evolved by necessity into increasingly larger ground deployments as a result of the multi-year “surges” in both Iraq and Afghanistan, then to politically popular drawdowns, to now – when even comparatively small deployments of advisory, training, intelligence and other support personnel have become politically unpalatable. But a counterterrorism strategy where any overseas deployment of US military forces and intelligence assets on missions to train and support America’s friends and allies becomes totally unacceptable is as fantastical as it is dangerous. Achieving the proper balance – given diminishing popular support and mounting fiscal challenges further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic – necessitates an approach that more effectively combines kinetic and non-kinetic efforts as the war on terror enters its third decade.

    “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it [is] over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” –General James N Mattis

    The much-heralded war of ideas more often than not has been an afterthought if it materialised at all, with accompanying initiatives of counter-radicalisation and countering violent extremism mostly ill-conceived, under-resourced and poorly executed. Meanwhile, our enemies have not only survived but have multiplied and diversified. Nearly a decade-and-a-half-ago, Gates cautioned that "We can expect that asymmetric warfare will be the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature, and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior – of friends, adversaries and most importantly, the people in between.”42 Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to the Association of the United States Army, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, October 10, 2007 accessed at: http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1181 Yet, the US has persisted in measuring progress or effectiveness in kinetic and not ideological terms. The cold war was not won with kinetics, but with ideas. The US and the West triumphed because we understood that and hence focused our efforts on undermining communism’s appeal and revealing its false hopes and failed promises.

    This is a message that today many would prefer to ignore or dismiss. But the war on terror is not going away however much we might wish it would. As General James N Mattis, then commander of the US Central Command, stated in 2013, echoing the previous quote by Churchill: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it [is] over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”43 Quoted in Jonah Goldberg, “Our Enemies Get a Vote,” National Review, May 29, 2013 at: https://www.nationalreview.com/2013/05/our-enemies-get-vote-jonah-goldberg/ Today, our enemies have incontrovertibly chosen to continue this war. Accordingly, defeating them will depend on the ability of American counterterrorism strategy and national security policy to adjust and adapt to changes we see in the nature and character of our adversaries and the struggles they are waging. This will entail the belated recognition of an uncomfortable reality that goes against the grain of the American way of war: that successfully fighting terrorism and insurgency can never be an exclusively military endeavour but must also entail the parallel political, social, economic, ideological and informational activities that Gates recognised at a previously critical juncture in America’s war on terror. The problem, of course, is that these invaluable non-kinetic approaches have a long history of enthusiastic rhetorical support that has rarely been matched by sufficient prioritisation and funding.

    Successfully fighting terrorism and insurgency can never be an exclusively military endeavour but must also entail the parallel political, social, economic, ideological and informational activities.

    Today, the main challenge is to reverse the local toeholds that both al-Qaeda and ISIS have been able in some cases to transform into national and even regional footholds. The continued provision of modest levels of US and Western military training and advisory forces to build indigenous capacity to effectively counter the strength and capabilities of Salafi-Jihadi terrorists is essential. A more balanced counterterrorism strategy synchronised to both the threat and American national security priorities would likely not only be easier to sustain but would also increase American influence and strengthen its leverage by creating renewed confidence in our commitment and reliability. The wild swings of US counterterrorism policies and strategy over the past two decades created the conditions where faltering terrorist movements found the breathing space to regroup and reorganise. They also opened the door to undesirable and destabilising outside interventions. Whether Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan; Russia, Iran and Turkey in Syria; or Russia and Turkey in Libya, America’s inconsistency has complicated regional security and prolonged conflict.

    The war on terror, though, was always about more than competing national interests. It was also about values. Accordingly, even more critical will be a serious, sustained long-term commitment to undermine the extremist ideology that contributes to the allure of terrorism and enables these movements to identify and manipulate local grievances and weave them into a compelling global narrative that becomes a wellspring for radicalisation and violence. The desiderata of equitable, sustained economic development, effective governance, advancement of core human rights, and the promise of democracy that animated the Arab Spring a decade ago remain immensely germane to the contemporary messaging that is needed. As we have seen over the past two decades, the adversaries and the threats that the US and other countries face are far too elusive and complicated to be vanquished by mere decapitation. Our strategy must therefore prioritise information operations with the same vigour and focus that our enemies have. As the American strategist Sean McFate has convincingly argued, “The West needs to update its information-warfare game. Until it does, it will continue to get outplayed by its enemies that wage war in the information space, and that’s most everyone.”44 Sean McFate, The New Rules Of War: Victory In The Age Of Durable Disorder (New York: William Morrow, 2019), p. 110.

    Accordingly, absent this recognition, the American-led war on terror will remain stuck in the cul-de-sac it finds itself in today: inherently reactive rather than proactive – deprived of a capacity to recognise, much less anticipate, important changes in our enemies’ modi operandi, recruitment and targeting. Success in this war’s third decade will therefore depend on our ability to harness the technological mastery and overwhelming kinetic force of the US military as part of a more dedicated and comprehensive effort to better counter the ideology and narrative of our enemies and equip our regional and local friends and allies with the tools to also better resist these threats.

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