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Time to Step Back from the War on Terror

Erik Goepner and A. Trevor Thrall

President Donald Trump has expanded every aspect of the war on
terror he inherited from his two predecessors. In his first nine
months Trump has ordered a renewed surge in Afghanistan, increased the
tempo of drone strikes, and granted the military
greater autonomy. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan,
the Taliban now control or contest more districts than at
any point since 2001. And last week four American soldiers died in
Niger, an increasingly active front in the war on terror.
Americans are now fighting — and dying — in at least
eight different countries across the Middle
East and Central Asia. The deaths of American forces are a
particularly sobering reminder of the war’s high costs and
should prompt people to ask whether the costs are worth it.

Unfortunately, the evidence of the past 16 years clearly
indicates that the answer is no. Enough time has now passed since
9/11 to reach two important conclusions. First, the threat posed by
Islamist-inspired terrorism does not justify such a mammoth effort.
Second, the aggressive military strategy the United States has
pursued since 2001 has not only failed to reduce the threat of
terrorism; it has likely made things worse.

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were unprecedented. Twice as many
people died on 9/11 than in any other terror attack in history. America’s immediate response
— to attack al Qaeda and invade Afghanistan — made more
sense at the time than it does today, based on the severity of the
attack, lack of clarity from the intelligence services, and fear
among the public. Many at the time reasonably believed that
terrorism represented a major new threat to the United States. A
decade and a half later, however, a more dispassionate examination
of the threat suggests those initial assessments were wrong.

The terror threat to the
American homeland does not warrant a continued military presence in
the Middle East or South Asia, and the military-centric strategy
has failed to achieve the stated objectives of successive

The 9/11 attacks remain an outlier. No other attacks like them have ever
occurred, and mass casualty terrorist attacks rarely take place in
the West or North America, much less the United States. The
second-worst attack on U.S. soil is still the Oklahoma City Bombing, where Timothy McVeigh
— decidedly not an Islamist-inspired terrorist — took
the lives of 168 in 1995. And the second-worst attack in North America occurred more than 30 years ago
when Sikh (again, not Islamist-inspired) extremists bombed a plane
originating from Toronto, Canada and killed 329. The fact is that
terrorism, including large-scale attacks, almost always occurs in
failed or war-torn states.

And neither al Qaeda nor Islamic State has launched a successful
attack in the United States since 9/11. Though every death is
tragic, when compared to the 15,000
Americans who are murdered each year by “regular”
Americans, Islamist-inspired terrorism hardly registers as a

The persistence of Americans’ inflated view of the threat
stems from a misperception of the goals of groups like al Qaeda and
Islamic State. Americans tend to believe al Qaeda and the Islamic
State are at war with the United States. It’s true that Al
Qaeda has attacked the homeland of the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States ) and ISIS
does dedicate some effort to radicalizing U.S. citizens. But
these groups’ fundamental goals are more internal: They are
engaged in a generational struggle for power in the Middle East and
Central Asia. Al Qaeda aims to “rid the Muslim world of
Western influence, to destroy Israel, and to create an Islamic
caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia” and, similarly,
ISIL wants to establish an Islamic

These groups’ central problem is the presence of the
United States in the Middle East, not its existence. Osama bin
Laden’s outrage at Arab states for requesting that U.S.
forces, rather than a Muslim force, remove Saddam Hussein from
Kuwait in 1991 reveals this point. After Operation Desert Storm,
bin Laden railed against the continued presence of
U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina,
Islam’s two holiest sites. As long as the United States
continues to intervene, it will continue to draw the ire of
Islamist groups. Most fundamentally, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and other similar groups seek
power and influence over their own neighborhood.

America’s improved homeland security system may be another
reason for the low threat level. The 9/11 hijackers legally entered the United States using their real
identities. They conducted their pilot training here, with one
living with his American flight instructors. Two even successfully
argued their way back into the country, assuring U.S. customs and
border agents that they were authorized pilot training students.
Since then, the United States has started pre-screening all
before they fly into, within, or out of the country,
and 72 fusion centers have been established to facilitate information sharing. The risk of terror in the
most important potential safe haven — the United States
— has been substantially reduced. Homeland security
improvements have not reduced the risk of terrorism to zero, of
course. Nothing can. But they have made conducting large-scale
terrorist attacks significantly more difficult. These efforts
should have been the extent of America’s response to

Instead, the United States adopted an aggressive strategy focused on military intervention.
America invaded two countries, toppled three regimes, and conducted
military operations in eight nations The plan, in the words of the
Bush administration’s national security strategy, was to “destroy
terrorist organizations of global reach.” Though Presidents
Bush and Obama talked about the need to rebuild Afghanistan and
Iraq and weaken the conditions that gave rise to terrorism in the
first place, the American strategy has in practice emphasized
killing as many jihadist fighters as possible.

Donald Rumsfeld raised questions about this military-centric strategy
as early as 2003, asking whether the current situation was such
that “the harder we work the behinder we get.” American
military commanders have understood the difficulties posed by
irregular warfare against insurgents and terrorists, leading to the
adoption of an updated counterinsurgency
strategy in Iraq in 2007 and later in Afghanistan. Despite this innovation, General
Stanley McChrystal, the former head of Joint Special Operations
Command who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010,
answered Rumsfeld’s question in the affirmative six years
later. Calling it “COIN mathematics,” McChrystal noted that
military attacks likely create more insurgents than they eliminate
“because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and
friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because
they were doing something wrong. It does not matter — you
killed them.”

Scholarship has also weighed in, concluding that
“repression alone seldom ends
” and “military force has rarely been the
primary reason for the end of terrorist groups.” Most
commonly, terrorism ends when groups eventually implode for lack of
support or become politically integrated. To date, American efforts
to create political solutions have been overrun by the dynamics
generated on the battlefield.

The recent battlefield successes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq
have led some (including Trump) to argue that the military approach is
working and should be expanded. This is mistaken on two levels.
First, the “victory” over Islamic State has not created
conditions conducive to peace and stability in the long term. In
both 2001 and 2003, decisive military victories gave way to
escalating insurgency and terrorism. Most observers agree,
moreover, that ISIL will not disappear after military defeat, but
rather melt away into the population to continue the
fight. Second, the military campaign that defeated ISIL in Raqqa
and Mosul was effective only because the terrorist group adopted a
strategy of taking and defending territory. To date, neither
American airpower nor other military means have proved useful
against small and dispersed groups of terrorists or insurgents.

U.S. efforts have not materially reduced the terror threat in
the Middle East and may well have increased it. Sixteen years after
9/11, the United States has not defeated Al Qaeda, and Islamic
State has arisen and spread throughout the Middle East. In 2000,
the State Department identified 13 active Islamist-inspired
terrorist groups, fielding a total of roughly 32,000 fighters. By
2015 the number of groups had climbed to 44 and the number of
fighters had ballooned to almost 110,000. Terror attacks in the countries where America
has intervened increased 1,900 percent after the war on terror began as
compared to the 15 years prior to 2001. The terrible irony is that
although Islamist terrorist groups pose little threat to the United
States, American intervention to confront them may have
inadvertently made things worse for everyone else.

In spite of mounting evidence for the failures of the war on
terror, Trump is doubling down. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
recently noted that the United States would be
expanding its war on terror in Africa even as it again prepares to
surge forces into Afghanistan. Trump has promised victory in
Afghanistan and a quick defeat of ISIL, but he has offered little
on how this strategy will change or accomplish U.S. objectives.
History suggests these efforts will do little to change the facts
on the ground in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and even less to make
Americans more secure.

Instead, continued U.S. action is likely to fuel grievances,
amplify instability in the region, and generate more anti-American
sentiment. Evidence for growing anti-Americanism in the region
since 9/11 is plentiful. Survey data from the Pew Research Center
reveal a steady increase in anti-American views after
the invasion of Iraq. Several studies, as well as survey data, make it clear that Middle Eastern
publics have almost uniformly negative views of American drone
strikes, one of the most popular tools of the war on terror. Even
worse, the Arab Barometer found that between 53% and 74% of citizens in
Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, and Algeria felt that U.S.
intervention justified “attacks on Americans
everywhere.” Finally, a recent study of Arab Twitter discourse found deep
levels of anti-Americanism among Arabs and concluded that:
“levels of anti-Americanism are primarily driven by the
perceived impingement of America on the Middle East, and
specifically by United States intervention in the region.”
Sadly, the jihadist leadership appears to have a firmer grasp on
this dynamic than Americans do. In a 2005 letter to ISIL founder Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current al-Qaeda leader) wrote,
“The Muslim masses … do not rally except against an outside
occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and
secondly American.”

As we argued in our recent Cato Institute policy analysis, the United States should step
back, withdraw military forces, and instead focus on incentivizing
local actors towards stability, capability, and transparency. The
removal of U.S. military personnel will require local governments
to professionalize their bureaucracies and security forces —
a difficult task, to be sure, but one the United States has not
managed despite 16 years of direct effort. Curtailing the flow of
billions of U.S. dollars and weapons into failed states should also
help reduce corruption and limit the available spoils of war. The
terror threat to the American homeland does not warrant a continued
military presence in the Middle East or South Asia, and the
military-centric strategy has failed to achieve the stated
objectives of successive administrations. Fortunately, the United
States has the luxury of not needing to win any war on terror.

Erik Goepner
commanded military units in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he is now a
visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute. A. Trevor Thrall