The making and unmaking of the war on terror

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 9 Sep 2021

From triumphalist militarism to realpolitik and miscalculation on an epic scale­­­ — t­he history of the war on terror

The making and unmaking of the war on terror

 Where does the West go from here? This is a legitimate question as the West commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks not by marking a triumph, but by asking hard questions about why the war on terror has been in many senses a failure.

After 9/11, terror attacks did not stop in America, Europe, the Middle East or the rest of the world.

It is 20 years since the first missile was fired in the war on terror, and the cost of it now stands at more than $8 trillion with 929,000 deaths, the vast majority of whom are civilians, according to a report from the Costs of War project at Brown University in the US.

It is clear that the West is suffering from a decline in its military and diplomatic capabilities. There is disorientation and uncertainty. But one thing that is certain is that there will be no boots on the ground for a while in the Middle East or anywhere else.

The war on terror has passed through four main phases.


Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the so-called “war on terror” started swiftly and brutally to take revenge against an enemy that was constructed to show off US power.

It coupled the eradication of terrorism and the restoration of countries in which extremist organisations thrive. Eliminating Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was part of a strategy to root out terrorism and help the country transform itself into a modern state governed by law with elected institutions.

The war on terror was supported even by left-wing parties and war-sceptics in the US and Europe. Many considered it to be “the most popular war” since the US participation in World War II. 

The US then turned to Iraq, where support for the US-led invasion was less. But even critics tempered the criticism in the hope that the nation-building model proposed by former US president George W Bush could be achieved.

In November 2003, Bush said in a speech at the White House that “we’re pursuing long-term victory in this war by promoting democracy in the Middle East so that the nations of that region no longer breed hatred and terror.”

The narrative was that the establishment of a free Iraq and a free Afghanistan would be watershed events in the history of the Middle East and a global democratic revolution and would enhance the security of the American people.

But during the first decade of the war on terror, clear victory became increasingly difficult. The bodies of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq coming back home in coffins brought back nightmares of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and cast doubt on America’s ability to succeed

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger explained in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War why the US had failed 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.”

That was the US dilemma: how to win a guerrilla war in difficult terrain and with limited knowledge of tribal relations, cultural sensitivities and ethnic and sectarian diversity.


Under former US president Barack Obama the war on terror was no longer only costly financially and in terms of casualties, but also in terms of the US’s international reputation and world standing.

In a speech in May 2012, Obama said that “our goal is to destroy Al-Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that. Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states; a future in which war ends and a new chapter begins.”

His views reflected the conclusion in the White House, the US foreign policy establishment, and the intelligence community that Afghanistan was a peripheral issue to US national security, especially after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

America wanted to move away from “forever wars,” but Obama remained keen to endorse the US role in the world that includes promoting democracy and human rights.


Under former US president Donald Trump, Washington did not pay attention to democracy and human rights in its foreign policy. It was a new era where foreign policy was shaped to meet the needs of the US middle class.            Preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Trump started so-called “peace talks” with the Taliban, declaring in August 2017 that “we are not nation-building again; we are killing terrorists.”

 “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating the Islamic State (IS) group, crushing Al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”

“We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society.”


Under current US President Joe Biden, the stage was set for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On 16 August, Biden said that “we went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001 and make sure Al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that.”

“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralised democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.”

On 31 August, Biden declared that “the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan… I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight endlessly in another country’s civil war.” But the official announcement of the end of the war on terror and the return of American soldiers did not bring closure for many or increase a sense of security.

“The Biden administration carried out a hasty, precipitous and poorly planned withdrawal of the NATO troops from Afghanistan that has put Al-Qaeda back in Kabul. It is unlikely that they will do the same in Iraq or Syria, especially given the catastrophic results in Afghanistan,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and senior fellow in the Saban Centre at the Brookings Institution in Washington told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The retreat from Kabul has devastated American intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan. The country is a black hole now where Al-Qaeda will regenerate. Long-range drone strikes often are off target, causing civilian casualties. It will provoke a negative reaction. The Pakistani army will continue to be the Taliban’s ally. The generals in Rawalpindi are the winners,” Riedel added.

The “over-the-horizon counterterrorism” strategy that Biden declared using drone strikes when needed against terrorist cells may open the door to a new phase of US foreign policy and the war on terror.

“President Biden made it quite clear that the US will no longer invade countries, overthrow their governments and occupy them for years in the hunt for terrorists. Hopefully, after 20 years and two invasions – plus the Libya experience – the US now understands that these military interventions often create more terrorists than they destroy and do not leave behind stable and successful governments,” Barbara Slavin, a lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told the Weekly.

 “I would hope that the US would only target true transnational threats and ramp up economic and diplomatic efforts to reduce the poverty and hopelessness that fuels terrorist recruitment. I would also like to see a reduction in the use of blanket economic sanctions which hurt ordinary people and entrench repressive regimes,” Slavin added.

The losers of the US strategy in the war on terror are many.

“The Afghan people are the big losers. They have fought for the world community since 1979 when the Soviets invaded. Over a million died in the defining battle of the Cold War. Tens of thousands died fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They deserved better from America,” Reidel said.

But US allies, especially in Europe, are also losers. “It is an understatement to say the European allies are disappointed. They are in a state of shock at the way America planned and executed its withdrawal from Afghanistan to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the September attacks,” said a senior European diplomat.

It will now be difficult for Washington to find allies for any future military adventures, he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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