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3rd Jul 2022

Opinion

The defeat of the 'Global War on Terror'

  • US president George W. Bush's notorious 'Mission Accomplished' stunt aboard a naval destroyer (Photo: US Navy)
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Twenty years after 9/11, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) appears to be on the path to defeat.

The concept, invented to address the trauma induced by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, fell short of its promoters' promises.

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The different interventions undertaken in its name have almost always been a catastrophe, as jihadism adapted, spread, and grew; simultaneously, political competitors benefited from using the situation to challenge Western liberal democracies.

A dubious concept

The catch-all concept of a "War on Terror" is composed of three fundamental mistakes.

First, "terror" is a feeling and was not the physical enemy, al-Qaeda. Using this term offered the flexibility to expand the struggle indefinitely, by implying state as well as non-state actors, but cloaked who the enemy, in reality, was.

Second, "war," in the usual sense, refers to actions undertaken by the regular military. Counterterrorism sometimes requires military action but hardly corresponds to conventional warfare. The political choice for decision-makers to mobilise the most advanced military means in foreign interventions proved to be inefficient and sometimes even counterproductive.

Finally, the use of the term "global" implied that the area of intervention would cover the whole world when counterterrorism is, in contrast, limited to fighting very precise networks.

Did it work? The GWOT's objectives, defined by the George W. Bush administration in "The First 100 Days", focusing on al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, all failed. Neither the intervention in Afghanistan nor the long line of complex involvements that followed, perpetuating the concept, led to sustainable global security.

Jihadi always win

All local theatres of the GWOT ended as failures.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the Sahel, Sunni jihadism resisted, was resilient when under duress, and eventually returned and spread. The inappropriate strategy deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq forced the development of advanced counterinsurgency doctrines. Strategists such as Nagl, Kilcullen, Petraeus, McMaster, Hammes, and Hoffman had to reevaluate what the GWOT, in fact, was.

By so doing, they emphasised how poorly designed the post-9/11 counterterrorism strategy was.

The policy of direct interventionism did not work and while later interventions in the Sahel and against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria tried to reinvent it through security forces assistance and air combat missions, the effects there remained incomplete, to say the least.

Ultimately, the political legitimation of concepts such as "preventive war" or "enemy combatant", as well as targeted assassination outside of a legal framework, presented legitimate questions. It also strengthened the jihadi's victimisation narrative.

Military interventionism in counterterrorism is an option but requires answers to the following basic questions first: When should large-scale coercion be applied? Why? What are the odds of winning? How do we proceed? What is the (human, political, military, and financial) cost? Can we afford it? Do we want it? Is there an embryo of a representative state that we can rely on? Are we committed to victory enough to assure it in the long run? What are the alternatives?

The risk of not answering these questions would benefit strategic competitors.

At home, as a securitisation process, the GWOT triggered prejudices against Muslims and foreigners, encouraging sectarian divisions and nationalist trends. Western societies are weaker than 20 years ago. The concept offered to populists a fantastic rhetorical tool for undermining democracy, with a veneer of legitimacy.

On the field, the jihadi succeeded. The US is retreating in Afghanistan, the most iconic theatre of the GWOT interventions, pressured not only by the Taliban but also al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Radical groups are already celebrating what Lister calls "a major win for the global jihadist movement." Foreign jihadi will find their sanctuary returned to them, although they never lost it completely.

From a wider perspective, competitors such as Iran, China, and Russia, although certainly not at ease with Sunni jihadi terrorism themselves, also benefit from the Western disaster in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are, above all, autocratic and oppressive, which is more convenient for them than a US military presence. The United States' loss there has paved the way for autocracy and Washington has offered it political legitimacy as a bonus. The Taliban are not only victors in the GWOT; they are now heroes of the anti-West front.

A US general once told me that the US permits strategic failures to happen because it simply can.

That is no longer the case.

Neither Americans nor Europeans can afford any longer the strategic mistakes that have occurred in the last 20 years.

The West is contested everywhere and at every level by various types of violent, autocratic competitors, which increasingly intermediate, explicitly or tacitly, to undermine liberal democracies. It is long past time to wake up and reestablish a clear-sighted strategic policy.

Author bio

Dr Julien Théron teaches conflict and international security at Sciences Po.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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