The Ineffective War on Terror


By Daniel DePetris

For the past 15 years, the U.S. has expended hundreds of billions of dollars, and sacrificed the lives and welfare of tens of thousands of its soldiers to fight a war against terrorism.

Tactically speaking, the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military have certainly had their fair share of triumphs and victories in this long war.  Hundreds of terrorist leaders within the Al-Qaeda network have been killed on the battlefield, including Osama bin Laden; international financial institutions have become far more knowledgeable about interrupting and freezing terrorist transactions; and more states in the Middle East and Asia understand that nipping terrorism in the bud within their own societies is as important in keeping their people safe as dropping bombs. 

Yet like in all wars in history, the war against terrorism cannot be measured strictly on the basis of tactics and on statistics like how many foot soldiers have been wiped out, how much territory has been retaken, and how many oil wells and training camps have been destroyed. We need to zoom out and take a critical view that evaluates the strategic outcomes of our efforts over the last 15 years since 9/11.

The Institute for Economics and Peace has provided some valuable data through their annual Global Terrorism Report and the report's conclusions should be taken seriously by counterterrorism scholars and practitioners.

Among the major findings of the report:

  • 2015 saw a 10 percent decrease in worldwide deaths caused by terrorism compared to the previous year, but 2015 was still the second most violent year since the Index was established.
  • Only 0.5 percent of terrorism deaths in 2015 occurred in countries that don't already experience some degree of armed conflict or political violence within their societies. In other words, terrorism is as much a warfighting tactic to press a group’s position on the battlefield as it is a tool of mass terror and carnage.
  • 72 percent of deaths from acts of terrorism happened in five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria.  All five nations coincidently either have received huge sums of U.S. taxpayer dollars to assist them in fighting terrorism or have hosted hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops proactively rooting out these terrorist networks on their soil.

Looking at the larger picture, however, one comes to several thematic conclusions that are generally missed by the mainstream media whenever a large terrorist attack occurs.

One, terrorism should increasingly be seen as a crude, common weapon on the battlefield rather than a spectacular, unprecedented event. While mass casualty attacks on civilian targets in France in 2015 and 2016 and in Belgium in 2016 should undoubtedly cause worry among intelligence professionals, we also shouldn't lose sight of the fact that extremist organizations across the jihadist spectrum continue to perceive terrorism as one of their most effective tactics during wartime. 

In an ideal world, every terrorist would be killed, captured, and prosecuted.  But in reality, this is an unachievable objective; U.S. officials must begin to prioritize which groups directly threaten the security of the United States, which groups are problems that regional powers can and should confronted in coordination with one another, and which can be outsourced to local actors who have a greater stake in defeating them than a nation half-a-world away.

Secondly, the war on terrorism continues to be a war that cannot be won in the strictest definition of the word. The axiom that terrorism is a tactic and that a nation cannot win a war waged against a tactic is a prescient observation based on the data that the Global Terrorism Index provides us. When terrorist groups like Boko Haram are under military and financial pressure in their home turf, they often take the path of least resistance by vacating that region, rather than fighting the government to keep it.  Combatting Boko Haram specifically and terrorism in general cannot simply be based on using the U.S. Air Force and asking the Green Berets to swoop into the area and kill the leaders and foot soldiers.  Unless governments build up the capacity to improve the lives of their people socially, politically, and economically, terrorists will always have an opportunity to regroup.

Finally, the new data should prompt policymakers in Washington to not only question whether their strategy needs revision, but whether they are spending more money than is needed or spending the money in the right way.

The U.S. intelligence budget for FY2015 was $50.3 billion, approximately $10 billion more than the amount that was appropriated in FY2006 when more than 160,000 U.S. troops were conducting two wars simultaneously. Budget allocations for the Department of Homeland Security have increased even further; President Obama's FY2017 budget request of $66.8 billion is a whopping 65 percent more than what Congress permitted the DHS to spend 2006.

America’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past fifteen years, both of which were marketed as a way to strike back against the evils of Al-Qaeda and international terrorism, have also been terrible returns on our investment. Although the true cost of both conflicts is hard to pinpoint — researchers at Brown University believe that $4 trillion has been spent, when taking into account healthcare costs and entitlement benefits for U.S. soldiers years after the wars will have ended —there is no debate that American taxpayers have been asked repeatedly to fund regime change missions that U.S. officials thought were the cure for terrorism. 

Toppling national governments and replacing them with new administrations, armies and police forces proved to be far more expensive than economists and planners realized; according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the U.S. Congress has allocated about $64 billion since 2002 for the Afghanistan security forces alone.  Congress continues to appropriate $3 billion a year for the Afghan army and police force to essentially keep up a stalemate against the Taliban insurgency.  The invasion and occupation of Iraq, the ultimate regime change mission, is a similar story — $23 billion to recruit, train, and advise the Iraqi security forces and the unloading of extra and the constant rotation of hundreds of thousands of active duty and reserve duty soldiers in the pipeline.    

With so much money being spent, the American people have the right to ask whether tackling international terrorism by toppling governments, rebuilding a nation from scratch, and fitting the bill is the most efficient way to keep America safe.  The results so far, with the Taliban slowly capturing more districts from the Afghan government and the Iraqis still dependent on U.S. airpower to fight the Islamic State — not to mention the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers either dead or injured over a decade and a half — suggests it is not. 

The past 15 years are a reminder that even the best, brightest, and most dedicated counterterrorism and intelligence professionals in the world continue to learn on the job. The key take away from the Global Terrorism Report is that an increase in U.S. defense spending will not and has not ended terrorism. If the next administration wishes to improve upon the record of its predecessors, it must begin to look the world as a whole in a clearer light, with a constant reminder of what the problem is and what it is not.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on December 7, 2016. Read more HERE