Paper: How To Lose (or Win) the War on Terror

Another paper from my Political Analysis class. This one discusses the many reasons the War on Terror cannot be won the way we were fighting it in spring 2006. Some of them still apply today, although General Petraeus has at least popularized the idea of trying to win by making friends instead of killing all the insurgents indiscriminately.

How To Lose (or Win) the War On Terror


After the nation-changing events of September 11th, 2001, the Bush Administration rolled out an ambitious new anti-terrorism plan. While some changes came quickly and others followed slowly, the country today is engaging in an unprecedented War On Terror that has created or changed policy and priorities in every part of the federal government (Hendrickson 2006). It has mobilized the nation’s war-making capability and portions of it have divided us as a nation, but almost everybody has agreed that the War on Terror must be won. Sadly, the War as it is practiced today can never be won in the fashion that people expect.

The War on Terror today consists of a variety of policies and operations, summarized in President Bush’s October speech to The National Endowment for Democracy (White House 2005):

1)“We are preventing terrorist attacks before they occur” by “destroy[ing] the terrorist networks and incapacitat[ing] their leaders.”

2)“We are denying weapons of mass destruction to outlaw regimes and their terrorist allies.”

3)“We are determined to deny radical groups the support and sanctuary of outlaw regimes” because “state sponsors” “deserve no patience from the victims of terror;” “the United States makes no distinction between [terrorists] and those who support and harbor terrorists.”

4)“We are fighting to deny the militants control of any nation” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

5)“We are denying the militants future recruits by advancing democracy and hope across the broader Middle East.”
It is difficult to oppose any of these 5 bullet points in principal, but the implementation of each may be lacking. Looking at current practices, techniques used in fulfilling each goal principally include the use of military force to overthrow state sponsors of terrorism, the use of covert operatives and special forces to kill or arrest terrorists, and the new doctrines of preemption and unilateralism.

The victory conditions are sadly less well-defined. The closest a senior administration official has come to defining victory was on September 24th, 2001. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said that victory would be when “we can prevent people from adversely affecting our way of life” and “the kind of environment where we can, in fact, fulfill…freedoms” (CNN 2001). Yet today, the speeches and policies given and described by the administration seem to indicate that the War on Terrorism will be won only when terrorists have been eradicated the world over — when terrorism ceases to exist in any form. The second definition seems to be the current modus operandi, and so this paper will focus on debunking first the possibility of such a victory. It will then continue in light of that impossible definition and demonstrate that the Administration currently implements the wrong tactical and strategic choices . Concluding is a discussion on what can be done.

a. The Terrorists Cannot All be Killed

First comes the apparent assumption — implied by prolonged imprisonment of terror suspects in such places as Guantanamo Bay, by our use of Predator drones to assassinate al Qaeda leaders,1 and by such language as “incapacitat[ing] their leaders” (White House 2005) — that it is possible to defeat the terrorists by killing them all. This idea is nothing more than a pipe dream, and is shown as such by histories of those regions where it has been put into practice.

Consider Israel. In September of 2000, the Palestinians began an intifada, putting Israel into a situation similar in some ways to that of the United States today. They decided to more openly and aggressively employ “targeted killings” to remove Palestinians on their terrorist lists in an attempt to make Israel a safer nation (David 2003). Based on terrorist attacks since the practice began, it has failed miserably: the last two months of 2001 saw 6 terrorist attacks against Israel; the same period in 2002 witnessed 11 (Anti-Defamation League 2006). More recently such attacks have slowed again, but this slowdown seems at least as attributable to such outside forces as the death of Yasir Arafat, the fence, and typical cycles as to any effect of targeted killings. Yet even if the attacks were successful — Yael Stein labels their effectiveness “controversial” — they would need to end, because the collateral damage ratio is too staggeringly high. In December 2002 the Israelis had killed 86 targets at a cost of at least 40 innocent civilians (Stein 2003). The ratios for the United States’ actions are less clear but, given the recent failed attack targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri — killing some 18 people believed to be civilians — the ratio seems to be at least as bad.2

Similarly, Iraq has been under some form of occupation by US troops since April 2003, and has been primarily responsible for maintaining order throughout much of that time. Groups such as the Iraq Body Count have little difficulty demonstrating the number of Iraqis that have been killed due to the war — a minimum of 34,030 as of April 12, 2005 — and Iraq’s status as a front in the War on Terror (as well as the normal Abu Graibh prison practices) make it clear that in Iraq, too, standard policy is the elimination of all terrorists. Yet suicide bombings have steadily increased since the invasion. There were 23 attacks by 27 people from August-December 2003, 40 attacks by 44 people from June-October 2004, and 112 attacks by 170 people in the six months from April-September 2005 (a rate of 93 attacks in 5 months) (Schweitzer & Ferber 2005).

b. The Sponsor States Cannot All be Overthrown

The current administration has repeatedly insisted that state sponsors of terrorism are at no better level (in a moral or legal sense) than terrorists themselves (see CNN 2001, White House 2005). The administration reserves the right to deal with them much as it deals with terrorists: by forcible regime change, demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, the administration seems to promise this change if given enough time. But the policy, while powerful in a speech, leaves much to be desired in the real world. It is ill-defined, expensive to implement, and unhelpful in combating many kinds of terrorism.

Problems of Definition

While the State Department maintains a list of official state sponsors of terrorism, it is not a complete look at their actions. Two states on the list “took significant steps to cooperate in the global war on terrorism,” but the other four (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria) “continue to embrace terrorism as an instrument of policy.” A pseudo-state like the Palestinian Authority does not qualify to be on the list, despite its strong terrorist connections — but we provided aid to this terrorist shelter “state” until Hamas won the elections.3 Other states, while not technically sponsors, have strong terrorist ties — Saudi Arabia, for instance, has provided money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.4 15 of the 19September 11th suicide bombers were Saudi;5 do these facts qualify them as a terrorist sponsor state, and what makes them different from the countries on the State Department’s list?

Problems of Implementation

Even assuming the difficulties in definition could be overcome, there are the problems with expense. The Iraq War has cost us some $250 billion (Congressional Research 2005) and there are 6 states on the terrorist sponsor list. Even if we spent only as much on each terrorist sponsor state as was spent on Afghanistan ($82 billion (Congressional Research 2005)) we would need to produce $480 billion dollars, in addition to the billions already owed from the Iraq War. Two terrorist sponsor states (Iran and North Korea) either have, or are presumed to be acquiring, nuclear weapons.6 We would have to invade them before their weapons could be brought to bear. Given that President Bush recently admitted we would not be leaving Iraq during his term7 it is an expensive proposition. There is simply no way to pay for the wars, nor do we have the manpower to commit to all of them at once.

Moreover, if Iraq is any indication, overthrowing a state sponsor of terrorism is not a sure way to reduce terrorism. Bringing the fight so dramatically and completely to their “home turf” provides terrorists with a great deal of local legitimacy, merely hurting our cause. Pefia states that “the Islamist terrorist threat is relatively undeterred by the U.S. military presence abroad, and U.S. forces abroad, particularly those deployed in Muslim countries, may do more to exacerbate than to diminish the threat “ (Pefia 2006). This is born out by the available evidence: the terrorist attack rate in Iraq has not ceased to increase since the invasion (Schweitzer & Ferber 2005), and while it is largely confined to Iraq right now, six public relations, economic, and military messes on the scale of Iraq would be costly by any metric.

c. Current Tactics Decrease Worldwide Support
Due to the ephemeral nature of terrorists and their organizations, international cooperation is essential to combating terrorism effectively. But the new doctrines of preemption and unilateralism threaten that cooperation at a dangerously deep level. They make friendly states less likely to grant us favors, neutral states more likely to refuse us deals, and grant unfriendly states more legitimacy when they oppose us. China is worried by preemption and unilateralism, Muslim publics that are becoming less supportive of terrorism still oppose the United States, and Europe has become decidedly cooler towards us.

China’s attitude towards the United States has changed significantly as a result of some of these new policies. While very cooperative in the War on Terror, Beijing “has realized that the war on terrorism has unleashed a number of potentially threatening developments that can checkmate China’s strategic moves and cast doubts about predictions on its inevitable rise as the next superpower“ and knows that “China could be the biggest loser in the U.S. war on international terrorism because of its competitive relationship with Washington” {Castro 2005). Moreover, China has complained about the Bush administration’s unilateralism and reminds the United States that such unilateralism defies the “idealism or liberalism” of past Presidents; in order to counter the United States’ new policies China has strengthened trade with the European Union and will likely try to assemble a coalition of East Asian states based on common security needs (Castro 2005).

The Muslim nations that we so desperately need cooperation from are not being drawn closer by our actions. Pew’s Trends 2005 surveyed four predominantly Muslim countries with previous polling histories (Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan, and Morocco) — none of these four nations gave the United States higher favorability ratings in 2004 than they had given in initial polling (either 1999, 2000, or 2002). In fact, in both Turkey and Jordan our favorability rating declined by roughly 20% — in Morocco it fell an even more devastating 50%. Worse than favorability ratings, though, are opinions on our motives: belief in our sincerity about the War on Terror is less than 20% in all these nations, and the Iraq War made solid majorities of each country less confident that the United States wants to promote democracy. All these drops in support somehow occurred alongside growing concerns in each country about terrorism and Islamic extremism (Pew Global 2005); we must tap these concerns and ally ourselves with them if we ever hope to win an extended conflict of ideology.

The picture painted by Pew’s survey is just as grim in Europe. The only country surveyed that experienced a net gain in US favorability over the survey period (1999/2000 to 2004) was Russia. Our favorability in Spain went down 15%, Italy 16%, Britain and France 25%, and Germany 30%. Each of these nations (except Britain) believes, by a sizable majority, that US and British leaders lied about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Only Britain believes (by 51% to 41%) that the War on Terror is a sincere effort simply to reduce terrorism, and each nation — again excepting Britain, which agrees with 50% — believes it would be a good thing if the European Union were as powerful as the United States. This in spite of the fact that only France believes the world would be safer if another nation could balance the United States.

In other words,

[Anti-Americanism] is most acute in the Muslim world, but it spans the globe — from Europe to Asia, from South America to Africa. And while much of the animus is aimed directly at President Bush and his policies, especially the war in Iraq, this new global hardening of attitudes amounts to something larger than a thumbs down on the current occupant of the White House.
Simply put, the rest of the world both fears and resents the unrivaled power that the United States has amassed since the Cold War ended. In the eyes of others, the U.S. is a worrisome colossus: It is too quick to act unilaterally, it doesn’t do a good job of addressing the world’s problems, and it widens the global gulf between rich and poor. (GLOBAL)

Unilateral action and the war in Iraq are both tactical components of the War on Terror. Concentrating our effort on waging the Iraq War reduces our ability to deal with other problems, and the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars have both taken an already downtrodden people and made them worse. It is of course impossible to blame all the issues on the War on Terror, but it is possible to partly rectify some of them, and we should act to do: We cannot deny the terrorists “control of any nation” or “future recruits” if no nation in the world agrees with our strategy. Our current tactics are shedding friends far more quickly than we are making new ones, and if “They are either with us or against us” we must work hard to convince the governments and publics of the world to be with us.

d. Global Anti-Terrorist Measures Require Cooperation

Having established that the current tactics employed in the War on Terror has a negative affect abroad, it is necessary to establish that the negative effect matters. It is a simple argument: in fighting the War on Terror, there are certain goals we wish to accomplish. Many of these goals depend on international cooperation; that cooperation is not always guaranteed. Therefore we wish to have a good international image. In particular, the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty fulfills a direct stratagem of the War on Terror and intelligence-sharing is critical to fighting an organization that crosses many borders. Additionally, it is necessary to undergo nation-building exercises at the conclusion of each regime-change war (like those in Afghanistan or Iraq), and there are some treaties we would like all parties to hold to (the Geneva Convention, among others). There is a clear case that decreasing international involvement or increasing a sense of alienation will negatively affect all these items.

Non-proliferation & Intelligence Sharing

G. John Ikenberry sums up the need for multilateralism to fight WMD proliferation in his article “America’s Imperial Ambition:”

The specific doctrine of preemptive action poses a related problem: once the United States feels it can take such a course, nothing will stop other countries from doing the same. … Moreover, and quite paradoxically, overwhelming American conventional military might, combined with a policy of preemptive strikes, could lead hostile states to accelerate programs to acquire their only possible deterrent to the United States: WMD. This is another version of the security dilemma, but one made worse by a neoimperial grand strategy.

Intelligence sharing is critical for its own reasons. International terrorist plots are planned in multiple countries, and no one nation’s intelligence services have the size or reach to keep track of all known terrorists (if one did, Osama bin Laden would not still be at large). Thus nations must share information of interest or applicability to each other in order to disrupt plots and communication.

Nation-building is of necessity a vast and expensive undertaking which cannot be undertaken by one nation even if it is willing to take on the entire budget itself. Such thoughts are nice but ultimately incorrect, because a nation is only as stable as its borders, and the borders of a nation like Afghanistan are very much unstable (Goodhand 2004). Goodhand says that Afghanistan has developed three mostly separate economies: a combat economy dedicated to war, a shadow economy in the shadows, and a coping economy consisting of those just managing to get by — poppy farmers, for instance. Goodhand also says that

Afghanistan’s political economy has significant international dimensions. It includes drug dealers in London and Moscow and Islamic radicals in Chechnya and the Philippines. It has also been shaped by international policies, from the “sticks” of sanctions and drug eradication programs to the “carrots” of humanitarian and development assistance.

And, separately

The transition from war to peace in Afghanistan depends upon transforming the war economy into a peace economy This is unlikely to happen quickly. It is also unlikely to happen unless there is sustained international support and investment in the region. And it will definitely not come about as a result of externally imposed models of economic liberalization and liberal democracy. Greater attention needs to be paid to the real economics and the real politics of Afghanistan. This might lead to an approach that focuses less on containing the war economy than engaging with it, in order to harness the energies of war and build sustainable peace.

Thus, the combat economy cannot end until the demand for that economy ceases moving through Afghanistan. Such a coordinated removal of demand requires other countries to cooperate in order to be successful, and is very necessary to peace in the region.

International Humanitarian Law

Dan Belz, in his article “Is International Humanitarian Law Lapsing into Irrelevance in the War on International Terror?” argues convincingly that international agreements on humanitarian conduct during war are on the way to being marginalized and ignored during the War on Terror. He claims that much of the rationale for following treaties is a simple cost-benefit analysis, but that when your opponent refuses to participate by the same set of humanitarian rules it is no longer worth it for you to do so either. He concludes that

International terror poses an increasing challenge to global security and stability. The effectiveness of instruments currently regulating the conduct of states engaged in the war against it, and their ability to establish an optimal level of global security in reply, requires reappraisal. The features specific to this war, the problems of collective action, and the emergence of a tripolar system hindering unequivocal support for humanitarian law, lessen the ability of this law to serve as a central device to attain these goals.

Despite the drop in benefits of humanitarian law, we must show by example that it is still a necessary law to follow, because there will eventually be a day when we are at war with another nation-state and the rules will hold true as they once did.
Moreover, Belz also argues that

The presence of a long term threat against the international status quo increases economic and political interdependence, turning global stability and security into a public good in an even purer sense. A good of this type satisfies two attributes: “non-exclusivity,” meaning that its producers cannot prevent others from enjoying it, and “non-rivalry,” meaning that consuming this good does not detract from the ability of others to do so. Since global stability benefits most states, it can be considered a public good almost in the purest sense of the term.

There are clear and pressing needs to reduce our reliance on unilateralism if we wish to win the War on Terror, promote non-proliferation, successfully build democracies as we say we desire, and keep all the humanitarian advances bought by a century’s worth of war crimes.

e. Stopping Local Terrorism Would Require Unconstitutional Measures

Even killing all the terrorists and replacing all the terrorist-sponsor states would not be enough to win the War on Terror. Many kinds of terrorism are homegrown and local. Prior to 9/11 the most famous terrorist in the United States was Timothy McVeigh — a US citizen. The London bombing planners were natives of England, and the Department of State itself says that during 2004 “the most deadly [terrorist attacks] were committed by local groups” (State 2005). Removing all the state sponsors of terrorism is simply not enough to eradicate terrorism altogether.

Local terrorism in the West has generally occurred either “spontaneously” (without an outside organization) or out of sympathy for political causes and groups they are not directly connected with, as shown by Timothy McVeigh and the two sets of London Bombers (.8 It is difficult to imagine providing any additional local security against such people without violating Constitutional rights to privacy. The London July 7th bombers are believed to have planned their entire operation over the Internet 8 — how do you defend against people who, in the legal record, look like ordinary citizens? Certainly preventing another Timothy McVeigh from setting off a bomb would require an Orwellian level of watchfulness and suspicion. Given that — other than the September 11th attacks — the Oklahoma City Bombing was the most deadly terror attack inside the United States, preventing such an attack would seem to be crucial to winning a War on Terror as apparently defined by the Bush administration.

f. We Cannot Become Invincible

We cannot constitutionally make it impossible to be a local terrorist. But it is theoretically possible to at least protect ourselves from international terror by guaranteeing they couldn’t get into the country. By physically closing our borders so that nobody can cross them without our knowledge, by expanding our searches of incoming material to check every container in every port, and by developing a missile defense system capable of countering the missiles that would be available to terrorists, we could guarantee that our nation could be attacked nowhere but its ports. If we required every ship to be checked before it left a different port to come to the United States, placed an observer on board every ship, and shot down any undocumented ship attempting to enter our waters, we could reduce even that risk.

But this safety is not a real option either, because the United States of America would have to change its economy overnight and become isolationist and protectionist. We are left, then, to either redefine the problem or admit utter defeat.

Redefining Victory

We cannot ever kill all the terrorists, we cannot replace all the state sponsors of terrorism, we could not find and identify all terrorists before they’d committed their crimes, and we cannot become invincible. Either the terrorists will win or we must change our problem statements and victory conditions. The second option seems to be the only reasonable choice: redefine victory. Because terrorists are those who use fear in an attempt to make themselves more influential, there seems to be a natural benchmark for victory: the War on Terror will be won when people in the United States (and any other countries we choose to include) no longer fear terrorists and are correct not to fear them.

Perhaps most interesting about this definition is that it says as much about the people of the United States as it does about the actual number of terrorists in the world. It says, instead, that the War on Terror will be won when terrorists cannot impact the lives of United States citizens in a more significant way than any other horrible person can.

So how much should a United States citizen fear terrorism? Based solely on the deaths caused by terrorists, not very much: from 1995 to 2000, international terrorism killed an average of 13 people each year (Ingram 2001). This is less than the 93 people killed each year by lightning (Fact Monster 2003). The apparently anomalous September 11th killed 2,986 people. Averaged out from when al Qaeda first turned their attention to bombing the United States — with the Twin Towers in 1993 — up until this year, that is roughly 250 people yearly. That’s a terrible number, but not so large compared to the roughly 16,000 people murdered “normally” each year within our country (FBI 2003). These numbers make it appear that terrorism is not really that great a threat. And in many ways, it is not and people are wrong to fear dying through terrorism. We could win the War if only people could be convinced of this fact.

That is not to say, however, that we should end the War on Terrorism by convincing people that they have very little to fear from terrorists. The view is true today, but there are rational fears that in the future it will cease to be so. The potential for terrorists to acquire a “dirty bomb” or other nuclear device at some point is too high to be ignored completely. This danger should be guarded against with diplomatic efforts to continue non-proliferation efforts. Likewise, if we know where specific terrorist leaders are and have the opportunity to arrest them, we should do so (killing them is still a mess under international law). But military action such as was taken in Iraq is absolutely indefensible as an action taken against terrorism. Charles Pefia recognizes this, and his article “A Smaller Military to Fight the War on Terror” argues that we should reduce the military budgets because the classic nation-state threats are changing in form, and a large military presence overseas has done at least as much harm as good in combating terrorism.

It therefore seems clear that in order to win the War on Terror, we must reduce our fear by realizing that terrorists are still a very small force in the world, we must combat the terrorists in the same way we would combat other international crime rings, and we must work with other nations to make them less tolerant of terrorism in any form.


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  • Castro, Renato Cruz de. 2005. U.S. War on Terror in East Asia: The Perils of Preemptive Defense in Waging a War of the Third Kind. Asian Affairs 31 (4):212-31.
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  • Ingram, Dexter. 2001. The Heritage Foundation. Facts and Figures About Terrorism. Accessed 17 April 2006.
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  • Pew Global Attitudes Project. 2005. Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics. Accessed 17 April 2006.
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  • Schweitzer, Yoram and Ferber, Sari Goldstein. 2005. Al-Qaeda and the Internationalization of Suicide Terrorism. Tel Aviv University-Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Accessed 17 April 2006.
  • Stein, Yael. 2003. Response to Israel’s Policy of Targeted Killing: By Any Name Illegal and Immoral. Ethics and International Affairs 17 (1):127-37.
  • U.S. Department of State. 2005. Country Reports on Terrorism. 25 April 2005. Accessed 17 April 2006.
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