Balwan Nagial
Balwan Nagial

War on terrorism is at crossroads or a cul-de-sac?

As the ‘war on terrorism’ approaches its 20th anniversary, how can the US and West manage ongoing conflicts? This longstanding ‘war on terror’ was focused on the terrorists and their organizations without effectively countering their ideology (Salafi-Jihadism), which still motivates and attracts them to join the various terrorist groups. There is a need to change this strategy of ‘war on terrorism’. A new, more balanced strategy is needed to cope with the menace of terrorism. War on Terrorism or War on Terror or Global War on Terrorism is an ongoing military campaign launched by the US on Sept 16, 2001, following the 9/11 attacks.[1] The campaign’s primary targets are primarily Islamist Terrorist groups present worldwide, such as Al-Quaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban of Pakistan, and the various splinter groups of terror outfits. Then the US president George W.Bush first used the terminology ‘war on terrorism’ on Sept 16 2001.[2]

The war on terror has become the most protracted enduring armed conflict in the history of the US. In fact, it has lasted longer than America’s involvement in both WWI and WW2 and exceeded even the period that the US military was actively involved in combat operations in the Vietnam War. It has cost the US over $5 trillion and claimed the lives of more than 7,000 American military personnel. Nevertheless, as the ‘war on terrorism’ pass in its third decade, any worthwhile victory appears more detached than ever before.[3]

Two decades of fighting have shaped the mixed outcomes. Bin Laden and al-Baghdadi are dead. However, the movements they created and directed still remain vigorous and dynamic. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and other al-Qaeda who was in charge of the 9/11 terror attacks are still languishing in the jails. However, none have stood trial, very few have been found guilty of their crimes. Many terrorists have been eliminated. However, hundreds of thousands of civilians have also been killed both by terrorists and due to military operations. Moreover, despite all these achievements, there are now at least three to four times more Salafi-Jihadi terrorist organizations as they were on 9/11.[4]

Generally, it is argued that the ‘War on Terrorism’ was unsuccessful. This failure has two crucial and inter-related sources. Firstly, there was an exaggerated calculation of the threat of terrorism faced by the US, which resulted in a costly counter-terrorism operation that did not protect the US from terrorist attacks. Secondly, the adoption of an aggressive strategy of military involvement led to failures.

The ‘War on Terrorism’ lessons shows that it is time for the US to undertake a diverse line of actions. There is a need to recognize that though terrorism is a grave concern, it poses only a low-key security danger to the US internally. Thus, the US ought to shun military involvement in the ‘War on Terrorism’. Instead, the US must drive regional associates to challenge the terrorist organizations overseas. In contrast, the US must adopt the stress on the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to combat the threat against terrorists. a

Objectives of ‘War on Terrorism’.

The war against international terrorism will be challenging and elongated. At the moment, terror sleeping cells are there almost everywhere together with our own. Success will be subject to the bravery, forte, and resilience of the people of the US as well as our associates globally. It will be measured over the stable, persistent work of destruction of terrorist webs and bringing them to justice as per the land law.

The US  is steadfastly dedicated to protecting its people,  finishing terrorism anywhere it is present, and constructing of safer, improved world of more excellent prospects and freedom for all peoples. We will not rest until we succeed.

The Authorisation for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, popularly called ‘AUMF’, was made law on  Sept 14, 2001, to approve the use of the United States Armed Forces against those who were accountable for the Sept 11 attacks. It sanctioned the President to use essential and suitable power against those countries, groups, or persons he decides who premeditated, approved, carried out, or assisted the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept 11, 2001, or sheltered such organizations or persons, to avert any impending acts of violence of global terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or individuals. Congress pronounces this to create explicit constitutional sanction within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution of 1973.[5] The George W. Bush government well-defined the following objectives in the ‘War on Terror’:[6]

  1. Win against the extremists like Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and finish their establishments.
  2. Detect, trace and defeat others terrorists affiliated with them.
  3. Discard patronage, provision and harboring to terrorists
  • Finish the nation’s patronage of terrorism.
  • Create and uphold an international standard of responsibility regarding ‘combating terrorism.’
  • Reinforce and uphold the international effort to combat terrorism
  • Work with enthusiastic and able states
  • Empower weak nations
  • Convince unwilling nations
  1. Coerce reluctant countries
  2. Intercede and destroy substantial sustenance for terrorists

iii. Obliterate terrorist shelters and havens

  1. Decrease the actual situations that terrorists search for exploitation.
  • Create alliances with the global community to reinforce feeble nations and thwart the unfolding of terrorism
  • Triumph the war of ideas
  1. Protect US citizens and interests at home and abroad
  • Blend the  National Strategy for Homeland Security.
  • Accomplish domain consciousness
  • Augment steps to safeguard the veracity, dependability, and accessibility of vital, physical, and information-based structures internal as well as external.
  • Take actions to defend US citizens overseas.
  • Safeguard a unified occurrence management capability.

Outcomes of ‘War on Terrorism’.

Accomplishments achieved during the initial years of the ‘War on Terrorism’ encompassed the arresting of hundreds of terrorists globally, the deterrence of large-scale terrorist attacks on the US, the toppling of the Taliban rule and consequently the closure of terrorist-training camps in Afghanistan, the detention or eradication of many of al-Qaeda’s old associates, and augmented the level of international cooperation in international counter-terrorism initiatives.

Nevertheless, criticizers contended that the disappointments of the US  counter-terrorism fight overshadowed its achievements. Critiques believed that the ‘War on Terrorism’ in Afghanistan had effectually dispersed the al-Qaeda network, thus making it even tougher to thwart. Also, the attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq had enlarged the anti-Americanism midst the international community of  Muslims, intensifying the communication of Jihadis and unifying different organizations in a shared obligation.  Other critics argued that the war on terrorism was an artificial smokescreen to quest a larger US geopolitical agenda that encompassed regulatory global oil reserves, increasing defense spending, expanding the country’s international military presence, and countering the strategic challenge posed by various regional powers.[7]

The US has luckily not faced any main attack at home since Sept11 2001. Other than 9/11, terrorists have been able to kill very few Americans in the native land. However, what is indistinguishable from the figures alone is what role the international ‘War on Terrorism’ has played in shaping that trend.

The fast growth of the jihadist terrorists since 2001 has been spectacular. When the War on Terror began, roughly 32,200 fighters were comprising 13 Islamist-inspired terror organizations. By 2015, as Table 1 shows, the estimate had ballooned to more than 100,000 fighters spread across 44 Islamist-inspired terror groups.[8]

Regrettably, no proof is available to advocate that there is a sole set of settings that causes terrorism, nor any proof to indicate that terrorism would fade away if those circumstances are transformed. Nevertheless, even if we admit the argument, there has been the slightest indication of improvement toward fading away from the fundamental conditions that enable terrorism, at least as defined by the US government.

As the US-led NATO forces prepare to complete their departure from Afghanistan, many fear that there will be unpredictability and, in due course, a takeover by the Taliban. Thus the country may become once again a base of terrorism.

Rise of neo-orientalism.

Neo-orientalism is a type of modern incarnation of  Orientalist thinking. Neo-orientalism is generally found in academic literature to critique Western attitudes to Islam and the Islamic world post 9/11.[9]

An immanent analysis of the hegemonic discussion on the ‘War on Terrorism’ (WOT) is snowballing against the irresistible silence about the impacts of the international WOT, which was lead on the non-Western and particularly the Muslim world. The dominating supremacy of the West to validate and authorize their supremacy against ‘Others’, history demonstrates that the 9/11 attacks were not entirely a unique consequence of the highest stage of political, economic, and cultural imperialism. Long before the  9/11 terrorist attacks, many political thinkers had already cautioned about the inherent danger of the politics of hegemonic imperialism on the hearts and minds of the people, primarily the Muslim world. Modern-day imperialism is hegemonic imperialism because it works out through streamlined violence taken to a higher level than ever before. They are implementing not only through fire and sword but also through hearts and minds.

Way out.

How should these outcomes from the unsuccessful of the ‘War on Terrorism’ enlighten the US and the West to formulate the policies for tackling ISIS and other Islamist-inspired terrorist organizations going forward? To my understanding, they have basically three/four options.

Firstly, the US and the West can uphold the current course of action. Such a strategy would aim to contain and eventually defeat ISIS and other groups by relying mainly on local partners. The significant US  involvement was damaging, and she trusts that local forces are the best appropriate to fight ISIS but sees a significant supportive role for the US.

Secondly, the US and West could pick up to intensify the fight. The objective of this approach would be to upsurge the US  assurance meaningfully to the preservation of security and peace in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and perhaps even Libya, Yemen, etc. By delivering  enough adequate arms and ammunition and pressurize to tolerate and  support the US so that it could destroy the Islamist-inspired terrorism threat, inspire the development of peaceful political systems, and thwart the recurrence of terrorist organizations

Notwithstanding extensive backing for the status quo, few favors were treading up the fight against ISIS and Terrorist Organisations. Those who desire this option trust that the terrorism risk is high enough to validate a great deal more effort than the US and West are at present putting in. The US General Michael Flynn has written that the fight against terrorism is a world ‘War on Terrorism’. Comparable Flynn, many people support speeding up the fight and the opinion that the existing approach is unsuccessful.[10]

The attributes advocated for the failure are so diverse; however, many believe that the fundamental problem has been the reluctance of the US to pledge adequate military and political resources. To address this situation effectively, the US should do much more in the Middle East and the surrounding region, including additional military pressure to bear and continuing the nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

To my mind, the US ought to rule out both the options, i.e. stepping-up option and the stable on option. Neither ISIS nor the comprehensive problem of Islamist-inspired terrorism embodies an adequate threat to validate a spread-out, hostile, and expensive trail of out-of-the-country campaigns. Even under Obama, the light footprint strategy continually put the lives of thousands of Americans at risk in the process of nation-building and terrorists killing missions that have produced added problems rather than solving, plus there was enormous financial cost.

Instead, the US must take a step backward from the ongoing fight. Though it is not attempted here to deliberate upon all of the possible strategies or tactics, I contend that the accurate line of direction for the US and West is to decrease the level of military interference, stop making efforts at nation-building, and end direct efforts to dictate political outcomes in the Middle East. This approach would seek to reduce the incentive for anti-American terrorism by disengaging from what are primarily civil wars in the Middle East.


The US and NATO forces are hurrying up to leave Afghanistan by the end of this month. France has gesticulated a substantial scaling down of its military obligation in Mali. In Iraq, the British and other Western forces do not have any significant combat role left. Two decades after the US President George W Bush’s ostensible ‘War on Terrorism’, is the period of massive military deployments to far-off war zones concluding? I think not precisely because there is still a significant obligation to fight and finish the jihadists in the Sahel. Extensive, enduring dispositions have been enormously costly in terms of blood, money and in political resources.

The US-NATO military forces presence in Afghanistan has cost more than $1tn (£724bn). Also, thousands of lives on all sides, Afghan forces, Afghan civilians, western forces, and rebellious rivals. Military forces’ presence peaked in 2010 when total troop numbers crossed 100,000. Now, after 20 years in the country, the few thousand remaining troops are hurrying up to leave just as the Taliban looks set to take over more and more territory.[11]

The extended and more extensive a military obligation is in fighting an insurrection, the more susceptible it becomes. The most apparent of these is the fatality rate, a tendency that can turn out to be highly disliked back at home. It is estimated that more than 58,000 US soldiers died in the Vietnam War, and approximately 15,000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan. These issues certainly speeded the termination of those operations. France has just lost over 50 soldiers in Mali since 2013, and its mission has lost chiefly it’s backing at home.

Then there is the of issue financial cost, which almost perpetually exceeding the expectations. Also, there are apprehensions over human rights. These can also derail a military campaign when slightly expected. The US airstrikes hitting Afghan wedding parties, Saudi airstrikes killing civilians in Yemen, and human rights abuses by the UAE’s allies there have all carried a reputational cost for those countries.

Then there is a likelihood that the host government might distribute power and share a platform with harsh elements.

This may happen in Afghanistan; the Taliban, who were thrown out of power in 2001, are likely to come back and share the power. Furthermore, this happens, then all intelligence cooperation would cease, and there will be chaos and confusion.

In Mali, information suggests that the government is involved in secret talks with the jihadists, which would cause President Emmanuel Macron to threaten to pull out French forces. In Iraq, it is believed that there is still a genuine concern about the Iranian effect, especially when it comes to the Shi’a militias.

Though Taliban occupation of Afghanistan would be ill-fated, and in the meantime, the US must workout with the neighbors such as China, India, Pakistan, etc., to ensure peace, tranquillity and prosperity. The US must bear in mind that the US-NATO forces did whatever they could do. At least they successfully eliminated terrorist organizations’ leaders and dismantled the al-Qaeda network. Eventually, Afghanistan is not dominant to the US position as a global power.

Nevertheless, there is a valuable history lesson to learn from the sovereign outreach as the US-led NATO forces prepare to leave Afghanistan. There is a need for global counter-terrorism efforts, not the prolonged occupation of one specific place/country. The policy of ‘imperial aversion to any instability’ led the US to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. Late 19th century, the British had the same apprehensions in Sudan, threatening Suez Canal; they had similar fears in Asia, including Afghanistan, Africa, etc. These fears put a heavy burden on the British as they could not differentiate between Indispensable Interests and Marginal Interests. As a result of the Afghanistan Union of Soviet Socialist Republic(USSR) intervention, they collapsed in 1990-91 because Russians got engrossed in the insurgency, internal divisions, and fear of instability. The US committed the same mistake in Vietnam.

[1] US Officials Retool Slogan for Terror War – The New York Times › U.S. › Politics. Accessed on July 7, 2021.

[2] President: Today We Mourned, Tomorrow We Work › 2001/09. Accessed on July7 2021.

[3] The War on Terror 20 Years on Crossroads or Cul-De-Sac … › policy › war-terror-20-years-cr…

[4] The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat | Center for … › analysis › evolution-Salafi-jihadis.

[5] Wikipedia, Accessed on July 8, 2021.

[6] President Bush Releases National Strategy for Combating … › rls. Accessed on July 7, 2021

[7] war on terrorism | Summary & Facts | Britannica › … › International Relations. Accessed on July 06, 2021

[8] Step Back: Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy from the Failed … › policy-analysis › step-back-lesso. Accessed on July 05, 2021

[9] Wikipedia Accesed on July 9, 2021.

[10] THE FIELD OF FIGHT, How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies by

Lt. General Michael T. Flynn and Michael Ledeen St. Martin’s Press, USA,  ISBN: 9781250106223.

[11] ‘War on Terror’: Are big military deployments over? – BBC News, 19 June 2021 › news › world-Asia-57489095

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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