Last week I wrote a post that contradicted the statements of NATO leaders claiming success in sanctions against Russia by pointing out that the strategy has hardly produced the intended effect. This week I am going to consider another strategy that has largely failed in its objectives: The War on Terror.
Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, then American President George W. Bush pledged a fierce response against the terrorist group responsible for the bombings, al-Qaeda. Speaking to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Bush said that the United States’ “war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” -- an ambitious goal indeed.
The War on Terror:
As we approach the 13th anniversary of those horrendous terrorist attacks, it is important to reflect on the status of the War on Terror that began under Mr. Bush and was expanded under his successor and current President, Barack Obama. Looking at a map of the Middle East and nearby areas today, one sees terror groups abound in nearly every country. Certainly, many of the groups operating in these places existed prior to the start of the War on Terror for their own various reasons, but a key reality of the post-2001 world is that they have grown stronger and more regionally (in some cases globally) minded.
How, you ask, might the United States’ gameplan be responsible for the spread of terrorism? Quite simply, it can be traced to the point at which the United States lost sight of its initial campaign -- in 2003, with the invasion of Iraq. This aspect of the War on Terror had nothing to do with terror and more to do with regime change, and the shockwaves sent by the toppling of Saddam Hussein and subsequent implementation of democratic institutions were felt 8 years later, when the Arab Spring broke out and swept the region.
With Iraq, the United States tried to forge democracy where democracy did not previously exist. It destroyed the rule of a vicious tyrant, who, despite heinous crimes, did keep Iraq together. Within a decade of the defeat of Saddam, numerous other strongmen in the region fell, ostensibly allowing for democracy to be implemented. As in Iraq, democracy was shaky at best across the region due to the fact that no such democratic institutions were already in place. A strong democracy is perhaps the greatest counter to terrorism, but a weak democracy is the most susceptible.
Terror Groups Expanding:
Crucially, terror groups across the region learned how to manipulate the power vacuum that the downfall of the tyrants left. A unifying factor is Islamic extremism as a conduit for voicing anger at grievances. Not only does it connect with locals disillusioned with a failing government, it attracts fighters from across the world in a way that nationalism cannot. The Chechens fighting Russia were nationalists first before Islamic terrorists, and the latter approach has helped them remain vigilant even in the face of intense pressure from the Russian government. Nationalism works only within a country; religious extremism can draw in people across the world who follow that religion, provided they have an inclination for violence. Take your pick of extremist groups across the Middle East and you’re sure to find that a significant portion of their ranks are augmented by foreign fighters, be it from other Middle Eastern states or even from other continents.
Just as crucial, the United States was slow to recognize this. As Libya underwent its revolution, the United States under Mr. Obama focused on eliminating Colonel Qaddafi and assumed that democratic institutions would follow on their own, a mistake Mr. Obama mentions as one of his greatest. He’s right. With Iraq as with Libya, it is not necessarily the action of regime change that has played into the hands of terrorists so well, it is the poor implementation thereof. As a result of mismanagement, Libya has devolved into chaos and its unsecured arsenals have fueled conflicts around the region.
In 2001, there were fewer extremists and their goals were mostly local. Thirteen years later, there are far more and they are far more sophisticated -- and they are far more likely to strike the United States. At least one has even created a de-facto state, all while the United States is supposedly utilizing a global alliance to stop terror wherever it may hide. In 2001, the terrorists were in hiding for the most part. Now, they drive around in convoys of trucks in plain sight.
So I ask you, the reader, who won the War on Terror? Perhaps we’re counting the score before the game is over, but, if we are currently at halftime, the anti-terror team appears to be losing. The United States is not up against a JV squad here. It is up against the professional team -- and it lacks a clear cut plan to reverse the gains it has unintentionally created for its opponents.