Over the past 15 years, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and sacrificed the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of its soldiers to wage a war on terrorism.
Tactically speaking, the US intelligence community and the US military have certainly had their fair share of triumphs. Hundreds of terrorist leaders within the Al-Qaeda network have been killed on the battlefield, including Osama bin Laden; international financial institutions have become much more knowledgeable about interrupting and freezing terrorist transactions; and more and more states in the Middle East and Asia are realizing that, when it comes to ensuring the security of their people, nipping terrorism in the bud within their own society is as important than dropping bombs.
Yet, as in all wars in history, the War on Terror cannot be measured strictly on the basis of tactics and statistics. We need to zoom out and assess the strategic results of our efforts since 9/11. The Institute for Economics and Peace provides valuable data in its latest Global Terrorism Index, and the report’s findings should be taken seriously by counterterrorism scholars and practitioners.
Among the key findings of the report:
- 2015 saw a 10% decrease in the number of deaths from terrorism worldwide compared to the previous year, but 2015 remains the second most violent year since the index was established.
- Only 0.5% of terrorism deaths in 2015 occurred in countries that do not already experience some degree of armed conflict or political violence within their society.
- 72% of deaths due to acts of terrorism occurred in five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria. The five nations have either received huge sums of US taxpayer money to help them fight terrorism or have welcomed hundreds of thousands of US troops to proactively root out these terrorist networks on their soil.
Looking at the big picture, one comes to several thematic conclusions that are usually ignored by the mainstream media whenever a large-scale terrorist attack occurs.
First, terrorism should increasingly be seen as a crude and common weapon on the battlefield rather than a spectacular and unprecedented event. While the massive attacks on civilian targets in France in 2015 and 2016 and in Belgium in 2016 should undoubtedly worry intelligence professionals, it should also be borne in mind that extremist organizations across the jihadist spectrum continue to perceive the terrorism as one of their most effective wartime tactics.
In an ideal world, every terrorist would be killed, captured and prosecuted. But in reality, this is an unattainable goal. U.S. officials must prioritize based on groups that directly threaten U.S. security, groups that are problems that regional powers can and should address in coordination with each other, and that can be outsourced. to local actors, who have a greater interest in defeating them than a nation on the other side of the world.
Second, 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 a nation cannot win a war against a tactic is a prescient observation, based on data provided to us by the Global Terrorism Index. When terrorist groups like Boko Haram come under military and financial pressure in their own territory, they often take the path of least resistance, leaving that area rather than fighting the government to retain it. To fight against Boko Haram in particular and against terrorism in general, we cannot rely solely on the US Air Force and the Green Berets to charge into the region and kill the leaders and infantry. Unless governments develop the capacity to improve the social, political and economic lives of their people, terrorists will always have the opportunity to band together.
Finally, the data should make policymakers in Washington wonder not just whether their strategy needs revising, but whether they’re spending the right amount of money on the right things.
Budget allocations from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have increased significantly. President Barack Obama’s $66.8 billion budget request for 2017 is 65% more than Congress authorized DHS to spend in 2006; inflation accounts for only a third of this growth. The US intelligence budget for fiscal year 2015, meanwhile, was $50.3 billion. Even after adjusting for inflation, that’s more than was appropriate in 2006, when more than 160,000 American troops were fighting two wars simultaneously.
US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years, both marketed as a way to retaliate against the evils of al-Qaeda and international terrorism, have also been terrible returns on investment. Although the true cost of the two conflicts is difficult to determine – researchers at Brown University estimate that $4 trillion was spent factoring in the costs of health care and benefits for American soldiers years after the end of wars – there is no debating that American taxpayers were repeatedly asked to fund regime change missions that American officials thought were the cure for terrorism.
Overthrowing national governments and replacing them with new administrations, armies and police forces turned out to be far more costly than economists and planners thought; According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US Congress has allocated approximately $64 billion since 2002 to Afghan security forces alone. Congress continues to allocate $3 billion a year to the Afghan army and police to maintain 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 Iraqi security forces.
With so much money being spent, the American people have every right to wonder if overthrowing governments and rebuilding nations from the ground up is the most effective way to protect America. The results so far, with the Taliban slowly capturing more districts from the Afghan government and Iraqis still dependent on American air power to fight Islamic State – not to mention tens of thousands of American soldiers dead or injured in a decade. and a half – suggests that this is not the case.
The past 15 years remind us that even the best, brightest and most dedicated counterterrorism and intelligence professionals in the world continue to learn on the job. The key takeaway from the Global Terrorism Report is that increased US defense spending has not and will not end terrorism. If the next administration wishes to improve the record of its predecessors, it must begin to look at the world as a whole in a clearer light, with a constant reminder of what the problem is and what it is not.
This article was first published on The American Conservative and has been republished here with permission.