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Why the War on Terror Endures


Believe the War on Terror has been an unmitigated disaster? Find it difficult to wrap your head around the Long War’s long list of horrors? Think the Obama administration and Congress’s willingness to wage the War indefinitely is murderous myopia? Think again: the War on Terror is good at any number of things. It shifts yet more war-making power from the legislative to the executive branch. It bolsters the size and power of the US military. It creates the largest and most expensive intelligence complex in human history. It enriches government contractors, new firms and legacy suppliers alike. It justifies unprecedented assaults on civil liberties. It enrolls both major political parties and all prominent national politicians. It furthers the militarization of American society. Above all, it reproduces itself. The War on Terror spawns terror where it belongs: far from America’s shores.

It’s not supposed to, of course, contrary to a frequent claim on the Left. The War on Terror is not a vast conspiracy perpetrated by those constituencies favored by it. It is, instead, a complex and confused assemblage of interlocking, overlapping, and contradictory policies, foreign and domestic. It’s a sputtering, jerry-rigged contraption with layers, scaffolding, tweaks and adjustments worthy of Rube Goldberg. Yes, we have secret memos, secret actions and secret courts. But the lion’s share of the War’s undercarriage and infrastructure grew out in the open. And thanks to Wikileaks, whistleblowers, and witnesses, we eventually come to know the secrets.

The War on Terror is a piquant stew of ideas and ideology that underwrites the vast, global deployment of American men, money, and machines. The War’s authors and enablers truly hope that Afghanistan will ‘stabilize’ sufficiently by 2014 to permit the withdrawal of most US troops. They hope that the mess they left behind in Iraq sorts itself out. They hope that air power is enough to ‘safeguard US interests’ in Libya and Mali. They believe what they say about ‘terrorist groups’ Hamas and Hezbollah. They genuinely hope that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia make the world safer for the United States and its allies.

The problem before us then is not one of sincerity or intent but of results. Opportunities occasionally arise to confront the hopes, fears and beliefs of the architects and supporters of the War on Terror with facts. A recent report from the Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP) provides such an opportunity.  IEP is a non-profit research organization dedicated to shifting the world’s focus to peace as a positive, achievable, and tangible measure of human well-being and progress. It achieves its goals by developing new conceptual frameworks to define peacefulness; providing metrics for measurement; uncovering the relationship between peace, business and prosperity, and by promoting a better understanding of the cultural, economic and political factors that drive peacefulness.

IEP’s “2012 Global Terrorism Index: Capturing the Impact of Terrorism from 2002-2011” springs from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) which is collected and collated by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). The GTD is as solid a data set on terror as one can find in the public domain. Like any such collection, the GTD has limits, including which episodes of terror it counts. START defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force or violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation.” It thus does not count US drone strikes (illegal violence by a state actor), or any other state action, as terror. (An accounting of civilian victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan by the New America Foundation can be found here.)

Leaving aside the question of state terror, the findings of the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) are clear. Terrorist attacks increased strongly from 2002 to 2011, peaked in 2007, then fell slightly to 2006 levels in 2011. START analysts consider the current global trend a plateau rather than a decrease. The small decrease in the frequency of attacks is offset, they believe, by the fact that terror attacks increased in 72 countries while falling in 63 over the decade.

There may be some surprises for readers in the report’s specifics. The number of attempted attacks increased very slightly over the past two years. The number of fatalities fell from a peak of about 10,000 in 2007 to approximately 7,500 in 2011.

The number of injuries declined from a peak of 19,000 in 2009 to 14,000 in 2011. It wasn’t 9/11 or the immediate US response to it that sent terrorism soaring, but the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. After 9/11, but prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the global level of terror attacks was actually below that of the late seventies. Terror attacks did not spike in Afghanistan until the Taliban adopted the methods, including the improvised explosive device, of the Iraqi insurgency.

Afghanistan’s terror then spilled over and stimulated a wave of attacks in Pakistan and India eighteen months later (some directly connected to the conflict in Afghanistan, some tied to internal Pakistani struggles, and some revolving around perennial Indo-Pakistani problems in Kashmir). Iraq and Afghanistan accounted for 35% of all attacks during the decade. Over one-third of the period’s terror victims were Iraqi.

The top ten countries for terror attacks in 2011 in rank order were: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Thailand, Russia, and the Philippines. These ten countries accounted for 87% of the year’s attacks; each suffered at least one hundred. This heavy concentration in a few countries obscures the fact that of the 158 countries in the GTI, only 31 did not experience a terror incident in 2011 (only 20 were so lucky over the course of the decade). “Core” Al-Qaeda (more like an apple core these days) was responsible for but one of 2011’s 5,000 attacks; it’s “affiliates” in Yemen and North Africa were far more active. Algeria and the United States witnessed the greatest plunge in terror attacks over the decade; most terror in the US today is, as it always has been, of the domestic variety (white supremacists, anti-abortion militants, etc.). North America was the region least likely to suffer an attack, followed by Western Europe and Latin America. Western Europe suffered nineteen times more deaths than North America from 2002 to 2011. Iraq racked up the greatest increase in  attacks over the period, followed by Pakistan. There were over four times as many attacks globally in 2011 as there were in 2002.

What conclusions might we draw from the Global Terrorism Index? There’s a lot here, but permit me to focus on what may be the most politically charged implication. War on Terror advocates may claim that the War is a “success.” We’re “winning” it.

There has been no repeat of 9/11. Dozens of plots against targets in the US (a handful real; most imagined by nincompoops entrapped by the FBI) were foiled. Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Aulaqi (and hundreds of less prominent militants) are dead. The number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan stands at perhaps a couple dozen (an official estimate from several years ago; the number is likely even lower today). Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are “free.” Yemen and Bahrain are “stable” enough for now.

Syria’s “liberation” is at hand. Hamas and Hezbollah are subject to frequent US-supported Israeli “lawn mowing.” Thailand and the Philippines appear mostly capable of containing their internal terrorist threats. The French have Mali covered for the present. Terrorists in Nigeria and Russia focus on their own countries. US special forces conduct counterterrorism missions in dozens of countries.
Guantanamo is still open (though not accepting new prisoners); indefinite detention lives on. While torture is no longer on the menu, renditions and domestic spying remain. Military commissions are underway. Bradley Manning is on trial before one.

The Army’s Major Hasan, the CIA’s John Kirakou, and Anonymous’ Jeremy Hammond are in prison; the NSA’s Thomas Drake and countless other potential leakers were prosecuted, persecuted, or intimidated. The peace movement is moribund. Occupy’s moment has apparently passed. Mosques and their congregations are under surveillance. Military, intelligence, and homeland security expenditures remain enormous (and are threatened not by principled opposition but by House Republican antics).

This summary contextualization of the Global Terrorism Index helps explain why the War on Terror grinds on. The War is a “success” thus far. The Homeland is mostly safe thanks to the War; failing to wage it as vigorously and as long as we have would certainly have led to further catastrophe. We can’t let up now, when we have fill-in-the-blank on the run, or are so close to our goals in Country X. Most importantly, terrorism’s victims fall nearly exclusively on foreign soil.

Were the War on Terror a bona fide success, one should expect the number of attacks and victims to fall over time, with a return, at some point, to pre-2002 levels. That they haven’t has been confirmed again and again over the years, most recently by the Global Terrorism Index. War supporters do not directly address this fundamental contradiction. But why should the US president, Congress or public care much about what happens to the peoples of the countries most beset by terrorism? The obvious reasons obviously do not obtain. We are, instead, in the words of George W. Bush, “fighting them over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here.”

Steve Breyman served as William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow at the US State Department in 2011-12. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

Steve Breyman is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the US State Department. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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