FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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

More articles by:

Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

April 24, 2019
Susan Babbitt
Disdain and Dignity: An Old (Anti-Imperialist) Story
Adam Jonas Horowitz
Letter to the Emperor
Lawrence Davidson
A Decisive Struggle For Our Future
John Steppling
The Mandate for Israel: Keep the Arabs Down
Victor Grossman
Many Feet
Cira Pascual Marquina
The Commune is the Supreme Expression of Participatory Democracy: a Conversation with Anacaona Marin of El Panal Commune
Binoy Kampmark
Failed States and Militias: General Khalifa Haftar Moves on Tripoli
Dean Baker
Payments to Hospitals Aren’t Going to Hospital Buildings
Alvaro Huerta
Top Ten List in Defense of MEChA
Colin Todhunter
As the 2019 Indian General Election Takes Place, Are the Nation’s Farmers Being Dealt a Knock-Out Blow?
Charlie Gers
Trump’s Transgender Troops Ban is un-American and Inhumane
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Just Another Spring in Progress?
Thomas Knapp
On Obstruction, the Mueller Report is Clintonesque
Elliot Sperber
Every Truck’s a Garbage Truck
April 23, 2019
Peter Bolton
The Monroe Doctrine is Back, and as the Latest US Attack on Cuba Shows, Its Purpose is to Serve the Neoliberal Order
David Schultz
The Mueller Report: Trump Too Inept to Obstruct Justice
Geoff Beckman
Crazy Uncle Joe and the Can’t We All Just Get Along Democrats
Medea Benjamin
Activists Protect DC Venezuelan Embassy from US-supported Coup
Patrick Cockburn
What Revolutionaries in the Middle East Have Learned Since the Arab Spring
Jim Goodman
Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements
Lance Olsen
Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too
William Minter
The Coming Ebola Epidemic
Tony McKenna
Stephen King’s IT: a 2019 Retrospective
David Swanson
Pentagon Claims 1,100 High Schools Bar Recruiters; Peace Activists Offer $1,000 Award If Any Such School Can Be Found
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
April 22, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The NYTs Tries to Rehabilitate Bloody Gina Haspel
Robert Fisk
After ISIS, a Divided Iraq, Wounded and Grief-Stricken
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange as Neuroses
John Laforge
Chernobyl’s Deadly Effects Estimates Vary
Kenneth Surin
Mueller Time? Not for Now
Cesar Chelala
Yemen: The Triumph of Barbarism
Kerron Ó Luain
What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics
Andy Piascik
Grocery Store Workers Take on Billion Dollar Multinational
Seiji Yamada – Gregory G. Maskarinec
Health as a Human Right: No Migrants Need Apply
Howard Lisnoff
Loose Bullets and Loose Cannons
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Dreaming in Miami
Graham Peebles
Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion
Robert Dodge
Earth Day: Our Planet in Peril
Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail