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War on Terrorism: The Ultimate Self-Inflicted Wound

We must count the costs of endless war, regardless of the little victories, and ask whether we have really accomplished our objectives.

“War has rarely if ever been a successful approach for eradicating terrorism.” So concludes a thoughtful and well-documented essay written by Jennifer Walkup Jayes and published by the Watson Institute’s “Costs of War Project.” If anything, that verdict errs on the side of generosity.

In fact, opting for war as the preferred method for addressing the (usually exaggerated) dangers posed by terrorism is a game for chumps. Twenty years after 9/11, I’m guessing that most Americans who are at least semi-alert have figured that out. Even among bellicose newspaper columnists formerly keen to invade and occupy countries—politeness dictates that I refrain from naming names—the appetite for waging war as an antidote to terrorism has noticeably diminished.

Even so, the Pentagon’s post-9/11 global anti-terrorism campaign—perhaps the defining episode in contemporary U.S. history—quietly continues even today. Note, if you will, the recent raid into Syria by elite U.S. forces that eliminated ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

This was a commendable achievement, of course. Yet it was simultaneously devoid of substantive meaning. It is, after all, almost a daily occurrence: Ostensibly indispensable leaders vacate the premises and then are quickly replaced. So count on ISIS finding someone to fill Qurayshi’s sandals. And count on the U.S. national security apparatus wasting no time in targeting that individual as well. Thus does the routinization of violence provide a handy excuse to avoid critical analysis. Look hard enough and you can pick out that flickering light at the end of the tunnel.

As the Costs of War study notes, “Between 1995 and 2019…3,455 U.S. citizens were killed in terror attacks”—by no means a trivial number. It also states that the U.S. wars undertaken in response to 9/11 “directly killed over 929,000 people,” an altogether jaw-dropping figure. Sadly, this exchange ratio of nearly 300 to 1 is indicative not of success but of strategic bankruptcy. It also raises profound moral questions that Americans have too casually ignored.

That first figure includes all the Americans who died on a single day: September 11, 2001. The second, much larger number testifies to recklessness to which the United States succumbed in responding to an attack mounted by 19 radical Islamists armed with boxcutters. In addition to being radically disproportionate, the cumulative body count has produced not peace, freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights, as promised by successive U.S. administrations, but political instability, widespread economic distress, and a harvest of death, while arguably contributing to the epidemic of anger and alienation afflicting so many of our fellow citizens.

As I write this, the editorial pages of leading American newspapers are filled with columns denouncing Russian threats to Ukraine, while summoning the United States to fulfill its responsibilities as chief defender of international peace and harmony. While that call to arms may find favor in the editorial offices of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Libyans, Syrians and other recent recipients of American beneficence are likely to entertain a different view.

Yes, Vladimir Putin is a brutal thug, as media commentators incessantly remind us. But, no, his decisions in office have not claimed the lives of over 900,000 nameless victims.

The Costs of War essay spells out the implications of the U.S. reliance on military power as its preferred instrument for dealing with perceived terrorist threats: “Government violence against people in the name of counterterrorism, wartime destruction of infrastructure, and long-term U.S. military presence abroad breed ill-will toward the U.S. and broaden support for the same groups that the U.S. post-9/11 wars officially aim to eliminate.” In sum, Washington’s ill-considered reliance on coercion exacerbates, rather than mitigates, the problem it is intended to address.

Crucially, Jennifer Walkup Jayes does not merely indict. She also details alternatives to what she rightly calls the war paradigm. These alternatives include familiar ideas such as treating terrorism as a criminal matter to be handled by police and courts, in lieu of relying on invasion, occupation, raids and drone strikes. Among her suggestions are approaches that will entail patience, while others may strike some readers as excessively touchy-feely. Yet the disappointments and costs that the United States has accrued by relying on the war paradigm warn against looking for short cut solutions. Patience and touchy-feely just might be the order of the day.

“Historically,” Jayes concludes, “groups most frequently abandoned their use of terror tactics when they came to believe that their aims could be met through the traditional political sphere.”

Some might charge that such sentiments smack of appeasing evil. I prefer to call it preferable to wars that are endless, counterproductive, and excessively costly.

Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer at large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.