America's Struggle in the Global War on Terror

Posted in Terrorism , United States | 22-Jan-07 | Author: Rod Latham

"The impact and surprise of 11 September 2001 were together tragic evidence of the United States’ failure to adequately address…
"The impact and surprise of 11 September 2001 were together tragic evidence of the United States’ failure to adequately address the growing danger of international terrorism."
Great successes marked the start of the Global War on Terror, with al-Qaeda and the Taliban being chased triumphantly out of Afghanistan. But now, the Taliban are returning and growing in strength; Iraq has descending into a bloody insurgency, with several hundred people suffering violent deaths every day; and the threat from international terrorism seems again on the rise. Such failures call into question our overarching strategy, and whether it combats the fundamental causes behind terrorism at all. Addressing this shortfall may be difficult and uncomfortable – but it is necessary if we are to be successful in confronting and defeating the great threat that international terrorism presents.

Wake-Up Call 9/11

The impact and surprise of 11 September 2001 were together tragic evidence of the United States’ failure to adequately address the growing danger of international terrorism. Over five years on, and the record in the Global War on Terror is so surprisingly mixed that the myriad of successes and disasters are hard to reconcile. The military has been at the centre of American and British policy, and hard power remains absolutely vital in realizing our goals. But military successes have been undermined and overshadowed by the broader failure to address spiraling terrorist recruitment. Unveiling his new strategy for Iraq in January 2007, President Bush promised that military operations will be better complemented by “visible improvements in neighborhoods and communities” in the Islamic world. This is not new rhetoric, but it must be hoped that this time it is acted upon with genuine determination. If it is not, then the United States will be sending more troops to their deaths on a doomed mission, whilst allowing the threat from international terrorism to escalate further.

Successes and Failures


The United States and its allies have enjoyed some remarkable successes in the Global War on Terror since 2001, which should be neither underplayed nor forgotten. The most immediate challenges necessitated a military response, and were met with decisive action. In Afghanistan, the most advanced and accessible terrorist facilities ever known were destroyed. The Taliban were overthrown within three months, and the first tentative steps towards democracy have been taken with the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections. Although Osama bin Laden remains elusive, many other prominent members of the pre-9/11 leadership have been captured or killed. Elsewhere, US forces have also been dispatched to Yemen, Georgia and the Philippines to train local militaries to fight against terrorism, and are actively engaging with insurgents in Iraq. In spite of considerable obstacles, the coalition militaries have frequently excelled.

There have also been non-military advances. A considerable amount of potential terrorist funding has been blocked off, including an estimated $200 million of assets frozen within the first two years. The United States has strengthened itself domestically. Most prominently, 22 federal agencies, offices, and research centers were amalgamated into a unified Department of Homeland Security, designed to coordinate the defense against terrorist attack. This merger was described by leading analyst Raphael F. Perl as “the most substantial reorganization of Federal government agencies since the National Security Act of 1947”. Since 2002, the old al-Qaeda hardcore has appeared unable to organize any major attack, and there has not been any successful follow-up to 9/11 on the American mainland: this is surely evidence of the progress made in the past five years.


Despite the considerable advances made in securing the United States against the most hardened of violent Islamist extremists, there remains a very real danger. This is in large part due to the failure to adequately evolve policies. “Al-Qaeda” was never a coherent, structured and hierarchical group under the direct command of an all-powerful bin Laden. He was a threat because of his training camps, which allowed small-scale enterprises to have large-scale impacts, and his ideology, which attracted young Muslim men to terrorism and united them against the West. Once the Afghan camps had been demolished, the principal focus of the war should have shifted to combat the ideology – but it did not. The longer-term problem posed by international terrorism concerns those that are inspired by al-Qaeda rather than al-Qaeda itself, and the would-be bombers of today are not close to bin Laden but to his ideals, identity, and worldview. Bin Laden’s call to arms has not been successfully checked, and terrorist groups are now able to recruit converts faster than the coalition militaries can eliminate them.

The failure to adjust policy has manifested itself in several ways. Firstly, neo-Taliban forces have resurged in Afghanistan and the level of violence has escalated significantly. There were an estimated 4,000 violent Afghan deaths in 2006, and the credibility of the fledgling Afghan democracy is being undermined. Although NATO has assumed command responsibility and increased its presence to over 30,000 troops, the United States has not been able to reduce its contingent as planned in light of the enemy’s strength. The British Army has suffered eight times as many fatalities in Afghanistan in the last twelve months as in the preceding fifty combined. Exiled tribal leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has publicly stated his allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the possibility of other warlords pursuing policies of non-cooperation, intensified drug smuggling, or even secession is disturbing.

Rod Latham, WSN Editor U.S.A.: "The violent Islamic extremists cannot be allowed refuge anywhere"
Rod Latham, WSN Editor U.S.A.: "The violent Islamic extremists cannot be allowed refuge anywhere"
Secondly, the insurgency in Iraq has worsened considerably. A recent report from the Strategic Studies Institute astutely notes that it has now evolved “from resistance to the American presence to a complex war involving sectarian militias, Iraqi and American security forces, foreign jihadists, and Sunni Arab insurgents”. According to the latest figures, the number of civilian casualties reached its highest level yet, with a peak of around 120 people suffering violent deaths each day in October-November 2006. The United States military has suffered over 3,000 fatalities in Iraq, with 115 losing their lives in December 2006 alone. Having begun primarily as a counter-proliferation exercise, the war in Iraq has become the defining conflict of the Global War on Terror.

Thirdly, there are a larger number of those willing to take the initiative and act in the name of al-Qaeda or bin Laden without having any obviously traceable link to any existing terrorist organizations. This was seen most prominently with the bombings of the London transport network on 7 July 2005 by four men who were essentially “under the radar” as far as the British security services were concerned.

Failure breeds failure. The creation of functioning democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq would be the greatest victories imaginable in the Global War on Terror, but the rising human and material costs of the campaigns have made them a political liability. Bush’s decision to send an additional 20,000 US troops to Iraq in January 2007 is a positive sign of continued commitment from the White House, but it has been widely greeted with derision from a war-weary American people. “The stakes could not be higher,” asserted analyst John Nagl in an interview with the World Security Network, “and we must do a better job of explaining to the American people that, although counterinsurgency is messy and slow, we are learning how to do it more effectively. We can win this war.” Unfortunately, in the present environment, the ability to win may be immaterial: it is the ability to win quickly that is required to sustain public support. As the United States and Great Britain appear to slide towards withdrawal, so it becomes more difficult to sustain the cooperation of regional states. There is now a real risk of a return to the situation of the 1990s, in which Pakistan adjudged its best interests lay with the Taliban when it was abandoned by the West. It is essential that the anti-terror coalition is maintained, and publicly supported: no international terrorist group can be allowed permanent sanctuary anywhere in the world.

Reassessing the Global War on Terror: the Brown Model

With such a marked rise in incidents of international terrorism, the United States must reassess its policies in the Global War on Terror, or risk the problem spiraling even further out of our control. While the military will continue to play the central role, it should be complemented more effectively by other means. Terrorism gains its appeal from its ability to empower those who feel disempowered. The decision to become a terrorist can turn an unemployed man from an impoverished country, neglected by the international community, into a hero and martyr at the centre of global policy concerns, and master of life and death in an instant. This is a powerful enemy indeed. To craft policy to counter it requires a better understanding of what is motivating and causing such decisions to be made in certain parts of the world at certain times, but not others. In my analysis, I shall adapt a model developed by scholar Michael E. Brown for ethnic conflict. Brown considers three layers of explanation: underlying causes, proximate causes, and trigger causes.

Underlying Causes

Underlying causes are those that are necessary but not sufficient conditions for terrorist recruitment and which make some places more predisposed to the phenomenon than others. There can be separated down into four clusters.

Firstly, there are structural factors – the presence of weak or failing states, with divisive ethnic geography. The case study of Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s is an illuminating example. It lacked any cohesive national identity, had no stable political process and faced growing sectarianism, when military dictator Zia-ul-Haq came to power. His attempted solution, the ‘Islamization’ of the country, ultimately exacerbated tensions rather then mitigate them, fuelling discontent between Shia and Sunni. The program “caused the madrassahs to multiply and the output from these schools of religious instruction became the willing recruits for a steady stream of jihadis”, asserts writer Lawrence Ziring.

Secondly, there are political factors. The Middle East is littered with unrepresentative, corrupt regimes, including in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – a problem that is worsened by the perception of the United States as the key financier and supporter of such governments. “The overwhelming evidence is that the majority of our terrorist enemies come from purportedly friendly countries,” claimed Middle East expert Bernard Lewis, “and their main grievance against us is that, in their eyes, we are responsible for maintaining the tyrannical regimes that rule over them – an accusation that has, to say the very least, some plausibility.”

"Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world."
"Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world."
Thirdly, there are socio-economic factors. Afghanistan, for example, is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has a per capita (legal) domestic product of less than $200, forcing many to turn to the illicit heroin trade with its many dangers. Estimates of the Afghan human development index, although difficult to gauge accurately, place it tied last alongside Sierra Leone, Burundi, and Niger. According to the International Labor Office in Geneva, the Middle East and North Africa had the highest unemployment rate in the world in 2005, with an average of over 13 percent. The Arab League Economic Unity Council assessed that within its members the figure was closer to 20 percent. It is a fallacy to dismiss economic factors because bin Laden is wealthy: many feel disempowered because of the perceived failure of their region or group, not necessarily their own individual person.

Fourthly and finally, there are cultural-perceptual factors. There exist numerous ancient hatreds between certain groups, which have become an important part of their modern identities. Even where mythology has been negligible for decades, its continued existence can be sparked off to prompt anger against the initiator of the past atrocity – hence bin Laden’s frequent references to the European Crusades over seven hundred years ago. Furthermore, there is considerable pride in the Middle East over its status as the cradle of civilization and the chosen land of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam has a glorious imperial past, with the Ottoman, Persian and Mughal Empires wielding considerable power in their heydays and often threatening Europe. Today, by contrast, the United Nations Security Council has no permanent seat for an Islamic state. The development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and Iran has been greeted with isolation and derision, whereas India has signed a deal on nuclear cooperation with the United States and Israel’s program is conveniently ignored. In a survey of the top 100 economic entities in the world conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies in 2000, the highest representative from the Islamic world is secularist Turkey – one place ahead of General Motors. The reality of relative impotency in the present jars uncomfortably with the cultural pride and aspirations fostered by the past.

The Islamic world is unusually vulnerable to all four areas of underlying cause. Combating them is a long-term and substantial commitment, and one that shall necessarily have to be led principally by the governments and peoples of the region. But as the world’s only superpower, and a primary target of extremism, the United States has a crucial role to play, exuding the greatest political, military and economic leverage in the region. Only the United States has the capability to provide the enormous programs of economic and technical assistance required. Targeted funding should be aimed at alleviating the worst poverty and improving education standards, including establishing viable alternatives to the madrassahs. Civil institutions must be strengthened, including judiciaries, police, civil services, electoral commissions, and national and local representative assemblies. While such structural and economic challenges are immense, the promotion of political liberalization and democratic reform are even more difficult and sensitive. Pressure must be applied gradually, and expectations kept limited as to the swiftness of change. Regional leaders have frequently indicated their resistance to the formation of political parties, but they are “the critical bridge to democracy”, in the words of Professor Walter Andersen, and should be supported accordingly. Actively tackling the underlying causes of terrorist recruitment promises neither to yield immediate nor obvious gains, but without such efforts the problem of violent Islamist extremism will continue to grow. The United States must act now, in concert with her allies, to ensure the roots of Muslim anger are addressed rather than allowed to deteriorate further.

Proximate Causes

Proximate causes increase the likelihood of terrorist recruitment in those areas with underlying causes. Within the context of the Global War on Terror, they can be viewed as specific grievances that overtly raise awareness of one’s disempowered status, and can turn often legitimate feelings of injustice into a focused hatred. This often results in bitterness being directed towards domestic regimes, but can also explain why bin Laden’s seemingly counterintuitive concept of focusing on America has had such resonance, channeling underlying anger onto an external target.

CIA maverick Michael Scheuer claimed in his controversial book Imperial Hubris that “the United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific US government policies and action”. There is considerable truth in his argument, and he identifies several of the clearest examples. The most prominent is the pro-Israeli bias of US foreign policy, with Scheuer going so far as to question whether “US interests require Americans to be Israel’s protectors and endure the endless blood-and-treasure costs of that role” when the end result is “unending war with Islam”. The complete abandonment of a key regional ally is extreme and unwarranted: however, the United States must judge whether the advantages of the status quo, siding so strongly with Israel and refusing to cooperate with the Hamas government, are worth paying for given the barrier to finding a durable peace settlement they impose.

The major Western military presence in the Middle East is an obvious sore, but while the number of troops should of course be reduced at the earliest possible moment for a variety of reasons, this must not done at the expense of stability and prosperity in Afghanistan and Iraq. The withdrawal from Saudi Arabia in 2003 was a positive step in alleviating proximate cause outrage: there should be continual reassessment in the coming years of the optimum level that balances the security interest appropriately.

Another prominent issue has been the holding without trial of around 490 detainees captured during the Afghan war at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. These prisoners should be either charged or released. The public relations disaster that the camp has become now eclipses the potential fear of letting potential terrorist sympathizers go, especially if the most dangerous can be lawfully imprisoned in trial by jury.

Trigger Causes

Trigger causes are specific actions which prompt people to recruit into terrorist groups. They could be anything from an individual moment, such as the death of a family member in an American attack, up to an international event, such as the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

By their very nature, trigger causes are essentially impossible to eliminate. Potentially inciting events will always occur, and the only sustainable way to stop them from leading to violence is to combat the underlying and proximate causes already described. There have been numerous incidents in the United States where Indians have been appalled by apparent disrespect to their culture and religion, such as the production of toilet seat covers decorated with Hindu Gods or the placing of an image of the Lord Ganesha on slippers. Yet such areas of friction have passed as minor disruptions, rather than major diplomatic crises as with the depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in the European press. The contrasting reactions reflect less the trigger events themselves than the differing scenarios of India as compared with the Islamic world. Nonetheless, trigger events can be ameliorated, for example through better cultural sensitivity in public relations. Religion is clearly at the heart of Muslim identity, and is manipulated by bin Laden to entice more followers. A better appreciation of issues likely to offend could be complemented by an offensive counter-information campaign, designed not to spread Western values but those of moderate Muslims. The greatest asset that the United States has today in the Global War on Terror is the vast proportion of the world’s Muslim population that is opposed to extremism. Supporting religious leaders that preach tolerance, without allowing them to be seen as in way controlled, will be of crucial importance in ensuring those most vulnerable to conversion are dissuaded. This is true not only in the Middle East, but also in sensitive Diasporas such as in Great Britain and France. Trigger causes are unstoppable as a general phenomenon yet appeasable in degree.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations


The United States must remain committed to the mission in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
The United States must remain committed to the mission in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In order to effectively counter the dangers posed to the United States by international terrorism today, it must readjust and act appropriately with both measured force and preventive peaceful engagement. Bin Laden and his current followers will not now be dissuaded from their actions and they must continue to be confronted through the employment of our military, security and intelligence forces. But beyond this hardcore, there is a sliding spectrum of sympathies across the Islamic world for the empowering actions of the violent Islamist extremists. Bin Laden’s discourse may be rooted in theological concepts, but his power derives from playing on the current social, economic, and political problems of the Islamic world, which can be felt by association by a young man born in London as much as one born in Karachi. The only sustainable solution is to destroy the motivation and bolster the moderates. Even if the security war is won in the short-term, a failure to win the ideological war threatens to undermine any success. The United States must be willing to engage with the region, and complement military efforts with the pursuit of economic prosperity, higher standards of living, and political stability in the Islamic world.

Policy Recommendations

  • The United States must remain committed to the mission in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and work to prevent those countries slipping into terrorist safehavens akin to that of the Taliban era. This will involve a continued and sizeable military presence for the foreseeable future, which must be matched by an informational domestic campaign to ensure popular support for a matter of vital national security interest. When stability is assured, the withdrawal of American forces from the area should begin apace, for their presence is a continual sore for many and every use of military force is a small victory for the extremists.
  • A global war requires a global focus: the violent Islamist extremists cannot be allowed permanent refuge anywhere. They must continually be denied the time, territory and opportunity to plan and carry out terrorist attacks, for a secure infrastructure expands their capacity for mass destruction. Efforts shall by necessity be multifaceted and multilateral. While the policy of hot pursuit in Pakistan became politically difficult, the United States must not shirk from pressuring Pakistan to actively hunt down and destroy terrorist strongholds on its territory. President Musharraf is a key ally but, whilst appreciating the delicateness of his situation and the disaster that would follow should be overthrown, more leverage must be used and he must not be allowed to endanger progress in Afghanistan. Terrorist groups are increasingly taking refuge in weakened, failing states less able to pursue them, requiring US engagement with their governments, including Uzbekistan, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and the Philippines, for example. Beyond these specific areas, the international community must be re-invigorated to maintain a hard-line stance and stay vigilant, especially in the vital effort to stop terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
  • Economic and technical assistance programs must continue and be strengthened, especially in the most vulnerable areas including Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a focus on alleviating the most abject poverty and promoting viable educational alternatives to the madrassah culture.
  • Wherever the chance emerges, political liberalization must be supported in the Islamic world. As an initial step, this is far more important and significant than superficial democratic concession or token human rights legislation. Political liberalization indicates a changing mindset, from which these other desirable products result. The consequences of overt support for regimes perceived as tyrannical in their region must always be borne in mind when such decisions are being made.
  • The United States must continue to play an active role in seeking to bring about a sustainable solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. The moral discomfort of working with Hamas presents a definite imposition and makes the chance of settlement remote for the present time, but is nonetheless a worthwhile aim given the significant benefits it promises.
  • Moderate Islamic leaders and preachers should be supported in a subtle or even covert manner to avoid their being discredited by association with the United States. Countering the hateful ideology of bin Laden and supporting traditional Islam is critical.
  • Image and identity is important for the United States, both for its self-perception and that abroad. There must be a real commitment to the values professed: the White House should not shirk from responding harshly to incidents such as that at Abu Ghraib, for example, and the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay must either be tried or released. Homeland security is important, but it must not be allowed to compromise basic civil liberties for the long-term cost is too great.