When President Biden told an exhausted nation on Aug. 31 that the last C-17 cargo plane had left Taliban-controlled Kabul, effectively ending two decades of American military misadventure in Afghanistan, he justified the frantic, bloodstained exit with a simple statement: “I was not going to extend this forever war.”
Nonetheless, the war continues.
While Mr. Biden was pulling the curtain back on Afghanistan, the CIA was quietly expanding a secret base deep in the Sahara from which it runs drone flights to monitor Al Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Libya, as well as extremists in Niger, Chad, and Mali. Drone strikes against the Shabab, a Qaeda-linked group in Somalia, have been resumed by the military’s Africa Command. The Pentagon is considering sending dozens of Special Forces trainers back into Somalia to assist local troops in fighting the militants.
Even in Kabul, a ferocious drone strike on men suspected of being Islamic State plotters targeting the airport foreshadowed a future of military operations. The attack, described by the Pentagon as a “righteous strike” to prevent another deadly suicide bombing, demonstrated America’s “over-the-horizon” capabilities, to use a phrase popularised by Mr. Biden. Family members denied that the men targeted were militants, claiming that the strike killed ten people, seven of whom were children.
Twenty years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the so-called war on terror shows no signs of abating. It waxes and wanes, largely in the shadows and out of the headlines — less an epochal clash than a low-grade condition that flares up every now and then, as when Islamic State militants ambushed American and local soldiers outside a village in Niger in 2017, killing four Americans.
Taking stock of the war is difficult because it is inextricably linked to the twin disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq. In those countries, the US went beyond counterterrorism tactics for a more ambitious, ill-fated project to remake fractured tribal societies into American-style democracies.
Those failures are etched in the heinous images of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib or desperate Afghans falling from the belly of an American plane. They are reflected in the deaths of over 7,000 American service members, hundreds of thousands of civilians, and trillions of dollars squandered by the United States.
The counterterrorism war, much of which is conducted covertly, defies such measures. It is becoming increasingly common for partners to be involved. Large portions of it occur in remote locations such as the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. The majority of American casualties are minor. And success is measured not by capturing a capital or destroying an enemy’s army, but by breaking up groups before they can attack the American homeland or overseas assets such as embassies and military bases.
According to counterterrorism experts, the war on terror has been a resounding success.
“If you told me on September 12th that we would have only 100 people killed by jihadi terrorism and one foreign terrorist attack in the United States in the next 20 years, I would have laughed you out of the room,” said Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator during the Obama administration.
“The fact that it had to be accompanied by two wars makes it difficult for people to disaggregate how successful counterterrorism policies have been,” Mr. Benjamin, now president of the American Academy in Berlin, explained.
There are other explanations for the lack of a major foreign attack: tighter border security and the pervasiveness of the internet, which have made it easier to track and disrupt jihadi movements; or the Arab Spring upheavals, which have shifted extremists’ focus to their own societies.
It is also incorrect to claim that the West has been immune to the scourge of terrorism. The 2004 Madrid train bombing, the 2005 London bus and subway bombings, and the 2015 Paris nightclub and stadium attacks all bore the hallmarks of a well-planned attack like the one that destroyed Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon.
“The war on terror can only be described as relatively successful within the Western world, more so within the United States than in Western Europe as a whole,” said Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Violent Radicalization and Global Terrorism at Madrid’s Elcano Royal Institute.
Nonetheless, in comparison to the catastrophic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “other” war on terror has so far achieved its fundamental goal of protecting the United States from another 9/11-style attack.
The question is, how much will it cost?
War’s excesses and abuses, from torture to drone killing, have cost the United States moral authority around the world. Its occupying armies spawned a new generation of Al Qaeda franchises, while the Islamic State swarmed into the void left by departing American troops in Iraq. And the financial toll of a sprawling counterterrorism campaign has been enormous, fueling military budgets even years after major combat in Afghanistan and Iraq has ended.
Will the United States be able to sustain this massive expenditure in an era when Mr. Biden is attempting to rebalance American foreign policy to address new challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and the great-power rivalry with China?
A New Kind of Warfare
Few presidents have described this new type of warfare more succinctly than Barack Obama, who spoke to cadet graduates at the United States Military Academy in 2014. The graduates, he said, would no longer be called to fight in forgotten wars, but they would have to deal with a web of terrorist threats stretching from the Middle East to Africa.
“We must devise a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that broadens our reach without stretching our military too thin or inflaming local resentments,” Mr. Obama declared to a subdued audience on a chilly morning. “We need partners to help us fight terrorists.”
The president named Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya as countries where the US was either training local troops, supplying weapons, or conducting drone strikes. He made no mention of Pakistan, where he oversaw an increase in C.I.A. drone strikes despite his displeasure with their lack of transparency.
Even this list of conflicts falls short of capturing the octopus-like scope of American operations, which grew even more under his successor, Donald J. Trump. According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the United States was involved in some form of counterterrorism activity in 85 countries between 2018 and 2020.
American forces fought in 12 countries, including Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, either directly or through proxies. The US has legal authority to conduct special operations in Cameroon, Libya, Niger, and Tunisia. It conducted air or drone attacks in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
In 41 countries, American troops have conducted counterterrorism training exercises. According to Stephanie Savell, co-director of the project at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the United States has trained the military, police, and border forces of nearly 80 countries.
While some activities slowed due to the pandemic, she stated that “Biden is doubling down on these far-flung operations.”
The disintegration of the American-trained Afghan Army in the face of the Taliban’s advance, as well as the wholesale withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Islamic State fighters, who briefly established a caliphate over much of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and organised terror networks in Europe, have cast a shadow on the concept of working with local partners.
However, there are other cases where the US, with more realistic ambitions and limited goals, has been able to form fruitful alliances with local militias. Syrian Kurdish fighters, aided by American troops, drove the Islamic State out of Syria, while Libyan militias, aided by American airstrikes, drove ISIS fighters out of Sirte, Libya.
“These were urban strongholds where militants were planning attacks against the United States,” said Kim Cragin, a senior research fellow in counterterrorism at the National Defense University. “And these were six-month missions, not 20-year missions.”
The war on terror has been one of the better examples of multilateralism in recent decades, with law enforcement cooperation, military training, and intelligence sharing. Unlike, say, economic competition with China, the United States and its allies have remained remarkably united on the imperative of combating terrorism since the week following the 9/11 attacks, when NATO invoked Article 5, the principle of collective self-defense, for the first and only time in its history.
“One of the most significant successes in the war on terror is the one we take for granted the most — close ties with our allies,” said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University. “We could always rely on being on the same page with them when it came to counterterrorism.”
Nobody knows how America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect those relationships. Professor Hoffman expressed concern that the Biden administration’s perceived lack of consultation with European allies, which has enraged political leaders, would permeate the ranks of intelligence.
Despite American efforts to portray the mission as humane and morally just, the long years of bloodshed disillusioned allies and hardened opponents. Some American operations, such as those in the West African country of Burkina Faso, not only failed to eliminate extremism, but may have even exacerbated it.
On the flip side of cooperation, the US has allied itself with unsavoury actors ranging from Saudi Arabia, with its heavy-handed intervention in Yemen, to Egypt, which has carried out a brutal crackdown on domestic opponents in the name of combating extremism.
Domestically, the political consensus that underpinned the war on terror is eroding, a victim of America’s extreme polarisation. Following the suicide attack at Kabul’s airport that killed 13 service members, some Republicans called for Mr. Biden to be impeached, something that would have been unthinkable for George W. Bush after 9/11.
Mr. Trump and former aides, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been harsh in their criticism of Mr. Biden, despite the fact that it was they who negotiated the deal with the Taliban that compelled the Afghan government to release 5,000 prisoners of war and set the clock for the American withdrawal in 2021.
“Counterterrorism has always been a bipartisan issue,” said Professor Hoffman. “However, both major parties are now deeply divided on the issue. Leaders are pandering to the constituency they believe is the most powerful.”
Biden’s Shifting Positions
Mr. Biden was present when the war on terror was declared. He became the highest-ranking American politician to visit the battlefield in January 2002, just weeks after the US ousted the Taliban. Following a tour of a bombed-out Kabul, he stated that the US should join a multinational military force to restore order.
“I’m talking about a multilateral force with orders to shoot to kill,” said Mr. Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time. “In the absence of that, I don’t see any hope for this country.”
Mr. Biden became disillusioned with the corruption of its pro-Western leaders over the years, and he doubted that the United States could ever unite its warring tribes. He rose to become the administration’s most vocal opponent of the use of military force, opposing the troop surge in Afghanistan, NATO’s intervention in Libya, and even advising against the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Now that he has kept his promise to leave Afghanistan, it is up to Mr. Biden to explain the next chapter of the war on terror to a country that is sick of hearing about it. Americans are far more concerned about the coronavirus or the wildfires and flash floods caused by climate change.
“My main concern is that the FDA has not approved vaccines for children under the age of 12,” said Professor Cragin, referring to the United States Food and Drug Administration. “It’s a good thing that my mother’s main concern when she goes to the movies isn’t a terrorist attack.”
Mr. Biden has indicated an interest in modernising one of the post-9/11 relics: the 2001 law authorising the president to wage war on those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. It has been twisted beyond recognition in order to justify military action against a slew of new foes. Mr. Biden has also placed restrictions on drone strikes and commando operations, pending an investigation.
The president’s matter-of-fact tone is reminiscent of his former boss, Mr. Obama. He discusses the Shabab in Somalia, Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Yemen, and Islamic State offshoots in Africa and Asia. He claimed that America’s “over-the-horizon” capabilities would allow it to “strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if necessary.”
This stands in stark contrast to Mr. Bush, who coined the phrase “global war on terror.” In the frenzied aftermath of 9/11, he cast the conflict in Manichaean terms, framing it not as a law enforcement or counterterrorism challenge, but as a twilight struggle between good and evil.
“Why do they despise us?” Mr. Bush requested that a joint session of Congress be convened. “They despise what they see in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are elected by themselves. They despise our liberties: our freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, as well as our right to vote and assemble.”
As the war on terror enters its third decade — dubbed the post-9/11 era by some — American presidents are no longer framing the conflict in existential terms. According to Mr. Biden, the defining contest of 2021 will be between open societies and autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.
The question is whether a divided, distracted America will have the resources or patience to pursue an effective counterterrorism policy. The White House has yet to appoint a counterterrorism coordinator in the State Department, a critical position for an administration committed to nonmilitary solutions.
If the war on terror helped prevent another deadly foreign attack on American soil, it completely failed to prevent terrorist groups from spreading. With the Taliban’s victory, these new fighters have new motivation to focus their efforts on a familiar foe.
“Everyone always says, ‘We can’t have another 9/11 because our security is so much better,’” Professor Hoffman explained. “Terrorists, on the other hand, are the ultimate opportunists. They are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities.”