The War on Terror, or described differently, the global struggle to curb violent extremism, can be boiled down to optics and rhetoric. While military operations play a small role, the larger conflict encompasses so much more. The United States has struggled both on and off the battlefield to win this conflict but victory can be, and in this case, is subjective.
The United States deposed the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, that provided al-Qaeda safe-haven. The uprooting of these sanctuaries put both organizations on the run, which disrupted their long-term planning against the U.S. homeland.
Drone strikes and raids have allowed the U.S. to take out several key leaders of these terrorist entities, dealing a blow to operational planning. Documents and correspondence between Osama bin Laden and his associates unveiled in the trial of an al-Qaeda member in February that the robust aerial drone campaign expanded by the Obama administration had a profound impact in limiting the movements of terrorist groups hiding out in Pakistan. The ability of drones to loiter 24/7 combined with Special Operations Forces raids allowed the United States to gain intrusive access to and vital intelligence about the inner workings of terrorist organizations.
There has not been a successful attack on the homeland since 9/11, due in part to changes made to the intelligence community after 9/11 and counterterrorism operations. Additionally, the U.S. has made great strides in monitoring would-be domestic terror suspects and prosecuted them with the full extent of the law.
While the U.S. was successful in degrading terrorist entities, it was unsuccessful in destroying them. Consider the Islamic State group’s predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq (AQI/ISI). The group was severely weakened as a result of the Iraqi Tribal Awakening Movement when Iraqi tribes joined the U.S. surge to dispel the violent insurgents. AQI/ISI was, however, never officially destroyed and its survivors were able to regroup and rebuild.
Despite the demise of several key leaders of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated groups, the strategy of leadership decapitation has not worked in dismantling these organizations. The Obama administration has made the mistake of thinking that “if you sort of lop off the top of the pyramid, the whole thing crumbles,” Tom Joscelyn, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told lawmakers regarding the idea of destroying these terrorist groups by taking out their leadership. Al-Qaeda is not organized that way Joscelyn stated. However, it is also entirely possible that the U.S. is simply just trying to eliminate as many terrorists as possible in a sort-of whack-a-mole campaign, which would be equally ineffective, though the president has maintained he does not wish this as counterterrorism strategy.
The drone campaign has been highly criticized by human rights groups for its collateral civilian damage. This collateral damage is also being touted as a recruiting device, which incites more people to join terrorist groups so they can retaliate against the United States. By some estimates, in confirmed strikes that have taken place in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the number of civilians killed ranges from 237-308. A recent figure released by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, considered one of the premier sources for on-the-ground reporting in Syria’s volatile civil war, 66 civilians have been killed in coalition air strikes. Though, collateral damage is expected in wars, the nature of drone strikes (e.g. zero risk to soldiers as well as controversial signature strikes that target a specific area based on behavioral patterns without knowing exactly who the targets are) obfuscates this reality.
Civilians in nations where U.S. drones prominently operate have long feared succumbing to death. This reality hit home for Americans as the U.S. officially acknowledged yesterday that an American hostage and an Italian aid worker were killed in a strike that targeted a suspected militant compound. The government asserts that it was not aware the American was being held at that location.
Similarly, U.S. raids by Special Operations Forces have also rendered tragic results. A U.S. raid in Yemen to rescue a U.S. hostage failed when the militants were alerted to the presence of U.S. soldiers and killed the American and a South African being held by the group, whom the U.S. did not know was present.
Many of these failures boil down to intelligence and a willingness to pull the trigger. They contribute to a broader narrative of negative optics. The al-Qaeda “vanguard” movement was started by Osama bin Laden partially due to an undesired American presence in Muslim lands. Several groups have continued this narrative calling for lone wolf actors to incite violence inside western nations. The fact that the U.S. continues operations in these nations despite widespread reporting of collateral damage, that could preventable, only feeds this narrative.
The U.S. has had great success in fighting terrorism over the last 14 years, especially in the military context. While the Islamic State group is marginally losing ground on the battlefield, governments are still struggling to figure out how to curb radical messaging and recruitment online. The U.S. battlefield successes to oust the Taliban could be for naught if, as suspected, the Afghan forces will not be able to stand up on their own against a formidable Taliban insurgency that is certain to continue to fight to reestablish their Islamic Emirate. With the online propaganda success of the Islamic State group, there has been a greater need for the non-military counterterror metrics. Many have questioned if U.S. counterterror policies (military and non-military such as controversial sting operations in American communities thought to drive non-violent individuals to commit crimes) are creating more terrorists than killing them. Despite the great successes, however, it is not overtly clear that the U.S. is winning the War on Terror.