Who Won the War on Terror?
PAOLO PELLEGRIN / MAGNUM PHOTOS
Since 9/11, the war on terror has been central to U.S. policy.
This battle will take time and resolve, President George W. Bush declared on September 12, 2001. But make no mistake about it: we will win. For much of the next two decades, pursuing victory in the war on terror would serve as the central fixation of American foreign policy. Yet even as the United States invaded two countries and launched drone strikes in others, as governments around the world erected vast security structures and attackers plotted with mixed success to evade them, as jihadi groups rose and fell and rose again, a basic question was never answered: What would it mean to win?
Drawing on thousands of al Qaeda documents seized in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Nelly Lahoud reveals that the other side struggled with the same question. The 9/11 attacks were meant, in bin Ladens words, to destroy the myth of American invincibility. Ultimately, Lahoud writes, bin Laden did change the worldjust not in the ways that he wanted.
One factor he failed to anticipate was the overwhelming U.S. response. By any measure, writes Ben Rhodes, the war on terror was the biggest project of the period of American hegemony that began when the Cold War endeda period that has now reached its dusk. The vast scale and consequences of that project, Rhodes argues, continue to shape U.S. foreign policy, as Washington imposes the same us-versus-them construct on new threats.
American counterterrorism, meanwhile, has settled into what Daniel Byman calls a good enough doctrine, meant to manage, rather than eliminate, the terrorist threatwith a degree of effectiveness that few imagined possible in the aftermath of 9/11. Other outcomes would have seemed equally surprising. Thomas Hegghammer traces how the fight against jihadi terrorism fueled the steadily growing coercive power of the technocratic state. Cynthia Miller-Idriss traces how it fueled a different strain of extremist violence: 2020 saw a record number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks in the United States, and two-thirds of those were attributable to white supremacists and other far-right extremists.
If the goal of the global war on terror was to prevent significant acts of terrorism, particularly in the United States, then the war has succeeded, Elliot Ackerman concludes from his survey of the expansive use of U.S. military power in that war. But at what cost? In the last few years, terrorism may have vanished from the top tier of American national security concerns almost as quickly as it appeared. Yet the costs continue to accrueleaving the question of what winning means as unsettled now as it was on September 12, 2001.