Historians may look back at 2011 as the year that the war on terror finally ended. Counterterrorism was not removed from America’s security policy tool box but it no longer serves as a strategic priority and no longer guides how the US structures its relations with nations around the world or thinks and plans for conflict.
Don’t hold your breath for a pronouncement of “mission accomplished” in the war on terror. Contrary to popular imagination, few real strategic policy shifts are announced by the President in the Rose Garden. Instead, subtle shifts in policy and priorities quietly accumulate over time to set America on a different course. These quiet shifts gathered steam quite rapidly during 2011 and point to an end to the war on terror.
The war on terror is largely over for four different reasons: the killing of Osama bin Laden, the apparent inefficacy of counterinsurgency, the stunning costs of the war on terror, and the Arab Spring. While it may never be stated in plain English by anyone in Washington, these factors have largely persuaded the Washington policy community that it is time to end the war on terror and to find a new priority list for America’s foreign policy.
The killing of bin Laden, and the audacious way it was done by US special operations forces, proved cathartic for the American people. Like it or not, Americans take their wars personally. Americans prefer to think not that they are going to war with Germany, Japan, Iraq, or Serbia, but with Hitler, Tojo, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic. So it is with Al-Qaeda as well. While some in Europe and elsewhere may think that the spontaneous celebrations that erupted outside the White House and elsewhere in America on the news of bin Laden’s killing was a bit bloodthirsty, it was a quintessentially American reaction. The dragon had been slain. Some counterterrorism experts may argue that the killing of bin Laden was a symbolic victory only, but for most Americans the war is now largely over. Indeed, shortly after the Abbotabad raid the CIA director himself mused publicly that Al-Qaeda is close to strategic defeat. The removal of bin Laden will make it much more difficult to politically sustain counterterrorism as a strategic priority for the US. Put simply, counterterrorism will not get you as many votes on the campaign trail as it once did.
At the same time, Washington has quietly come to understand that counterinsurgency never achieved what it promised to do in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere as part of the war on terror. True, the counterinsurgency campaign saved Iraq from the abyss it was heading into after the invasion of 2003, but it fell well short of the visions established for both Iraq and Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency has proven grinding and frustrating with only limited gains to show for years of fighting. Instead, the US government has largely turned to a kill/capture construct, where the hearts and minds of Iraqis, Afghans, and others are far less important than the removal of the leadership of the insurgencies. This approach may not make the US many friends, but it does seem to be more effective (and cheaper) in disrupting terror plots and destroying terror networks. After all, this is arguably how most insurgencies and uprisings have been put down by states throughout history – the king simply beheads the peasant(s) leading the rebellion.
Closely associated with the inefficacy of counterinsurgency is the fact that the war on terror has proven unaffordable for the US. The output so far does not seem to justify the input of not only blood and treasure, but also the time and effort that the war on terror as a strategic priority has taken up in Washington. Policy makers are realizing that the world has changed dramatically since 9/11, and it is time to start paying attention to it.
Indeed, the inefficacy of counterinsurgency and the staggering costs of the war on terror seem to have been incorporated in the Obama administration’s defense strategy unveiled on January 3. In it, the administration prioritizes drones, cyber capabilities, and special forces, while at the same time signaling that US ground forces will shrink, and that the US defense establishment will pay more attention to Asia. It is hard to come up with a stronger set of recommendations for an America that clearly believes that the war on terror is over and that the country needs to pay more attention to other challenges.
Finally, the Arab Spring that ignited across the larger Middle East in 2011 proved that few Muslims are excited about the vision of the future as promulgated by al-Qaeda and its leadership. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the uprisings is that while they may not be especially pro-American, they are certainly not Anti-American either. Furthermore, the Arab Spring seems to have caught al-Qaeda and its ilk by surprise as much as it did the west. The trajectory of the uprisings leaves al-Qaeda politically and socially irrelevant in their supposed main region of support. It leaves one thinking that the west misjudged 9/11 all along. Instead of being the opening shot in a generational struggle between al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers and the west, 9/11 may have been the last, but spectacular, grotesque hurrah by an increasingly marginalized group of extremists, who really saw their heyday in the late 1970s, with the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, the sacking of the US embassy in Pakistan, the occupation of the Mosque in Mecca, and the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.
To be sure, US counterterrorism efforts will not end. US special forces are likely to continue to pay visits to nefarious characters living in the ungoverned spaces of the globe; Predator and Reaper drones will keep flying (and occasionally shoot at bad guys); and the FBI will seek to disrupt both home and foreign-grown terror plots against the US and its interests. However, these activities will no longer be seen as strategic, but relegated to the long list of efforts that the US carries out every day without anyone really noticing or paying attention. In fact, it is quite possible that America will experience another terrorist attack, but the US reaction will be much more measured, unless the attack rivals the one on 9/11 (a remote possibility considering how al-Qaeda has been disrupted by the US intelligence community and special forces). Moving forward, counterterrorism will, at the strategic level, be no different than the US training and exercising with allies, conducting freedom of navigation exercises, showing force, and carrying out non-combatant evacuations, along with a plethora of other activities that the US government carries out every day, around the clock, all over the world to deter aggression and reassure friends and partners.
The end of the war on terror is not a bad thing. It will allow America to take a hard look at its strategic priorities and the larger global security environment, a task that is further complicated by the current age of fiscal austerity. There are plenty of issues for the US to tackle in the coming decade and beyond, ranging from cyber conflict and emerging powers in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, to a nuclear Iran and the fallout from a collapsing and nuclear armed North Korea. And let’s not forget about revitalizing the US economy and making America competitive in the 21st century. With bin Laden dead, al-Qaeda close to strategic defeat, the failure of counterinsurgency and its forbidding costs apparent, and the political marginalization of jihadist movements by the Arab Spring, now is the time for the US to consider those futures. America can’t afford to be distracted by counterterrorism as a strategic priority any longer.
Magnus Nordenman is a deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.