15 Years After 9/11, The War on Terror Has Failed
September 5, 2016
John Arquilla / Insight, San Francisco Chronicle
As the 15th anniversary of al Qaeda's attacks on America nears, one simple but very inconvenient truth must be acknowledged: The "global war on terror" launched by President George W. Bush has failed. The vast increase in the number of terrorist attacks worldwide provides irrefutable evidence of this failure. Since the US began its "war on terror," there has been a sevenfold increase in incidents and a more than fivefold rise in combined deaths and injuries.
The War on Terror Is Now Terror's War on the World
John Arquilla / Insight, San Francisco Chronicle
(September 2, 2016) -- As the 15th anniversary of al Qaeda's attacks on America nears, one simple but very inconvenient truth must be acknowledged: The "global war on terror" launched by President George W. Bush has failed.
The vast increase in the number of terrorist attacks worldwide provides irrefutable evidence of this failure. From one of the most rigorously compiled databases, maintained by scholars at the University of Maryland, shocking numbers emerge.
In 2001, there were just under 2,000 terrorist attacks that resulted in about 14,000 deaths and injuries. By 2015, that number had risen to nearly 15,000 attacks with more than 80,000 casualties -- a sevenfold increase in incidents and a more than fivefold rise in combined deaths and injuries. Clearly, the global war on terror has turned into terror's war on the world.
Sadly, more than 30 percent of the overall deaths in 2015 and 40 percent of the injuries occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the two places where the United States has mounted its most sustained military efforts.
And it is important to note that the terrorism database statistics do not count deaths and injuries from battle and aerial bombing, which would take the numbers in these troubled lands far higher -- in Iraq to well more than 100,000. This goes for Syria also, where estimates now put the death toll in the civil war there above 300,000.
How did this catastrophe come to pass? After all, the heinous acts of al Qaeda on 9/11 sparked global outrage and an international coming-together to fight against terrorism. In part, the upsurge in terrorism is due to the flowering of networked organizations -- with al Qaeda's flat, dispersed nature representing not an exception but rather a great model.
Twenty-five years ago, al Qaeda was one of just three nascent jihadist networks. Today there are nearly 50. Many are loosely affiliated with al Qaeda or Islamic State. They range from North Africa to Nigeria, and on to Somalia, Yemen, Bangladesh and beyond, forming a kind of "network of networks." This organizational form is highly resilient, and so it is no surprise that terrorist networks are on the rise and doing more and more damage.
The persistence and growth of terrorist networks -- and their ability to do harm -- is aided by two great blunders. The first is that the nations of the world have been far too reluctant to craft nimble networks of their own to track down, disrupt and destroy the terrorist networks.
Fifteen years after 9/11, there is still far too little of the broad information-sharing and rapid action-taking that characterize true networks. Instead of focusing on and acting like networks, nations have committed their second blunder: trying to deal with terrorist networks by forcing regime change in other nations.
This has led to highly problematic military interventions -- most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq -- that have been undertaken at ruinous, fruitless cost in the name of "nation building." Needless to say, the United States is the principal driver behind these events, and thus bears much responsibility for the failures of the past decade and a half.
If there is an upside to this analysis, it is that the United States can still play a major role in cleaning up this American-created mess. When it comes to network building, the blueprints have been in place for years, drawn up by then-Adm. William McRaven when he headed the US Special Operations Command. His "global counter-terror network" awaits leadership bold enough to pursue it.
As to the matter of nation building, the solution here is even simpler: "Just say no." Foreign military intervention has always been a fraught, costly, risky business. It should be undertaken rarely, carefully and only with clear and convincing justification.
Further, it should also be possible to take military action against terrorist networks without having to pursue the grander aim of changing the very character of particular nations.
So the twofold solution is simple: Say yes to networking and no to nation building. And now, in this autumn of American political discontent, the challenge -- for media and the electorate -- is to wrench free from fixating on Donald Trump's temperament and Hillary Clinton's trustworthiness.
The public discourse needs to be informed by the candidates' fully articulated views on how to deal with the persistence and growth of terrorism -- which must be reversed before these dark networks acquire weapons of mass destruction. The candidates' attitudes toward military intervention must also be carefully parsed.
To date, none of the presidential candidates -- including the Libertarian and Green parties' candidates -- has developed the notion of networking as a way to make the world less permissive of terrorism. At least not beyond the point of paying homage to "working with allies."
But when it comes to military intervention, only Clinton stands out as a leader still willing to talk about increasing the level of engagement in Syria. Thus there is plenty of room to require the candidates to think about networking against terrorism, and to debate their differences about when and how force should be used.
Which would be far, far better than continuing to flog Clinton's "damn emails" or Trump's "university" -- and other, less pressing matters.
John Arquilla is professor and chair of defense analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. The views expressed are his alone.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.