Extending the War on Terror

by Benjamin Studebaker

Back in 2011 when Osama bin Laden was killed, I was excited. This isn’t to say that I thought bin Laden’s execution and subsequent dumping into the sea were optimal–I would have preferred to see him captured and put on trial. No, my excitement stemmed from my belief that once bin Laden was captured the Obama administration would have an excuse to bring the war on terror to an end. See, in 2011 I still had some last vestiges of confidence in the judgement of Barack Obama, vestiges that, sadly, have since proven themselves grievously misplaced. What’s the trouble now? The Pentagon has given a straight answer to the question of how long it expects the war on terror to last. What answer did it give? Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary for special operations at the defence department, said:

I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years

Oh my.

I thought this president fundamentally understood the problem that is the war on terror. There are several glaring issues with it as a policy:

  1. The enemy is a tactic, not an individual or group (and it’s certainly not against a state, the traditional target of a war), and so it has no definable end point.
  2. The war on terror is exceedingly inefficient in terms of dollars per terrorist killed or US citizen saved.
  3. The war on terror is itself radicalising; it produces terrorists and encourages terrorism.

All the people principally responsible for the September 11th attacks have at this point been killed or captured. Many of the terrorists now being hunted were not members of terrorist organisations in 2001, but have joined since then as a result of the negative view of the United States the war on terror propagated. The United States is seen as cynical and hypocritical, promising democracy while funding reviled  and  corrupt dictatorships, claiming to love peace while droning villages, and its long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been deeply radicalising in those countries.

Al Qaeda at its peak only possessed several thousand operatives. The cost of eliminating those operatives (they’re down in the hundreds now)? The estimates are quite large:

  • 6,600 dead US soldiers–more than the number of Al Qaeda operatives remaining in the field.
  • 750,000 approved US disability claims–shrinking the labour force creates drag on the future US domestic economy.
  • 200,000 dead foreign citizens, the friends and family of which are prone to radicalisation and hatred of the US.
  • 7.4 million displaced foreign citizens, many of whom likely resent or hate the US.
  • $4 trillion in cost, excluding interest payments, around the size of five Obama stimulus packages.

Worse still is that prolonged military spending becomes self-perpetuating. With 12 years of inflated military spending, an expanding piece of the economy finds itself dependent on state spending for continued existence. War can make an effective short-term stimulus, but as a long term policy it siphons production away from the growth of the domestic economy. A war that does not bring wealth, territory, additional population, or other resources to a state is a war that only serves to divert a portion of a state’s economy to the making of waste weapons and the providing of waste services to soldiers and personnel who should be engaged in productive labour. The United States has gained no material wealth in the war on terror–the Iraq War only served to increase oil costs during the mid-2000’s. The war is essentially an extended bleeding of US military strength and future economic potential. What is truly unforgiveable, is that insofar as the war (in combination with the Bush tax cuts) ran up deficits during the boom of the mid-2000’s, it has made it more difficult to spend and stimulate in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, leaving the door open to claims that the United States faces too large a debt burden and must follow a policy of austerity or we’ll end up like Greece (this isn’t true, but the wars make the narrative possible).

The narrative in the 2000’s developed by the Bush administration–that terrorism was an existential threat on the scale of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union–could have been extinguished in the aftermath of bin Laden’s execution. In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, the US has shown growth in its ability to respond to terrorist attacks, better emulating the stiff upper lip attitude the British showed against the IRA in the 20th century. We could have scaled this down and turned it into a law enforcement/espionage operation. We’d still have lost an awful lot of money, men, and popularity, but at least we would have drawn a line under it. The global community was open to changing its mind about the United States–Obama started his first term with reasonably strong global approval.

This opportunity has now been squandered, but we really ought to have seen this coming. This is a president who believed the war in Afghanistan was the “good war” to Iraq’s “bad war”. He never properly understood that the whole thing is a diversion. Al Qaeda is incapable of beating us with terrorist attacks, it is only capable of beating us the way we beat the Soviet Union in the 80’s–by intimidating us into squandering an increasing percentage of our output on what amounts to a very expensive tanking of our public relations with unusually high lethality. The Soviets were even in the same country during the 80’s–Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s goal is not to successfully commit acts of terror against the United States, it is to get the United States to waste its strength attempting to prevent such attacks, and in that respect, Al Qaeda has been winning the war on terror from the outset. As long as the war on terror persists, it is won by America’s enemies, because as long as it persists, America grows less popular and comparatively militarily and economically weaker.

The greatest danger to American security and prosperity is not Al Qaeda, it is the American government and the American voters themselves. In their paranoia, they are running the most impressive civilisation in human history into the ground, and plan to do so for “at least 10 to 20 years” more. The United States has already sustained one lost decade, how many more can it manage?