Exactly 20 years ago, on this day, the US had formally waged its War on Terror. The US President George W. Bush, in his address to the Joint Session of Congress on September 20, 2001, grandly declared amid applause, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
Two decades have passed, the US has fought major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its fighter jets and drones hovering over the skies of seven countries, and it is engaged in counterterrorism operations in at least 85 countries.
But the number of terror groups has not only increased worldwide, as the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies counts, the number of militants fighting for these outfits has also increased nearly three times in these years.
Indeed, the US has not witnessed a major terror attack by an extremist terror group after the 11 September attack. In the last two decades, less than 100 people have died in the US due to religion-motivated terror acts. Some give its credit to the Bush-initiated War on Terror.
However, the US has been relatively successful in protecting itself not because of its wars or drone strikes but improved homeland security.
Even if they have been prevented from undertaking large-scale terror acts in the US, these terror outfits have regularly targeted the American interests and allies by carrying out deadly attacks from London to Nice, Paris to Istanbul, and Brussels to Bali.
The War on Terror had defeated the Taliban in 2001 and had even killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. That has not, however, anyway ended the trans-national terrorism as Bush had committed the US to that unachievable objective. Religious militancy has become more global, more disparate, and more singular.
To drive the Taliban out of Kabul was the first mission of the War on Terror. However, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan last month with an overwhelming victory. Daesh might have lost its territory in Iraq and Syria, but its subgroups are gaining strength elsewhere.
Religious terrorism has already gripped the Sahel, Maghreb, and even Mozambique and Congo. The geographical spread of these terror groups has expanded in the last two decades from a handful of countries in Central Asia and the Middle East to several countries in Asia and Africa. Many of them have been further energised by the development in Afghanistan.
While the twenty years of War on Terror have failed miserably to achieve its stated objectives, its cost has become very high.
As the Costs of War project at Brown University calculates, the total cost for the US for its global War on Terror stands at a staggering amount of $8 trillion. At least 801,000 people have been killed in this war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, including 7,000 American soldiers.
Nearly 38 million people have been forced to leave their homes. Many of them have crossed the borders and become refugees.
Creating further anger worldwide
The increasing reliance on drones since the Obama administration to target terror has killed thousands of innocent civilians, and in the process alienating many friendly governments in the Middle East and Africa and creating further anger worldwide.
The public image of the US in Muslim countries has been seriously eroded in the last two decades. As the Pew Global Attitudes Surveys regularly find, the US is less popular in the Middle East than any other part of the world.
The dark side of the War on Terror doesn’t confine only to huge human and economic losses and the drowning of America’s public image.
The War on Terror has created a climate of prejudice and resulted in growing Islamophobia worldwide. This development has not only facilitated right-wing populists to capture power in many countries, but it has also been a significant contributor to the global decline of democracy for the last 16 years.
Far-right terrorism has grown exponentially in recent years and has created havoc from Norway to New Zealand. In the US, far-right terror has killed more people than the terrorists motivated in the name of religion.
The US military is even seriously concerned over the increasing infiltration of far-right white supremacists to its own ranks. Undoubtedly, the US’s War on Terror has not only clearly failed but has also become counterproductive, making the country weaker and more insecure.
The US needs to lead the global fight against terrorism, but that fight needs a new vision, a comprehensive plan. If anything, the last 20 years of experience have shown that the US military, how powerful it might be, cannot win the War against Terror.
It is time for the US to reflect and contemplate and join hands with the rest of the world, to plan a new inclusive global strategy.