20-year fight against terrorism proves a costly failure
Series Conflict and Fragility

20-year fight against terrorism proves a costly failure

06 Sep 2021 - 17:26
Photo: An American helicopter over the Afghan province of Khost in 2010. © Expert Infantry / Flickr
Back to archive

In the series ‘20 years after 9/11’ the Clingendael Spectator reflects on the end of the longest war in American history. In this initial contribution, terrorism expert Peter Knoope describes the costly failure of twenty years of war on terrorism and predicts the errors that will be made in the future.1   

The Global War on Terror (GWoT) began twenty years ago, almost immediately after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. An important part of that war has now come to a close. Unlike IS-K2 , that attacked the United States on their way out of Afghanistan as a morbid victorious farewell, the Americans have given up the fight.

President Joe Biden put it like this: “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal [and] expecting a different result."3  The American president also explicitly conceded that a military victory in Afghanistan was impossible. That is quite something.

Some analysts have tried to gauge the success of the war by referencing the original objective. After all, in the words of the man who launched the adventure, it was “to hunt them down and to smoke them out”.4  That threat was directed towards the perpetrators of the attacks, Al Qaeda.

The short answer to the question of whether the original objective was achieved was provided recently by Biden himself. He claims that terrorist groups are now operating in more parts of the world than they were twenty years ago. A continued concentration of the GWoT in Afghanistan is, therefore, ineffective according to the president of the United States.

American military personnel in Afghanistan in 2011. © DVIDSHUB / Flickr
American military personnel in Afghanistan in 2011. © DVIDSHUB / Flickr

Both observations – that a military victory over Al Qaeda is out of reach and that terrorist organisations are operating in more places in 2021 than in 2001 – should have far-reaching consequences. We should not make the same mistakes in the future. We should draw lessons from ‘Afghanistan’.

With counterterrorism having topped the agenda over the last twenty years there is a real need for success stories, so Afghanistan no longer seems an appropriate focal point of the GWoT.  

Strategies of the counterterrorist
The strategic choices open to the counterterrorist are limited. Broadly speaking, terrorism can be combatted along four main strategic lines: by hard means (using all available military resources), by soft means (using all the political and social instruments that were developed for the purpose), by blocking terrorists’ access to the necessary resources (money, weapons, targets) or by viewing terrorism as a ‘regular’ crime and thus having the police do the work as crime fighters.

Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Cameroon and Nigeria are on the list of countries where a militarised approach has failed

All of this has been tried over the past twenty years. Granted, by far most money went on the deployment of military resources. In the first ten years in particular the main strategy was to deploy the army against terrorists. That was done knowing that regular armies do not deliver adequate countervailing power when fighting groups that use guerrilla-like strategies.

The failures are well known. Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Cameroon and Nigeria are on the list of countries where a militarised approach has failed. Mozambique is a candidate for addition to the list.

It is significant that the military campaign did prove relatively successful when Islamic State (IS) terrorists threatened to form their own state, the caliphate. Armies are instruments of warfare between states. They are much less suitable for a guerrilla war, as has been demonstrated once again. After all, the recent attacks of IS, including the one at Kabul airport by IS-K, indicate that the terrorist organisation is far from defeated.

A step forward?
A decade ago, the American president Barack Obama coined the term ‘violent extremism’. Countering such extremism characterised his approach. Obama thus brought about a partial paradigm shift in counterterrorism.

The idea behind this new approach was to use soft means to identify the root causes of terrorism, and then to intervene with non-military means. At the same time, Obama continued the military fight against terrorism. His approach, nevertheless, appeared to be a major step forward.

US President Barack Obama visiting troops in Afghanistan in 2010. © Expert Infantry - Flickr
US President Barack Obama visiting troops in Afghanistan in 2010. © Expert Infantry - Flickr

Unfortunately, we now know that the concept of violent extremism has major drawbacks and is of very limited use. That is particularly true in combination with the unremitting militarisation of the means used to tackle political violence.

The disadvantages are innumerable but concern the lack of clarity of the concept itself, in particular. The term ‘extreme’ has never been precisely described, leaving it open to a range of interpretations. In principle, a regime can label every opponent in a political system an extremist. And that is what happens.

Moreover, extremism is a notion, an idea. It is not an act. Criminalising a particular philosophy has obvious drawbacks. Stigmatisation, curtailed freedoms and other human rights violations have been the result.

The approach to extremism has made the problem worse in many places

Of course, well-intentioned non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and donors have tried to ensure that Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) – as it is referred to in the jargon – is implemented carefully and respectfully. I have seen many such examples. Despite all the good intentions, however, these attempts are often very small-scale and mainly reach people who were already convinced of the need for peaceful coexistence.

The CVE approach is also no match for the violence that governments mete out and the mistrust of governments that use violence against their own citizens. The analysis that determines the CVE policy in a particular country also usually fails to mention human rights violations, abuse of power, corruption and other lapses by governments. After all, in many cases it is the government that defines the CVE plans. It is not in their interest to be self-critical.

In short, CVE has become an instrument that governments use to monitor their own citizens’ thoughts and to paper over underlying problems. The approach to extremism has, therefore, made the problem worse in many places. It narrows the scope for political opposition and limits opportunities for debate, so dissatisfaction can only find expression through violence.

Human rights versus counterterrorism
And that is in a field that was far from ‘clean’ at the outset. Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, targeted killing, secret terrorist detention centres in sixty different countries, people placed on terrorism watch lists without due process and with no possibility of appeal – these are all familiar violations of international law.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has now stopped denouncing these kinds of practices. The ICRC has fallen silent about them, or has been silenced by them.

American drone MQ-1C Sky Warrior. © Expert Infantry / Flickr
American drone MQ-1C Sky Warrior. © Expert Infantry / Flickr

For at least the first ten years, the United States adhered to the saying that almost everything is justified in the fight against evil. As a result, there have been numerous and, in some cases, extreme and large-scale violations of human rights in the fight against terrorism.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regularly sound the alarm bell. Human Rights Watch indicated recently that the past year’s fighting in Afghanistan resulted in a record number of civilian casualties. Indeed, voices asserting that counterterrorism is incompatible with respect for human rights are growing ever louder.

It is not only that criticism is being silenced. Human rights violations by a growing number of governments are being defended with the argument that they cannot counter terrorism if they have to respect the rights of extremists. This is the sad and grim reality behind those twenty years of war on terror.

Financial blockade
Furthermore, over the past twenty years a lot has been invested to block the financial flow to extremists. That has resulted in financial institutions introducing a plethora of security measures. Banks, for example, now have to check whether their customers have any extremist connections and take action if any relationships could be suspicious. Please note here: could be (in jargon: Know Your Client (KYC)).

But how do you do that in Mozambique or Kenya? The fact that KYC is usually very hard to implement in those countries has jeopardised access to financial services in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example (debanking).

Calls for terrorists to be ‘eradicated’ have grown louder in many places

The GWoT thus has unintended but far-reaching consequences for the political and economic freedom of movement for many people and organisations globally. It has led to grassroots organisations being closely monitored in many parts of the world and their work being made practically impossible by the administrative measures in the financial sector. There are already indications that humanitarian assistance can hardly reach the Afghan population at present because of the existing financial sanctions regimes.  

That is the very financial sector that is obliged by the international community to take such measures. So it cuts both ways. The banks make the work of civil society almost impossible. That is the same civil society that can be a thorn in the side of the government and may be too difficult or too extremist for the government’s liking.

The police as crime fighters
And then there is the police. Until a few years ago, the European Union put the police forward as the main player on the terrorism front.
5  There is a strong case for doing so.

It led to many arrests worldwide. According to estimates around 100,000 individuals are in prison on suspicion of involvement in terrorism or extremism.

Not all prisoners have been convicted. On the contrary: evidence submissions, defence and witness hearings are not always straightforward matters. They require a tightly organised and well-functioning legal system. That exists in some cases, but by no means always, especially outside the EU. The rights of the suspects and victims are often compromised.

The reintegration of former terrorists and terrorist prisoners is also more than a challenge. In most countries, villages or districts are unwilling to offer shelter to former extremists. Calls for terrorists to be ‘eradicated’ have also grown louder in many places.

Who calls the shots?
But, the reader may be thinking, the fight against terrorism may change now that the US and its allies have withdrawn from Afghanistan. This almost explicit recognition of the failure of military counterterrorism and the loss suffered by a major power against a group of insurgents may lead to reflection and reassessment.

A review and detailed evaluation of the way billions of dollars were spent is an obvious step. But there is nothing to indicate that it will happen. And that is down to the fundamental change that has occurred in the international arena in recent years.

American military personnel on a training run in 2010. © Expert Infantry / Flickr
American military personnel on a training run in 2010. © Expert Infantry / Flickr

The Americans held sway over the international stage on 11 September 2001. They called the shots. But they no longer do. China and Russia, each in their own way, have claimed a place on the world stage. A place they are no longer going to relinquish.

These new players see the combination of human rights and counterterrorism in a particular light. They see them as difficult to reconcile. Casting all political opponents as extremists is a useful way of deflecting unwelcome criticism.

In a sense, they are taking over the original position of the United States. In the fight against evil everything is permitted. China and Russia strongly agreed back then and still do now. Only the definition of ‘evil’ is being adapted to the political reality in those countries.

It will no longer be possible to ask whether extremists have grounds to oppose oppression and a violent or corrupt government

As the role of these new powers grows on the international stage, the fight against extremism and terrorism will become harder and more ruthless, the root causes will receive less attention and respect for the rights of alleged perpetrators, suspects, prisoners and actual culprits will diminish. The call for terrorists to simply be ‘eliminated’ will grow ever louder.

It will no longer be possible to ask whether extremists have grounds to oppose repression and a violent or corrupt government. That is, unfortunately, the real result of twenty years of war on terrorism. It is the bitter conclusion that must be drawn after an approach has failed.

An approach that seemed to be inspired by the motto ‘better any action than the best action’. When the country is attacked, the leader must be courageous and ready to act. The approach was indeed courageous, but with a tragic outcome. It opened the door to costly and tragic failure. And clearly not to learning from past errors but to more errors being made in the future.

On the contrary, China and Russia stand ready to invade the space that the US has left behind. They gladly take over and feel encouraged to approach political violence according to their own standards. The failure of the United States has emboldened a new set of local and international players. Players that are not taking human rights standards as a point of reference. Those rights and values are the real losers of twenty years of Global War on Terror.


Peter Knoope
Senior Associate Fellow at the Clingendael Institute