The occasion did not get much attention, but December 31 marked the end of what came to be called the “war on terrorism” (or alternatively, the “war on terror,” the “global war on terrorism,” or the GWOT). To be more precise, that is the date that overseers of military decorations in the Department of Defense declared to be the final day of eligibility to receive the National Defense Service Medal, which is awarded to all service members on active duty during a time of war. The medal had previously been awarded during the wars in Korea and Vietnam and the first Persian Gulf war. Then there was a period of eligibility lasting more than two decades for the “war on terrorism,” from September 11, 2001, until last New Year’s Eve.
This administrative detail about medals is the closest thing we are likely to get to an official announcement about the end of this latest “war.” American political leaders would understandably be reluctant to declare an end to this endeavor, only to have their opponents replay their words after the next terrorist attack that takes American lives. But now is as good a time as any to reflect on the mistakes that were central to this “war.”
The very concept of a war on terrorism—that is, warfare against a tactic, which many different people have used for many different purposes through the centuries—is fundamentally flawed. As former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski observed, speaking of a war on terrorism is like calling World War II a war on blitzkrieg. The administration of George W. Bush was most responsible for putting the GWOT concept into heavy use, but countless commentators accepted and used the concept as if it made perfect sense.
One of the additional faults of the war metaphor is that it implied the counterterrorist effort had a definite beginning and end—as World War II for the United States could be said to have begun with the attack on Pearl Harbor and ended on VJ Day. But just as terrorism has been used for centuries and lacks an identifiable beginning and ending, counterterrorism has no clear starting and stopping points. Many Americans regard September 11, 2001, as a starting point, but the United States was very much engaged in counterterrorism, with good reason, well before that. (During much of the 1990s I worked in the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA, as chief of analysis and then as deputy chief of the center.)
Although the administrators of military decorations had to come up with some ending date for a “war” that had gone on for two decades, neither terrorism nor the need for counterterrorism has ended. But some of the policies adopted in waging the GWOT implicitly assumed that there would be an end—a counterterrorist equivalent to VJ Day. Some of those policies concerned the detention of captured combatants. In a real war, such issues generally get resolved when the war ends, as prisoners of war are paroled or repatriated. But with the GWOT, thirty-four prisoners remain at Guantanamo, with no indication that this detention facility that is a stain on America’s international reputation will close in the foreseeable future.
Another fault of the war metaphor is to overemphasize the use of military force. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there were even silly pseudo-syllogisms that said the country faced a grave security problem, that to treat the problem seriously we must declare war, and if it’s war then that means we fight it with military force. Military force is only one of several policy tools that can be used in counterterrorism. Like the other tools, it has distinctive advantages but also its own limitations and disadvantages. The chief limitation is that terrorism often does not present good military targets, especially when preparations for a terrorist attack are made in the very country that will be the target of attack. The chief disadvantage is that the spilling of blood from the use of military force can enrage people enough to resort to using terrorism themselves, or to support and sympathize with those who do. This counterproductive aspect of use of the military in the name of counterterrorism can arise even from merely deploying armed forces in a foreign land.
The most damaging and costly use of armed force associated with the GWOT was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Critical to the Bush administration’s ability to muster support for this major act of aggression—against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11—was the notion that the invasion was nonetheless part of a “war on terrorism.”
Wars in the American tradition are seen not only as having a definite end but also as ending in victory—again, just like World War II. With counterterrorism, living in this tradition leads to a kind of mission creep that seeks a victorious ending that is never likely to come. The prime case in point is Afghanistan, where the military intervention aimed at Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts was a justifiable response to 9/11 but morphed into a twenty-year nation-building effort that was bound to fail.
The GWOT’s damage to legal systems and constraints has been substantial, and the war metaphor is largely to blame. In a real war, some normal legal procedures and standards are curtailed or circumvented with the general understanding that a national emergency sometimes requires emergency procedures that will end when the emergency ends. But again, counterterrorism does not end.
The very choice of Guantanamo as the location for a detention facility represented a departure from the rule of law, given that the choice was an attempt to put the facility beyond the reach of U.S., Cuban, or any other law. A military tribunal system that was installed there, in foolish disregard of the substantial and successful record of regular civilian courts in handling terrorism cases—especially in the Southern District of New York, the jurisdiction in which the World Trade Center was attacked—reprised an emergency system that had been used during World War II to prosecute German saboteurs captured in the United States. Whatever was right or wrong about that usage, it was over and done with when World War II ended. Today, the military tribunals at Guantanamo trundle on in a seemingly endless mess of delays and procedural quandaries. Justice still has not been administered to the 9/11 suspects, twenty-one years after their actions.
Perhaps because, as Brzezinski observed, wars do not really get fought against tactics rather than a named enemy, thinking about the GWOT came to postulate a named enemy. That enemy, following naturally from 9/11, was sometimes defined as Al Qaeda and sometimes more generally as foreign radical Islamists. The narrower definition led to widespread misunderstanding about how Islamist terrorism supposedly was the work of a single, centrally controlled group, which it never really was. Even the broader definition was not broad enough to reflect how terrorism, including terrorism that strikes U.S. interests, is by no means solely the work of radical Islamists.
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres recently warned that the “biggest threat of terrorism” today comes from right-wing and white supremacist groups in the West. Other expert observers have reached a similar conclusion about terrorist threats within the United States. Perceptions of terrorism that developed within a conceptual framework built around a “war” supposedly starting with 9/11 have ill-prepared the American public to understand the terrorist threats the country faces today.
Notions associated with the GWOT continue to impair strategic thinking about national security in other ways as well. One is a tendency to disconnect terrorism from other forms of political violence that can be at least as destructive as terrorism properly defined and can raise some of the same strategic and moral questions. Related to that is a frequent failure to relate terrorism and other forms of political violence to the political context in which they occur. The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and subsequent party politics related to that event, have blurred boundaries between violent extremism and what passes for a political mainstream in much of present-day America. The GWOT framework is not built to understand that blurring or to appreciate the danger it represents.
Finally, the tendency to think of a GWOT as defining an era that ran from the end of the first post-Cold War decade to a current era of great-power competition impedes grand strategy by encouraging the notion that policymakers think, and should think, about only one type of security problem at a time. Great power competition was a big part of the strategic reality that the United States faced during the period of the GWOT, and terrorist threats continue to be part of the reality that the country faces today. Policymakers always have had to walk and chew gum at the same time, and they still do.
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a Contributing Editor for this publication.