War on Terror: Causes, Course, Costs and Consequences Part 1

“This crusade – this war on terrorism – is going to take a while” George Bush


Though it was the worst intelligence failure of any intelligence agency in history, the USA took maximum advantage of 9/11 tragedy and embarked on the mission to accomplish the objectives set forth in the infamous neo-con paper, known as the American Century. Calling it as War on Terror, America employed all its -military, diplomatic and financial, to wage a war of terror on several countries besides Afghanistan-its starting point. 

Whether it was a stellar success as its proponents wants us to believe or a dismal failure as its opponents claim, is a debatable point but it has cost the world massively in terms of loss of human lives, financial losses, refugees crises, missed opportunities and surprisingly, increased global terrorism. What were the causes of the failure of War on Terror, what costs it imposed to those on the receiving end and what are its long term consequences, are some of the issues touched in this two-part  article


Started in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks inside the USA, the War on Terror is a generic name of the global military, political, legal, and conceptual struggle against both terrorist organizations and against the regimes accused of supporting them. It officially finished the day Osama was declared killed on 2nd May 2011 although Barrack Obama announced its official termination in 2013 and directed the American security establishment to focus on specific enemies as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.

Aims and Objectives of War on Terror

According to official American version, War on Terror was launched to dismantle the terrorist network of Al Qaida after they carried out a series of terrorist acts against US interests outside USA and finally on 9/11 inside USA. As they had crossed the red line, so their elimination was the basic objective to obviate the possibility of such attacks in future.The Bush administration defined the following objectives in the War on Terror

  1. Identify, locate, defeat and demolish terrorists along with their organizations
  2. Deny sponsorship, support and sanctuary to terrorists
  3. Strengthen and sustain the international effort to combat terrorism by force or by capacity building of states facing terrorism and diminish the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit
  4. Enhance measures to ensure the integrity, reliability, and availability of critical, physical, and information-based infrastructures at home and abroad

Views on War on Terror

There are three views on War on Terror namely American state version, Opponents’ views and the skeptics’ reservations. While the official US version has been explained above, the opponents of the War on Terror believe that the 9/11 was just a hoax; or if did happen, then, it was an inside job conducted by the CIA and Mossad to establish some casus belli for implementing the Neo-Con agenda explained in their American Century Project to re-assert the American hegemony etc

On the other hand, sceptics maintain that the 9/11 may or may not be an inside job but the military-industrial complex used it brilliantly to advance their agenda of self-aggrandisement and earn abnormal profits

Dimensions of the War on Terror

The war on terrorism was an open-ended multidimensional campaign with military and diplomatic dimensions working in tandem domestically as well as globally.

  1. Military Dimension: Its military dimension started with invasion of Afghanistan but expanded to Iraq and covert operations in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Now, the Costs of War Project identifies no less than 76 countries, 39% of those on the planet, as involved in that global conflict where U.S. drone or other air strikes are the norm and U.S. ground troops have been either directly or indirectly engaged in combat.
  2. Diplomatic Dimension: In diplomatic field, it resulted in augmenting old alliances in the Middle East while expanding its military spending, intelligence capabilities and criminal outreach ordering illegal detention, capturing and killing of those perceived to be enemies of USA, expanded cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies, and the tracking and interception of terrorist financing. It also included continuing efforts to construct and maintain a global coalition of partner states and organizations and an extensive
  3. Domestic Dimension: The domestic dimension of the U.S. war on terrorism entailed new anti terrorism legislation, new security institutions, the preventive detainment of thousands of suspects; surveillance and intelligence-gathering programs, the strengthening of emergency-response procedures; and increased security measures for airports, borders, and public events

War on Terror; Stellar Success or Dismal Failure?

Answer to question whether the global war on terror launched by the USA after 9/11 succeeded in achieving its stated objectives depends upon the perspective one has in mind. To the enthusiasts, it was a stellar success in ensuring security of the mainland USA  by not only dislodging the Taliban government which was accused of harbouring the terrorists, particularly Osama bin Laden but also dismantled Al Qaida and uprooted their safe havens. It resulted in the arrest of hundreds of terrorist suspects around the world, the prevention of further large-scale terrorist attacks on the American mainland, and increased levels of international cooperation in global counter terrorism efforts. Its final crowning success came when the USA killed its master-mind, Osama bin Laden on 2nd May 2011 in a remotely located house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Of course, USA has lost around 2500 soldiers and got more than 20,000 wounded in pursuit of this objective notwithstanding the trillions of dollars spent. Yet these losses are worth the aim for which this war was launched. USA is now safe from any 9/11 style attacks. However, what are the costs borne by the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries for keeping America safe cannot be adequately estimated. Never. Similarly, what will be the consequences, short terms as well long term, of this war on terrorism will be only an educated guess.

Forget the collateral damage in the form of great human misery of non- American nations i.e., millions of people killed/wounded or made homeless, property worth trillions of dollars destroyed, economies of several developing countries totally ruined. Arrival of hundreds and thousands of refugees in Europe has its own long term socioeconomic implications for NATO allies. For a country which has been responsible for causing more than 20 million deaths since second world war, it is immaterial.

However, to its opponents and critics, all the successes claimed so far in the War on Terror are of tactical nature and not of much significance in strategic sense. To them, there are no signs of any clear US victory in this War on Terror; rather the USA is seen to be fighting an endless war, creating more terrorists than it has killed so far. To them the costs incurred in terms of human losses, financial burden and infrastructural damage outweigh the gains the USA  claims in its War on Terror. Similarly, they argue, the unintended consequences of the War on Terror are far more than the goals intended and achieved. More of these later in the final part of this essay

Causes of American Failure in WOT

There are several reasons for American failure to achieve its stated objectives and ensuring long term global peace

  1. Nature of War

USA failed to correctly determine the nature of war it was going to launch against the global terrorism and hence there was ambiguity in formulating the objectives of the war and the attendant strategy to achieve them. It erred in equating a counter-terrorism/insurgency war with fighting a conventional war. They should have learned  lessons from their past two dismal failures in Vietnam and Lebanon as well as from Soviet Union’s  Afghan fiasco that fighting against organised state run forces obeying, at least literally, the rules of Geneva Convention is diametrically opposed to  fighting against multiple terrorist organisation, each backed by different hostile states and carrying out acts of terrorism with impunity. The advantages these organisations enjoy in terms of terrain, tactics, logistics and public support demand different type of strategies to achieve your end goals.

  • Gung-ho Operation

Secondly, although the stated public aims of the War on Terror were to dismantle al-Qaeda, and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power, the Operation Enduring Freedom itself was a gung-ho operation, carried out without any proper planning and effective strategy to cope with the situation once the initial objectives were achieved. As such, it was doomed to fail. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been degraded, America should have tried to establish a broad-based government and left with strong intelligence presence to keep an eye on the re-emergence of Al-Qaida. Rather it started an ambitious project of state building and even nation building- objectives which need decades if not centuries. Unfortunately, Americans are still not clear what they want from this war which has just entered in its 16th year.

  • Half- hearted Attempts

Thirdly, if the objectives were ambitious then USA should have allocated much larger resources and should have continued with it till these were achieved. Keeping in view peculiar conditions of Afghanistan with its diverse ethnic composition, mountainous terrain, inadequate infrastructure and institutional backwardness, far more troops and finances were required.  Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached that level. Instead, those battle-hardened troops were sent to Iraq in 2003 where another similar gung-ho operation was launched, allowing the Taliban to re-emerge in the vacuum this created. 

  • Post-operation Blunders

Fourthly, invading a foreign country like Afghanistan which is sparsely populated, mountainous and bleak is one thing; maintaining your occupation for long is impossible. After the fall of Taliban government, USA installed a government which was overwhelmingly non-Pashtun. Passionate appeals by Pakistan to accommodate the moderate Pashtun Taliban who were on the run and amenable to negotiated peace were not heeded. By banishing all the Pashtuns from every decision-making apparatus of the state machinery, it not only created a legitimacy crisis for the new government, it also dis empowered 60% of population in one go in the new socio-political set up. Currently, it is the Northern Alliance which is calling the shots in the national government. Three fourth of the Afghan security forces are non-Pashtuns.

  • Inefficient and Corrupt Government

Fifthly, despite massive military and financial aid by the NATO forces, the Afghan government could not deliver in terms of security or delivery of basic services. Rampant corruption has made the situation even worse. According to a 2009 DFID survey, “Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviour they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners).” Read the 2016 report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Relief (SIGAR) showing how mass corruption, bribery, payoffs and drug money had fatally undermined US efforts to build a viable Afghan society.

  • Public Support for Taliban

Sixthly, errors of omission and commission on the part of NATO forces in Afghanistan in general and the Afghan government in particular have effectively pushed the majority of Pashtuns towards the Taliban who needed the space and sympathy of the people to carry out their mission. Survey after survey has suggested that majority of Pashtun people are supporting the Taliban not only out of fear but also for being more trustworthy as compared to the present regime. Pashtuns consider Taliban movement as an indigenous liberation movement without any affiliation with the Al Qaida or global Jihad. They consider it as a continuation of their centuries old war against foreign invasion or occupation-whether British or Soviet or American. The proverbial bravery and tenacity of the Pashtun tribes through their wars of attrition ultimately saps the morale and drains the finances of the occupying power. Same is happening with the USA.

  • Active Support of Russia

After realising that defeat was imminent in Vietnam, Americans started to destabilise Afghanistan to take revenge from Soviet Union for this humiliation. By 1973, CIA had recruited more than 5000 fighters from all over the Islamic world and started infiltrating Afghanistan. Americans were ultimately successful and USSR had no option but to come to the aid of its ally in Kabul. The rest is history.

Now it is Russia’s turn to avenge their defeat. That is why Russia welcomed American attack on Afghanistan, knowing fully well what was in store for the Americans in the long run. They had learnt the lesson the hard way-it is easy to fall in love or enter a war; bloody difficult, almost impossible to extricate yourself with some modicum of respect left. And that is why they are giving maximum support to the Taliban, particularly in the form of military equipment and has ensured that the USA remained bogged down in this quagmire as long as possible.

  • Active Support of Iran

Initially Iran was deadly against the Taliban for the atrocities committed by them against the 20% of Shia population of Afghanistan and actively supported USA in their operations. Once Taliban were cut to size, Iran is now actively supporting these very Taleban for its own geopolitical objectives.

  • Active Support of Pakistan

The Taliban have been using Pakistan’s space for multiple purposes-recruiting volunteers, collecting finances, taking refuges etc. No doubt Pakistan has been vehemently rejecting the allegations that it has been actively supporting the Taliban, rather using them as its proxy to counter the increasing Indian influence. Pakistan maintains that it has very marginal and mostly moral influence over Taliban. However, the fact is that official borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the Taliban take refuge, is a  NO man’s Land. No army in the world can succeed against a group which takes refuge in such terrain. In fact, the biggest handicap Pakistan government is facing is the fear of the blow-back of any action in the form of increased terrorist activities inside the country by the Taliban themselves or their supporters who are in millions living in Pakistan  

  1. American Announcement to Withdraw

Ironically, by announcing its withdrawal from Afghanistan quagmire by 2014, USA repeated the same mistake which USSR made in case of its ally Najibullah in September 1991. Boris Yeltsin, determined to cut back on the country’s international commitments, announced that from 1 January 1992, no more arms, petrol and food supplies would be delivered to Kabul. This announcement was catastrophic for the morale of Najibullah and his supporters, who had otherwise survived for more than two years and could have gone for much longer.,

Similarly, the above-mentioned announcement by Obama and later on an invitation to Taliban for negotiations for their possible induction as partners in the government was enough to keep up the morale of the Taliban who might have yielded to Pakistan’s pressure for negotiated settlement with Afghan government.

From the e-book 20 Global Issues: A Handbook by Shahid Hussain Raja

Publishe by Amazon  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07C1BT6KD

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