XXI Century Challenges (III): War On Terror


On September 20th, 2001, George W. Bush coined the term “war on terror” after the 9/11 atrocities. The term became the policy of the U.S. for the first decade of the century. Last November, President Hollande analogously called the Paris attacks ”an act of war”. During the last decade the world has been at war, but the meaning of the word “war” has evolved and no longer merely encompasses the traditional and conventional sense.

The war on terror is apparently invisible and waged against the possibility of violent events. Terrorism is an asymmetrical tactic of warfare as aforementioned in a previous report, and there is not an operational and clear definition of what terrorism is. Consequently, how is it possible to wage war against something there is not agreement upon what it actually is? Under these conceptualizations, the war on terror encounters several contradictions. From a legal point of view, a declaration of war is a formal act by which one nation goes to war against another. In this case, the other side was not a state but a tactic or type of asymmetric warfare, neither is clear who the combatants are.

From the military perspective, writers often define the term war as hostilities in which the groups in conflict are relatively equal in power, so the outcome remain uncertain for a period of time. On the other hand, the war on terror does not have a clear beginning or end, moreover, it is unconventional and a non-traditional type of conflict. The social viewpoint of the concept war confines the term to a clash of intentions between nations or alliances. These clashing powers are considered to be encompassed within the same world, cultural values, or law of war, which resolve their conflicts on the battlefield. However, the battlefield has never resolved the problems associated to culture, identity, or religious believes. The war on terror within the new context, on the contrary, does not specify any battlefield, and the enemy is not a conventional army with identified combatants.

The most recent ideas of terrorism encompass only non-state violence perpetrated for political reasons. This goes in accordance with the goals of the war on terror after the 9/11. All in all, those objectives were to neutralize Al Qaeda and capture its leader, Bin Laden. Contradictorily, the results of the war on terror were the bloody invasions of two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq). Apparently, the real targets turned out to be Kabul and Baghdad. Therefore, the stated goals of these interventions completely contradicted the results.

The cost in civilian lives of the war on terror has been immense. The number of deaths is highly disputed, worst estimations mention up to a million civilians, both Iraqis and Afghans, dead as a result of the conflicts. Data is in clear contradiction with the words of George W. Bush, who, in October 2001, stated that “the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies”. Almost 15 years later, justifications to wage a war on “humanitarian grounds” arise as hypocritical, and, like any preventive war without the approval of the UN, illegal.

While it is widely proclaimed that the events of 9/11 changed the world, it is important to remark that even more than the tragic shock of that day, the response of the Bush administration has been more important in shaping the world that the deadly attacks in New York. For millions of people, today’s world appears to be more dangerous. The spread of terrorism from Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and other Middle East and African countries anticipates instability, insecurity, violence, and weak political institutions.

Today, Europe faces a similar pivot point in which the reactions to the Paris attacks or the effects of the Syrian conflict may mould the future of security in a great manner. One of the main actions that have fuelled the terrorist narrative is the preventive wars and attacks. Since 2003, the invasion of Iraq as a preventive measure against the regime of Saddam Hussein has brought 13 years of conflict, thousands of deaths, and the rise of ISIL. The lack of legal basis of a preventive action is evident, but the real consequences are uncharted.

In contrast with the traditional military concept, the battlefield of terrorism resides within people’s minds. Sadly, there is no policy in place to prevent what causes terrorism. Thus, political incompetence fosters terrorist rhetoric and religious misinterpretation which legitimizes terrorism. While the names of U.S. operations are such as: Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Liberation, the results of 15 years of war on terror are: violence, political instability, and an increase in terrorism. War on terror might be good rhetoric but clearly it has shown to be bad policy. Military power can win battles, but it is only diplomacy and soft power that can generate peace.