After twenty years of the War on Terror, $6.4 trillion spent, some 801,000 deaths (including about 335,000 civilian deaths) from direct violence by 2019 (and many more because of factors related to the War on Terror not calculated in war deaths), at least 1.8 million veterans with service-connected disabilities (though the actual number is probably much higher), the costs of veteran care amounting to between $2.2-$2.5 trillion between 2001 and 2050, not to mention the significantly increased veteran trauma, suicide, divorce, child abuse (3x higher) and neglect, substance abuse, car accidents, homelessness, the displacement of at least 38 million people who became refugees, a subsequent migrant crisis for surrounding countries, the regional empowerment of criminals, warlords, child rapists, and other criminal elements at taxpayer expense and in the name of peace, safety, and freedom, increased numbers (~x5) identified as al-Qaeda (and other radical terrorist groups), general increased instability in the region of the Arabian Peninsula and worldwide, the militarization of American police through increased amount of military equipment transferred to law enforcement agencies, the restriction of American civil liberties at home, government spying on non-criminal American citizens, virtual abandonment of the Fourth Amendment via the PATRIOT Act, multi-generational debt and interest ($6.5 trillion in interest alone by 2050), the unseen opportunity costs of what could have been had these resources been left with the American people, some have the audacity to judge the War on Terror as a limited success simply because we have not had a second 9/11.
Figure #1: Estimate of Costs of the War on Terror (click to enlarge)
(Estimate of U.S. War on Terror Spending in $ Billions FY2001-2020 (Watson Institute, Brown University, 2021)
Some people have an amazing capacity to evaluate even their worst failures as successes. But the "no second 9/11" argument does have an element of truth and appears compelling. Possibly the situation would have been much worse had the War on Terror not taken place. The truth is, there has not been a second 9/11 or 9/11 equivalent attack on the American homeland. That being said, there are several errors in the conclusions drawn from this fact and these errors almost always seem to justify Washington’s war state.
Argument: Despite whatever missteps and failures of the War on Terror, it must have been successful because there has not been another 9/11 equivalent terrorist attack on the American mainland.
Are there any problems with this above statement?
1) This type of argumentation is question-begging or circular reasoning – an elementary and common logical fallacy because it assumes what it seeks to prove.
Instead of demonstrating the argument to be proven true – that the War on Terror is the reason why there has not been another 9/11 equivalent in the United States – it simply observes that there has not been another such attack and concludes that the reason is because of the War on Terror.
To be fair, it is difficult, especially in social science, to demonstrate what the independent variable is which causes something or prevents something. There must be a good reason or justification for the connection between facts for us to posit that one causes or prevents another.
For example, person A takes medicine X because he believes that it prevents heart attacks; A does not have a heart attack. Can we validly conclude that A did not have a heart attack because he took medicine X? This cannot be done unless we have good reasons to believe that a heart attack would be likely for A, that X is effective in preventing heart attacks, and that there is a meaningful connection between A and medicine X.
In short, just because there has not been "another 9/11" on the American homeland since the War on Terror does not necessarily mean that the War on Terror gets to take credit for a success, especially despite all its other failures and evidence to the contrary.
2) The most significant indicator of suicide terrorism is foreign occupation.
History did not begin on 9/11 but for most Americans it did.
Before 2000, who were the world leaders in suicide terrorism?
It may surprise most Americans to know that the world leader in suicide terrorism prior to 2001 was a Marxist/Leninist group in Sri Lanka known as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) (75 of 186), not radical Muslim suicide terrorists. In fact, even when suicide terror attacks were perpetrated by Muslims between 1980 and 2001, a third of these were perpetrated by secular Muslims. Radical Islamic suicide terror significantly increased after 2000, with 348 suicide terror attacks in 2001 alone.
What accounts for this significant increase in radical Islamic suicide terror?
The research of Dr. Robert Pape from the University of Chicago has developed a database and methodology for counting and categorizing suicide terror incidents. This research has been documented in several academic publications, in Pape’s book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism and a book by Pape and Dr. James K. Feldman in a book entitled Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism & How to Stop It.
All this research over time has conclude that the greatest single predictor of suicide terrorism – foreign occupation.
Other explanations of suicide terrorism (socioeconomic status, religion, etc.) have proven insufficient in their ability to describe, explain, and predict suicide terrorism. According to this research, why has there been an increase in Islamic suicide terrorism, especially over the last twenty years? The answer, for which there is much evidence, is because the United States has been occupying lands in the Arabian Peninsula (Muslim holy lands), especially since the 1990s and into the 2000s, would lead us to expect Muslim suicide terror in order to coerce the United States and allies for political concessions, namely, exiting the Arabian Peninsula.
Afghanistan had not had a suicide terror attack before 2001 – the year of United States invasion, insurgency, and occupation. Iraq had not had a suicide terror attack prior to 2003 – the year of United States invasion, insurgency, and occupation. These patterns coincide with the foreign occupation of the United States and allies, the global increase in suicide terrorism since the beginning of the War on Terror, and even increases or decreases relative to foreign occupying forces in the region. Ironically and critically, what people usually think prevents terrorism actually contributes to it. The main reason why we have seen the rise of Muslim suicide terrorism, especially since 2003, is not simply the ideology of Islam, but because the United States has been occupying Muslim lands in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly since the beginning of the 1990s.
There were approximately 400 people who identified themselves as al-Qaeda in 2001, but this number was approximately 20,000 in 2019 in Syria alone. We cannot say that the al-Qaeda numbers increased because of the War on Terror, however, theoretically, if there were a roach spray used to eliminate an infestation of 400 roaches and, at the end of the process, there were 20,000 roaches, would we say the roach spray worked?
The common platitude, "We have to fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here" is largely untrue. Suicide terror attacks are calculated actions usually against powerful national democracies for political goals. We are "fighting them over here" because, unknown to most Americans, we have been fighting them "over there." For countries in the Arabian Peninsula, largely Muslim lands, foreign occupation of US military bases, control over political self-determination, bombing, sanctions, etc. by a foreign force that does not share the same race, culture, religion, or history has continued a decades-long war about which the American people are largely ignorant. These terror attacks are "blowback" – a CIA-created term for the unintended consequences of foreign policy actions that are experienced by a surprised American public who was unaware of the previous actions.
The War on Terror is not responsible for preventing "another 9/11," but is a failed, costly, and counterproductive government project that demonstrates misdiagnosis for failure to learn from 9/11 as well as continues policies that are likely to contribute to suicide terrorism. Instead of making us safer, the War on Terror continues to sow the seeds that will grow into a surprising and unintended harvest that endangers American peace, safety, and freedom.
3) Osama bin Laden’s strategy was to bring the United States into a long and costly war in Afghanistan and it worked.
Osama bin Laden’s strategy in this was two-fold: 1) to provoke the United States to overreaction that would lead to wasting blood, treasure, and time, hopefully leading to a Soviet-like collapse; 2) to provoke the United States remove regional political powers that al-Qaeda could not remove themselves, creating instability and resentment, leading to the opportunity for a pure Islamic caliphate/state.
These goals of al-Qaeda have also been confirmed by means of private documents and communiqués which were never expected to be seen by outsiders. Such documents demonstrate that the public statements were not meant to obscure the true goals. Osama bin Laden said, as confirmed by his son in 2010,
"We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah."
"We, alongside the mujahedeen, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat."
"…[it was] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration."
"All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations."
4) The costs in human life and dollars of the War on Terror have been greater than the 9/11 attacks.
What is it called when coercive actions are perpetrated against a civilian population in order to pressure the government of those people for certain political objectives?
If we basically agree that this is a broad working definition of terrorism, and is therefore illegitimate, then we ought to be consistent in considering the fact that, in addition to 9/11 and another terror attacks against the civilian population of United States, Washington’s grand strategy of foreign policy has historically attempted to coerce governments through coercive actions against the civilian populations of those countries. In other words, the United States government has perpetrated abuses against civilian, non-combatant populations in foreign countries in order to coerce their governments. If we apply Ron Paul’s "Golden Rule of Foreign Policy," we recognize that when the United States is attacked and civilians are murdered, we want retribution, therefore, other people in other countries might feel the same way.
Unforgettably, the 9/11 attacks involved 2,977 civilian deaths and about 25,000 injuries, millions of dollars of property damage and lost productivity, and paradigm-shifting national trauma. The War on Terror has involved some 801,000 direct war deaths. If we can just gloss over the fact that the War on Terror has killed at least 335,000 civilians, major injuries, drone bombings, regional destabilization, and a migrant crisis, we should not be surprised when the War on Terror radicalizes new enemies. By the way, in a survey in 2010 of 1,000 Afghan men in Helmand and Kandahar, 92% of them knew nothing about the 9/11 attacks and few Afghans know why foreign troops are in Afghanistan.
As mentioned in the first paragraph, the overall costs of the War on Terror have been far greater than the alleged benefits, even the alleged "second 9/11." It is understandable that some, especially those who are part of the political elite that defined and pursued the War on Terror, would be incentivized to believe the project was not a failure since it comes with such high sunk costs.
But the evidence is against the claim that these wars within the larger War on Terror have served American peace, safety, and freedom, in fact, they have arguably done positive harm to these alleged goals. Additionally, they have done great harm to innocent people all over the world, not just in the United States, becoming greater justification for hatred and violence against the United States.
Remember the infamous statement of Madeleine Albright, prior to the War on Terror, in which she was told that the sanctions policy against Iraq in the 1990s led to approximately 500,000 civilian deaths (many of whom were children) and asked if it was worth it, "We think the price is worth it." In Afghanistan, bombing of a few Taliban men killed several civilians, including children. Making a dubious connection between bombing civilians and American peace, safety, and freedom does not justify the action. The unquantifiable costs of American liberty and safety have been greater than the alleged benefits of the War on Terror.
5) The War on Terror has been detrimental to American civil rights and liberties, emboldened the government to abuse power at home under the guise of an emergency/crisis, and led the US government to treat its people as the enemy.
The United States has long had the most powerful and expensive military force on earth with no close competitor, yet this government could not provide sufficient security to prevent the 9/11 attacks. As if 9/11 was simply a failure of airport security, the United States government has increasingly broadened its power to treat innocent Americans as criminals in order to allegedly catch terrorists at the expense of the Fourth Amendment. In other words, we the people were blamed for the governmental failures that 1) created blowback; and 2) failed in terms of security to identify these attacks and prevent them. Ironically, because of the government’s multiple failures, we are restricted further by the government and asked to pay the cost.
Over the last two decades, we have seen the creation and expansion of several non-constitutional bureaucratic agencies, unelected and unaccountable to oversight, vested with sweeping new powers, and then given congressional authority to spy, treat people as guilty until proven innocent, kidnap, and even torture outside the geographical boundaries of the United States. All of this was done through the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA), the TSA, etc. All of this erodes several of the key amendments of the Bill of Rights, especially the Fourth Amendment.
A country cannot have empire abroad and liberty at home. Even if the empire has a goal to spread democracy and liberal values and self-government rather than to conquer and colonize. The same methods must be used. Scott Horton has said, "Empire is murder-suicide." This insight communicates the fact that promoting a military empire externally will not only fail but will destroy liberty and freedom at home in several ways.
When war is declared on an abstract concept that will probably always exist at some level, it means in practice that government can continue an unquestionable and unaccountable pursuit of that goal endlessly at expense of the people. It also means that, because there is a near-constant state of emergency, all means are available, and no costs can be too great to achieve it. We have observed particular in the last twenty years that political elites do not justify their ideas on their merits but their alleged necessity under a "crisis."
Twenty years of the War on Terror has not only borne enormous costs in terms of blood, treasure, and time, but has emboldened the government to spy on the American people and has endangered American civil liberties at home. So much for "fighting them over there"! And the only people who are held accountable for these illegal actions are those who reveal truth about what the government has done.
And if people followed the "I have nothing to hide" line in allowing the government to circumvent the Fourth Amendment via the PATRIOT Act, then it should be pointed out that the PATRIOT Act has become the model for catching alleged "domestic terrorists" today, which includes people who honor the memory of those who died on 9/11, those who observe religious holidays, those who question the complete validity of the 2020 election of Joe Biden, those who voted for Trump, or those who resist COVID measures. This is according to the Department of Homeland Security. Just a matter of twenty years later, those who supported the passage of the PATRIOT Act because they were not terrorists would become identified as potential "domestic terrorists." Never has the argument for limiting government power because that same power might one day be used against used been so relevant. How ironic that many who supported the War on Terror initially because of 9/11 may now be identified by the Department of Homeland Security (a post-9/11 agency) as potential terrorists because of remembering 9/11!
Figure #2: Potential Terror Threats
Considering this infringement of our liberties, especially because of the experiencing the blowback of Washington’s decades-long foreign policy, it is difficult to say the War on Terror has saved American peace, safety, and freedom. Because of the War on Terror, we are less peaceful because we are involved in constant warfare, we are less safe because these foreign interventions create unintended consequences, and we are less free because all these governmental actions require that they restrict the American people more.
We the American people experience both the shocking blowback and the following restrictions of our liberties. Both of which come from Washington’s foreign policy interventionism. Let me finish with a "Reaganesque" version of the question Reagan asked of the American people during a debate with Jimmy Carter, "Are we better off because of the War on Terror?"
Joshua Mawhorter is a high school teacher of government, economics, and American history and teaches the Bible, theology, apologetics, church history, and philosophy at his local church.