What the U.S. Has Learned About Fighting Terror Since Sept. 11

Washington is experiencing an uncharacteristic bout of humility about the uses of military power.

In recent weeks, our screens have been dominated by images of the rushed U.S. withdrawal and the scramble to relocate Afghans who assisted with the war effort, along with reports that women’s rights are already backsliding across the country. The scenes raise the question: What if anything did America learn from two decades of conflict across the greater Middle East? Five tentative lessons stand out.

What the U.S. Has Learned About Fighting Terror Since Sept. 11

One, learned that hard way, is that you can’t fight a war against a tactic. Just like the “war on drugs,” it was always going to be difficult to judge victory in the “war on terror.”

“This can’t be a war on terrorism or it will never end, but you can struggle against some organizations that are threatening you,” says Seth Jones, director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When the goals have been more limited, the outcomes have tended to be more impressive. Efforts to clamp down on funding for terrorist groups have been a notable area of success. After Sept. 11, the UN Security Council sped up efforts to sanction groups associated with al-Qaeda via the UN’s 1267 sanctions committee—work that by 2019 had blocked more than $4 million worth of al-Qaeda assets.

“We’ve learned that it’s not just war,” says Jones. “There need to be other instruments from diplomatic engagement to information, intelligence, and law enforcement.”

Second, boots on the ground cannot transform a society and might not even be able to stand up a reliable government. Witness the rise of Islamic State in Iraq after President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw troops in 2011, or the astonishing collapse of the Afghan army in the wake of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan despite two decades of U.S. military presence there.

“I think there’s been some humility on the limits of U.S. military power,” says Jones, who also served as an adviser to U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. “There are limits to what you can do with conventional U.S. forces that haven’t been trained for counterterrorism or counterinsurgency missions.”

The hope now is that improved intelligence, unmanned systems, and the use of precision strikes will allow the U.S. to reach overseas terrorist targets without massive overseas troop deployments.

Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who as an infantry officer deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, argues that civilians have been too quick to trust military leaders. “It has been a symbiotic relationship,” Dempsey says of the ties between uniformed officers and civilian leaders during the war in Afghanistan. “Military leaders didn’t lie, but they were absolutely delusional about the goals they were pursuing and the way they were pursuing them.” Either way, “the end result is still failure,” he says.

The third lesson is that pivoting to other regions is hard because the Middle East has a way of pulling you back in.

George W. Bush’s presidency began with a pledge to treat China as a “strategic competitor,” only for the U.S. to look to Beijing as a counterterrorism partner in the wake of Sept. 11. Obama attempted to pivot, but ended up waylaid by the rise of ISIS, as well as the political difficulties of pushing his Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal through Congress. President Donald Trump made competing with China the central focus of his foreign policy, but largely disregarded Asia’s multilateral institutions as he did so.

“For me, the big picture story of the last 20 years is a story of continued false starts when it comes to Asia,” said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former assistant to the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Now, many in Washington fear that the circumstances under which the U.S. exited the country could open the door to continued terrorist operations and renewed involvement from America.

Some, like Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, argue that the U.S. can’t take its eye off the greater Middle East where continued threats from terrorist organizations fester. “What I’ve always advocated for—and what’s become increasingly clear as a result of the debacle in Afghanistan—is that a small, tailored footprint in strategic locations, including the Middle East and Africa, helps protect America and Americans,” Inhofe says.

Others argue that without a strong focus on the Middle East, Biden’s pivot to Asia could fall short. “If you believe, as I do,” says Wisconsin Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, that the Chinese Communist Party “is our paramount national security threat, it would have been far more prudent to leave a small rotational force to do low-cost, high-impact counterterrorism missions and maintain control of Bagram Air Base in order to project power along China’s western periphery.”

Stepping back from the greater Middle East, the last two decades have taught America painful lessons about the nature of deterrence and the limitations of the country’s conventional military superiority.

After watching the U.S.’s swift victory in the 1991 Gulf War and its decisive display of naval power in the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China and Russia decided that they would need to meet America’s conventional superiority with unconventional means. In response, each developed “gray zone” tactics—provocations such as cyberattacks or influence operations that exceed the normal limits of peacetime competition but that fall short of warranting a military response. Thus, China’s initial expansion in the South China Sea was pursued by using dredging equipment to build artificial islands, and Russia’s expansion into Crimea and eastern Ukraine was driven by special operations forces and disinformation campaigns.

The last 20 years have been a “reminder that conventional power let alone nuclear power is not going to be sufficient to prevent our adversaries from engaging in provocations that aren’t worth us risking war over,” says Carter Malkasian, who worked as special assistant for strategy to former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, from 2015 to 2019. “To some degree, if we really care about these things you have to be more willing to play their game or to have your own punitive measures.”

Finally, the last two decades caution that competition isn’t just about spending enough.

The U.S. has continued to spend far more than anyone else on its military and yet somehow China has still managed to make bewildering progress in closing the capabilities gap. “If you had told anyone working at the Pentagon in the year 2000 that China would have made the advances that it has made and that the U.S. would have done so little in response, people would have been shocked,” says Cooper.

It’s a point that has continued to frustrate Pentagon planners spanning both the Trump and Biden administrations. “We already outspend the Chinese by a fair amount,” says Randy Schriver, who served as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs in the Trump administration. “But arguably we aren’t transitioning rapidly enough to the kind of acquisition strategy that would better position us for greater competition. There are a lot very expensive legacy platforms that will continue to eat into that.”

Others worry that the U.S. will fail to learn lessons from the last two decades at all. California Democratic Representative Barbara Lee, the only lawmaker to vote against the war in Afghanistan and a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq, has spent almost two decades trying to convince Congress to scrap the authorizations for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lee has spoken on the House floor about how these authorizations repeated the mistakes of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which paved the way for President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam. For her, the takeaway is that the executive branch has been left with too much control over decisions of war and peace.

“Both the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs have been used by three successive presidents to wage war well beyond the scope that Congress initially intended,” Lee says. “It’s long past due to end our forever wars. We are well on our way.”
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