James P. Micciche is an Active Component U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific. He is currently a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He can be found on Twitter @james_micciche. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: An Assessment of the Global War on Terror via Deterrence Theory
Date Originally Written: December 27, 2019.
Date Originally Published: January 20, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that the 2017 National Security Strategy marked an end to the Global War on Terrorism. Based upon this belief, it is important to start assessing U.S. policy during the Global War on Terrorism era through multiple theoretical lenses and practical frameworks to understand its successes and failures.
Summary: The Global War on Terrorism’s goal was deterrence based — preventing terror attacks against the U.S. and extending that deterrence to other nations through a policy of denial and punishment. While the U.S. element of this goal was successful, the extension part was not as both terrorism deaths and the number of attacks from 2015-2019 still exceed pre-Global War on Terrorism levels, raising questions about the validity of deterring terror.
Text: On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda conducted a series of coordinated attacks on the United States marking an emergence of a new era of American foreign policy. Nine days later before a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush declared, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Bush’s speech ushered in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), a construct that would define the lens and transactional medium through which U.S. policy makers would shape foreign policy for the next 16 years.
The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) codified Bush’s charge by clearly defining that to achieve its strategic interests the United States will: “strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends.” In addition to the overarching principles within the NSS, two additional policy documents guided the initial operationalizing of the GWOT, the National Strategy for Homeland Security and the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. The former focused on preventing terrorist attacks within and against the United States while the ladder established a strategy to “Identify and defuse threats before they reach our borders.” These two documents outlined the GWOT’s foundational objectives that endured throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, a narrow goal of protecting the America and Americans and a comprehensive objective of averting international terrorist attacks by both defeating named terrorist organizations and preventing new ones to form.
Despite the 2006 NSS’s declaration that “terrorists cannot be deterred,” the foundational documents above clearly establish objectives based on deterrence. At its core, the GWOT sought to prevent a specific behavior, terrorism, against the United States and partners by means of both core tenets of deterrence, denial and punishment. Deterrence, simply put, is an agent preventing another agent from undertaking unwanted action or behaviors. The vast majority of deterrence theories identify two primary methods through which nations can deter others from taking undesirable actions — denial and punishment. The former increases the cost of conducting unwanted behaviors and decreases the chance of their success while the ladder threatens punitive action against agents who engage in such behaviors. Furthermore, it is important to analyze the scope of a nation’s deterrence efforts by defining if they are direct and concentrated only on preventing action against the nation itself or extended beyond national borders to other agents.
The GWOT utilized a bifurcated approach of denial by first directly hardening the United States homeland from terrorist attack by establishing new government agencies and implementing laws and structures that denied terrorists the opportunity to attack the United States. Secondly, the United States extended the GWOT to third parties by proactively attempting to deny terrorists the economic, social, and cultural conditions needed to thrive and form through development and democracy building efforts. Concurrently, the United States waged an aggressive punitive based deterrent policy against those that engaged and supported terror, including state actors, attempting to extend deterrence globally. If one is to examine the amount of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding that Congress authorized as part of the aforementioned efforts, it becomes clear that DoD-led punitive deterrence was the emphasized and preferred method throughout the GWOT. Of the nearly $2 Trillion spent on the GWOT-related OCO funding from 2001 to 2019 the U.S. Government allocated 92% towards DoD efforts, 8% for the U.S. Agency for International Development and Department of State development programs, and less than 1% on Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard operations. Punitive deterrence presents unique challenges against non-state actors who have no territorial sovereignty and often coexist with neutral civilian populations making preemptive and disciplinary action a calculated risk as it has the potential to support recruitment and propaganda narratives and counter ongoing denial efforts. Furthermore, punitive and preemptive actions against state actors also present the prospective of creating instability and under governed spaces conditions in which terrorist organizations form and thrive.
If one is to assess at the goal of extended global deterrence then the GWOT failed to achieve its objective as global terrorism related deaths were almost three and half times higher in 2017 (26,445) than in 2001 (7729) with numbers of attacks following similar growth rates. Additionally, the GWOT period saw the rise of new violent extremist organizations such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, despite ongoing extended denial efforts and punitive strikes and raids. Furthermore, two nations at the center of U.S. GWOT efforts, Afghanistan and Iraq, have remained the most impacted by terror despite nearly two decades of U.S. efforts. Even longstanding U.S. treaty allies such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries have had their terror rates increase during the GWOT period. Despite the overall increase in global terror rates throughout the GWOT period, the past four years (2015-2019) have witnessed a decline in both deaths and number of attacks but still exceeds pre-GWOT levels.
The GWOT goal of direct deterrence has been far more successful than its extended counterpart as there have been no attacks on U.S soil that are comparable to the scale of 9/11. Moreover, from 2002 to 2018, North America experienced 431 terrorist attacks and 317 related deaths, only Central America and the Caribbean saw lower rates with 212 and 164 respectively; for comparison, Europe experienced 4290 attacks and 2496 deaths during the same period. Despite the relative success of preventing terrorism compared to other regions, the United States still experienced deadly terrorist attacks from across the spectrum of ideologies such as the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and El Paso shooting of 2017.
In closing, assessing the GWOT through the lens of deterrence presents mixed results based on the scope of efforts; direct deterrence achieved far greater outcomes than extended efforts with less allocated funding. Furthermore, the GWOT raises questions about the validity of deterring non-state actors through punitive measures, the prospects of waging war against a tactic, and if a given level of terrorism is a constant risk within the modern world. U.S. Africa Command’s 2019 strategic priority of reducing terror threats to a “level manageable by internal security forces” highlights a strategic shift in thinking and the acceptance of inherent levels of global terrorist activity.
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