Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: Is this How to Win the “War on Terrorism”?

By Audrey Kurth Cronin
Sunday, September 14, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The United States has not suffered a rash of terrorist attacks in the 13 years since 9/11. Indeed, this period has proven less bloody at home than the 1970s, hardly remembered as a decade of terror (except for the fashion threat posed by leisure suits, of course). Yet leaders are reluctant to consider the implications of this success, and the war mindset created by 9/11 remains prevalent. In this essay, Audrey Kurth Cronin, Distinguished Service Professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs, argues that because the United States does not know what the “end” of the war on terrorism would actually look like, its strategy is fundamentally flawed—with potentially disastrous consequences.


Two years ago, President Obama declared the decimation of al-Qaeda’s core leadership and described the group as “on the run.” Now Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is warning that the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or IS), al-Qaeda’s jihadist successor, is “beyond anything we’ve seen” and “an imminent threat to every interest we have.” So political rhetoric ratchets up in response, critics on both the Right and the Left react, and we lurch again from panic to complacency and back to panic again.

This is no way for a great power to behave. Clear strategic thinking about where we are in this war is everywhere absent, replaced by hype and partisanship. Following the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were embedded in the broader “war on terrorism.” Wars by their very nature require some distinction between “war” and “peace.” But so far, the U.S. government has no idea how to characterize “peace.” Without that there can be no effective strategy. What does “success” in this war mean? Is ISIS just the newest phase in the struggle? Can we even envision what the end of this war would look like?

Audrey Kurth CroninTwelve years into it, lacking a strategic framework and global boundaries, the United States is suffering all the classic symptoms common to all prolonged wars: means become ends, tactics become strategy, boundaries are blurred, and the search for a perfect peace replaces reality.

Means Become Ends

In any war, keeping means in line with ends is difficult. Especially after blood is spilled, emotions such as anger, revenge, retaliation, and protecting sunk costs take over. The result can be long, devastating wars of attrition (think the Peloponnesian War or World War I) where no one wins. This tendency is even more prominent in counterterrorism. Democratic governments react passionately to terrorist attacks—historical examples abound, from the British and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to the Spanish and the Basque Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), to the Uruguayan government and the Tupamaros.

Over time, however, emotions play out and rational strategic thinking should take over. Classic checks such as tight budgets or restrictive legal authorities actually help, forcing leaders to adjust. But if a counterterrorism campaign is unconstrained from the outset, as with the unprecedented 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, keeping means and ends aligned is virtually impossible.

The default is to buy, build, organize, and create more means. In the United States, some of this has been helpful: we now have better intelligence collection, more cooperation with allies and partners, expanded operational capacity, and better defenses against terrorism. But there is a point at which more means become counterproductive, because reducing the risk of terrorism to zero is impossible.

The growth of U.S. counterterrorism capabilities (especially military and intelligence) may have reached that point. According to the Washington Post, since 2001, at least 263 U.S. government organizations have been created or reorganized. In 2010, there were 1,272 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on counterterrorism, in about 10,000 U.S. locations. More than two-thirds of the capacity is located in the Department of Defense. Intelligence analysts produce some 50,000 reports each year, and no one can absorb them all.

The system has become unwieldy, even counterproductive. As the U.S. Army general responsible for tracking the Pentagon’s most sensitive programs commented, “The complexity of this system defies description…Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste. We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.” Domestic spending on counterterrorism is worse. Since 2003, more than 70 state and local fusion centers have been created and funded by the federal government. According to a 2012 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations majority and minority staff report, the centers produce intelligence that is “outdated, duplicative and uninformative,” meaning that “fusion centers have been unable to meaningfully contribute to Federal counterterrorism efforts” and indeed “may have hindered, not aided” them.

Without a strategic framework, U.S. means are becoming ends in themselves. That’s a problem not just because we waste resources but also because there are opportunity costs. There is still a serious threat of terrorist attack; but endlessly expanding our means will not eliminate it.

Tactics Become Strategy

In 1971, Fred Iklé described the tendency of agencies and individuals involved in a war effort to become more concerned with furthering their own narrow interests than with ensuring that their efforts are actually helping achieve the broader aims of the war. He warned: “More absorbing than the final outcome are the perfection of the tools and the mastery of the components and maneuvers that form part of the undertaking.” Though Iklé was speaking of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the “mastery of components” is exactly where the American focus has been recently in the war on terrorism. With a heavy emphasis on drones and special operations, the U.S. government is letting tactics drive strategy.

There is no question that those tactics have helped prevent some terrorist attacks. Indeed, since 2001, the number of fatalities from terrorist attacks on American soil has been lower than at any time since 1968 (when we began to collect good statistics). But as I argued in my Foreign Affairs piece on drones last summer (“Why Drones Fail”), they have also inadvertently helped spread local conflicts and made sworn enemies out of a sea of local insurgents—who, like ISIS, have now evolved into an even greater threat to the stability of the region and potentially even to the United States in the longer term.

It is the outcome of this war, not just the tactical victories within it, that ultimately serves the nation’s long-term interests. Tactics are having strategic effects; but they alone do not add up to a strategy.

All Sense of Boundary is Lost

The transition from major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to more focused clandestine operations against specific targets has brought with it all the advantages of lower cost and reduced political risk. But the other side of that coin is reduced Congressional oversight, murky local partners, fuzzy legal restrictions, and unlimited geographical scope. Operating without built-in checks and balances has blurred every type of framework and boundary.

Reduced legal boundaries are well known to readers of Lawfare. Using drones to kill American citizens, targeting al-Qaeda “associates” in a virtually unlimited geographical scope, shopping for legal justification by mixing Title 10 and Title 50 assets, and using Special Access Programs for operations with virtually no Congressional oversight are a few examples. Whether or not one finds them warranted, these practices have stretched our pre-9/11 legal framework. They are justified by the arguments that the threat is unprecedented, that terrorists must be aggressively pursued abroad, and that attacks must be prevented before they are launched on the American homeland.

What is less considered is the degree to which fundamental U.S. strategic concepts are being recast by the focus on prevention. Cyberspace, for example, has become a military domain for offensive operations (also called “active defense”). In 2011, there were reportedly 231 offensive cyber operations undertaken by U.S. intelligence services; the 2010 Stuxnet virus reportedly launched by the United States and Israel against the Iranian nuclear program is another instance. In cyberspace, traditional notions of offense and defense are now blurred, justified by the same strategic logic used to prevent al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

In increasing the size, role, and prominence of its special operations forces, the United States likewise built up the military assets best suited for preventive action. Doing so lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force, while dramatically increasing the reach and frequency of special operations throughout the world. Spending by U.S. Special Operations Command quadrupled between 2001 and 2011, with an expanding or deepening presence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. According to Admiral William McRaven, then-Special Operations commander, these forces would work with diplomats and local security forces whenever possible, but “[t]he exception would be when a local government was unable or unwilling to cooperate with an authorized American mission, or if there was no responsible government in power with whom to work.” This is a remarkable expansion of prior practice.

The Search for a Perfect Peace Replaces Reality

It is not uncommon for combatants to enlarge their objectives to justify the sacrifice and cost of a long war, and the United States has done so. From seeking to prevent another catastrophic attack like 9/11—the original goal—the objective has become total elimination of terrorist attacks on American interests anywhere. Yet eliminating terrorism is a gold standard yet to be met with other dangerous anti-American terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Kahane Chai. The United States is a great power; it will be targeted.

Zero risk of terrorism is a fantasy. An open society is never totally invulnerable: another attack will occur, as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing painfully demonstrated. That attack, which killed three people, used primitive technology (pressure-cooker bombs) and was carried out by amateurs who were not part of the al-Qaeda network. Regardless of how much blood or treasure is spent on overseas operations, terrorist attacks carried out by “inspired” individuals are virtually unpreventable.

This is why a key element in “winning” is building psychological resilience among the American public so they are less subject to manipulation by threats of attacks. U.S. policymakers are human beings responding to widespread political pressure that the country be kept completely untouched on their watch. “Zero risk” assigns them an impossible task, while setting the bar for terrorists too low. And so we return to the oscillations mentioned at the outset. U.S. partisanship, political scapegoating, and public overreactions increase terrorists’ incentives to kill American hostages and carry out attacks to begin with, ultimately helping them and hurting us.


To end this war we have no choice but to restore the constraints that were eliminated in the aftermath of September 11th. Budgetary constraints are happening anyway, with the sharp cuts being forced on many federal programs. But we must also restore many of the legal restrictions we operated under for centuries, particularly those related to where, when, and why we deploy military force. Yes, of course, this may affect our risk of terrorist attacks. But I am not so sure that it will increase it overall. Effective counterterrorism is always to some degree a process of managing the threat. It can never be eliminated, and perpetuating the myth that it can only heightens the incentives to attack us.

The first step is to tamp down exaggerated rhetoric that plays on public fears. When Senator James Inhofe says the United States is “in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation,” or Marine four-star General John Allen claims that “World War III is at hand,” that kind of hyperbole is the enemy of strategic thought. The United States kept itself from being rent apart by the Civil War, defeated the Nazis, and confronted nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union. This threat does not compare.

So does this mean we should ignore the threat of ISIS? Absolutely not! This brutal group has declared a caliphate, slaughtered innocents, and threatened the entire region. We must build a regional coalition and forcefully answer that specific threat. But if we try to respond by further stretching the faulty U.S. framework of the 2001 “war on terrorism,” we will perpetuate a conundrum where the United States has domestic legal and political cover at the expense of allied support and long-term strategic viability. It will be just another front in an endless war, and that is not the way to win.


Audrey Kurth Cronin is Distinguished Service Professor (with tenure) at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University and the author of How Terrorism Ends. This essay draws from her article “The ‘War on Terrorism’: What Does it Mean to Win?” recently published in the Journal of Strategic Studies.