What has 20 years of the ‘war on terror’ accomplished?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

On Sept. 16, 2001, then-President George W. Bush responded to a reporter’s question about his administration’s response to the attacks on the World Trade Center, saying, “This is a new kind of — a new kind of evil. … This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.”

That apparently unscripted statement, shortened by Bush to “war on terror” in a speech a few days later, would quickly be codified into a formal policy that has dramatically changed the United States’ role in the world over the past 20 years. The U.S. military’s counterterrorism mission began in Afghanistan with an invasion aimed at eliminating those behind the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban government that harbored them, but it quickly became motivation for a sprawling global campaign. Specious claims of a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were part of the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq War. War powers granted to the executive branch by Congress shortly after Sept. 11 have also been used to carry out counterterrorism operations in at least a dozen countries in the intervening years.

The professed urgency of the threat of attacks was at the heart of some of the most controversial policies over the past two decades, including the use of torture, the extrajudicial detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes and a major expansion of the government’s ability to conduct surveillance on Americans.

Why there’s debate

The end of the war in Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks have led to widespread reflection on the impact of U.S. counterterrorism operations on Americans and the world.

In the eyes of many critics, the “war on terror” has been a failure. They argue that any honest assessment of a global terrorist threat shows that American intervention has not only failed to eliminate extremist groups, but has often created instability that has allowed them to flourish. Any victories, they add, must be weighed against the extraordinary costs linked to the U.S. counterterrorism campaign, which include an estimated 900,000 deaths, 38 million people displaced from their homes and a price tag of $8 trillion.

Others argue that these critiques ignore the successes of the past two decades, chief among them the fact that there has not been another major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. They say that, while extremist groups still exist, the U.S. has become much more capable of defending itself and its allies thanks to the investments it has made over the past 20 years.

Many cultural critics argue that “war on terror” infused a sense of fear and anger into American life that has fueled some of the most harmful trends of our era, including racism, polarization, extremism and the rollback of civil liberties.

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What’s next

The phrase “war on terror” has been mostly abandoned by federal government officials since the Obama administration, but American counterterrorism efforts are ongoing. One of the key foreign policy questions facing the Biden administration is whether the U.S. can use diplomatic leverage and “over-the-horizon” strike capabilities to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorist groups now that the war is over.


The U.S. won the ‘war on terror’

“​​To date, what George W. Bush called the global war on terror has succeeded remarkably, if provisionally, in its single most important goal from an American national security perspective: protecting the homeland, and Americans therein, from attack. This accomplishment has become internalized in our consciousness, almost mundane in our thoughts. But it is remarkable.” — Michael O’Hanlon and Lily Windholz, National Interest

The ‘war on terror’ was a victory for extremists

“In orchestrating the attacks on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden had wanted to end the global reign of the decadent West, inflict a staggering blow to American democracy, and entangle every Muslim in the conflict. Bin Laden may be dead, but it is hard not to conclude that he got what he wanted.” — Omer Aziz, New York

The fight against terror is still worth waging

“In Afghanistan and beyond, the war on terror is far from over. All nations who believe in freedom, safety and democracy will have to reengage. There can be no withdrawal from that.” — Editorial, Chicago Tribune

The ‘war on terror’ has done little to stop extremism from spreading

“The main lesson from the Afghan experience is that the ‘war on terror’ does not work. Twenty years after the invasion, extremist Islamists are celebrating their victory. It is true, as Biden said, that the US conducts counter-terror operations in multiple places; the consequence has been the spread of extremist Islamism not just in Afghanistan and the Middle East but in large parts of Africa.” — Mary Kaldor, Guardian

The U.S. has become much more effective at stopping future attacks

“We thus face more overseas peril than we have at any time in the last 20 years. But our counter-terrorism defenses, especially homeland security, are night-and-day better than they were on 9/11.” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review

Anti-Muslim bigotry is the lasting legacy of the ‘war on terror’

“Six wars, millions killed, trillions wasted, and a plague of suffering and trauma inflicted on the Muslim world, accelerating a tidal wave of refugees that has created panic in the European Union and resulted in a huge increase of votes for far-right parties—which in turn has pushed an already extreme political center further to the right. Islamophobia, promoted by politicians of every stripe in the West, is now embedded in Western culture.” — Tariq Ali, The Nation

The U.S. squandered an opportunity to create a better world

“What if instead of launching a War on Terror, the greatest strategic disaster in the United States’ modern history, U.S. leaders had used 9/11 as a catalyst to bring about a more tolerant, peaceful and prosperous world, the antithesis of al-Qaeda’s worldview? This was neither a far-fetched scenario nor it is wishful thinking.” — Fawaz A. Gerges, Washington Post

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars shouldn’t define the broader ‘war on terror’

“Bush’s vision of democratization by force was at best highly ambitious, and in some ways fundamentally misguided. The War on Terror, however, is neither misguided, nor has it been unsuccessful.” — Nicholas Grossman, Atlantic

The focus on terrorism cost us the chance to address an truly existential threat

“Plotting out the connections between this open-ended war and the climate crisis is a grim exercise, but an important one. It's critical to examine how the War on Terror not only took up all of the oxygen when we should have been engaged in all-out effort to curb emissions, but also made the climate crisis far worse, by foreclosing on other potential frameworks under which the United States could relate with the rest of the world.” — Sarah Lazare, Common Dreams

The ‘war on terror’ allowed far-right extremism to flourish at home.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. … But it wasn’t just the terrorists who gave right-wing extremists a boost: so, too, did the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which involved the near-complete pivoting of intelligence, security, and law enforcement attention to the Islamist threat, leaving far-right extremism to grow unfettered.” — Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Foreign Affairs

The defining element of the ‘war on terror’ is the abandonment of American values

“The entire war on terror … ended up being a war on America’s values. CIA ‘black sites’ and ‘renditions’ of ‘enemy combatants’ skirted or violated international law. The use of waterboarding and other torture methods — under the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ — cost America the moral high ground.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images