19 Years Later: How to Wind Down the War on Terror

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The threat of jihadist terrorism has changed, and U.S. counterterrorism policy needs to change with it. The defense establishment must take steps to maintain homeland security without maintaining overseas presences, wasting money, and sacrificing American lives.

The War on Terror is essentially over. The United States has only experienced one terrorist attack since 9/11, and the number of troops deployed overseas has steadily decreased.

But even though “The nature of the jihadist terrorist threat to the American homeland has fundamentally changed...the U.S. government and much of the foreign policy establishment have failed to recognize this or alter their response.”

That’s a mistake. Going forward, the United States should respond to this new normal by “reducing the scope and intensity of U.S. CT operations and increasing congressional oversight, while retaining an effective capacity for self-defense.”

While the War on Terror has cost the United States a considerable sum, cost alone does not justify a change in strategy. “The costs of global CT operations are a rounding error in the context of an FY 2020 defense budget of $738 billion.” Moreover, while experts estimate that ending the War on Terror could save the country over $100 billion per year, these are still just estimates.

A better reason to end the War is the changing nature of the jihadists threat. While the prevailing attitude in Washington holds the threat to be large, the reality is quite different. ISIS and other terrorist groups seem to have grown more localized in recent years, and couldn’t feasibly launch a 9/11-scale attack on the United States even if they wanted to.

The one thing “U.S. adversaries in the broad front of the war on terror have in common...is their status as combatants in civil wars or in insurgencies contending for local and regional power.” These groups tend to disseminate their radical ideology via the internet and social media, and capitalize on instability and economic problems to recruit new members.

Because it is so diffuse and persistent, military action has limited efficacy in snuffing out this ideology. For the United States, maintaining a military presence designed to fight terrorist groups is counterproductive. Moreover, since the presence of the U.S. military could inspire terrorist recruitment and attacks, forward deployment could be counterproductive.

Similarly, the past 20 years has shown that the United States can only do so much to resolve the political and economic problems that encourage terrorism. Regime change has clearly failed, and continuing this policy will do more harm than good.

Current U.S. counterterrorism strategy consists of four main efforts: targeted strikes against terrorists, counterinsurgency operations, building partnership capacity, and homeland security operations. Each of these pillars has problems that must be resolved as the United States improves its foreign policy.

For instance, while targeted attacks are a seemingly “low-cost” means of defense, when the target does not pose an imminent threat to the United States, such attacks are ethically and legally questionable. Going forward, the United States should only target terrorists who pose an immediate threat to the country and when international law would permit it.

Large-scale counterinsurgency operations “require hundreds or thousands of forward deployed troops and result in more extensive military and civilian casualties,” while causing political and diplomatic problems for both the United States and the host country. While these operations can have limited success, they cannot effectively snuff out terrorism, and as such should not be undertaken lightly. As previously mentioned, these operations could even make certain situations worse.

Building partnership capacity hasn’t always been effective, but can be if the United States adheres to certain criteria. The United States should only pursue such efforts when “the recipient country is unable to contain an imminent threat to Americans and where counterinsurgency units are not implicated in grave violations of human rights.” To ensure that we don’t deviate from those requirements, Congress should “formally raise the bar for providing U.S. military assistance and training to foreign security forces."

Homeland security is the most effective of the four pillars. “It is indisputable that better domestic planning and preparedness for preventing terrorist attacks have added extra layers of protection to U.S. territory.” But most Americans are unfamiliar with this success, and largely think that force deployment has been the most effective safeguard against terrorism. This misguided public perception subsequently shapes political action, which serves to entrench the status quo.

While the country must remain vigilant in the fight against terrorism, it is now possible to keep the country safe without the financial and human sacrifices that have characterized the War on Terror. Reducing targeted killing, scaling back partnership capacity building, and withdrawing troops currently involved in overseas counterterrorism operations are all necessary steps that will help bring U.S. foreign policy into the 21st century.

Read the full report here.