The “War on Terror”: Not Going Well, But Does That Mean It Is Lost?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

The “War on Terror” was launched by President George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At first, the “War on Terror” appeared to go quite well for the United States and its allies. In October 2001, the United States — with broad international support — launched a military intervention against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime (which had granted safe haven to the al Qaeda leadership responsible for the 9/11 attacks). By the end of 2001, the Taliban regime had been ousted. The top leaders of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda managed to avoid capture but were forced into hiding.

In March 2003, the Bush administration launched another military intervention, this time against the Saddam regime in Iraq. Although this intervention was not supported as widely as the earlier one against Afghanistan, it still received considerable support from several American allies, including Britain, Poland, Italy, Spain and Georgia (among others), which contributed troops to the effort. Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly overthrown, and Saddam Hussein himself was captured in December 2003 hiding in a hole in the ground. At the time, many concluded that both American military efforts were clearly successful. There was even speculation that the United States might next intervene either in Iran or Syria (as well as debate about which of them the should be rescued from dictatorship first).

From the perspective of today, things look very different. While relative stability was established in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, powerful armed opposition against the American-led occupation soon arose from within both the Arab Sunni and Arab Shia communities. Despite its massive troop presence, the United States was unable to prevent either the disruption of its economic reconstruction efforts or the ethnic-cleansing campaigns that Arab Sunni and Arab Shia groups unleashed against each other’s communities. One by one, most of the allied governments that had sent troops to Iraq either withdrew or greatly reduced them. The war in Iraq became so unpopular with the American public that in 2008 it elected Barack Obama, the candidate who promised to withdraw U.S. forces.

America, it should be noted, did accomplish some things in Iraq. It has overseen elections that have brought to power leaders from the Arab Shia majority (who had previously been persecuted by Saddam Hussein’s Arab Sunni minority regime). The United States also managed to turn many of the Sunni tribes from enemies into friends. The troop surge that President Bush initiated in 2007 also succeeded — despite the expectations of many — in greatly reducing insurgent violence and fostering a greater degree of normality. But as American forces are drawn down, many fear that these accomplishments will only prove to be temporary — especially since Kurdish, Arab Shia, and Arab Sunni politicians and groups that were willing to cooperate with the United States do not appear willing to cooperate with one another.

During much of the Bush period, the war in Afghanistan appeared to be going relatively well, even while the one in Iraq was not. From the final months of the Bush administration up to now, however, it has become painfully clear that the war in Afghanistan is not going at all well for the United States and its allies. From their bases across the border in Pakistan, Taliban forces have made a dramatic comeback in Afghanistan. As in Iraq, American allies who contributed their troops earlier have announced plans to withdraw or reduce them. The government of Hamid Karzai (whose election as president the Bush administration played a key role in orchestrating) has proven to be corrupt, ineffective and unable to provide security. Although President Obama heeded the advice of American military leaders who called for a troop surge in Afghanistan similar to that of the Bush Administration in Iraq, Obama has also made clear that he wants to begin withdrawing American armed forces in mid-2011 since this war has also become increasingly unpopular in the United States. The events leading to Obama’s June 2010 dismissal of Stanley McChrystal, the general whom Obama himself had appointed to prosecute the war effort in Afghanistan, revealed that there was deep division and disagreement at the highest levels of the administration about what to do there.

Many have warned that if the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, the American-backed efforts to foster democratic government in both are likely to fail, Islamist radicals are likely to seize control of significant portions — if not all — of both countries, and some neighboring states hostile to American interests — especially Iran — are likely to take advantage of the situation. Furthermore, American withdrawal from these two conflicts after sacrificing so many lives, spending so much money, and devoting so much time to them without achieving victory cannot help but encourage Islamist and other radicals elsewhere, as well as weaken America’s standing in the world. Yet for the United States to remain as deeply committed as it has been for so many years in either conflict (much less both) may be untenable both politically and economically. This holds, not just for the Obama administration, but even for a future Republican one — especially since there is no guarantee that continuing a high level U.S. military commitment will prove more successful or less costly than has been the case so far. In other words: while there will undoubtedly be negative consequences for America if U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, there will also be negative consequences if they remain but are unable to achieve significantly better results than they have so far.

The position that the United States finds itself in now is reminiscent of the position it was in during the early 1970s. Back then, the country had become bogged down militarily not only in South Vietnam after many years fighting there, but also in Laos and Cambodia. The American war effort had become highly unpopular throughout the world, including in the United States itself. Many warned that an American military withdrawal from Indochina would lead to negative consequences for the United States not just there, but in other regions, as well as for America’s standing in the world more generally. Political and economic conditions inside the United States, though, forced the Nixon administration to withdraw most American forces from Indochina by the beginning of 1973. And many of the negative consequences that were predicted by those who wanted America to continue its war effort in Indochina did indeed come to pass. Communist forces overran South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the spring of 1975. Further, the unwillingness of the American public and Congress to undertake military interventions elsewhere for fear of “another Vietnam” only encouraged Marxist revolutionaries — and their supporters in Moscow, Havana and elsewhere — to seize the moment. During the 1970s, Marxist revolutionaries succeeded in coming to power in several other countries, including Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Afghanistan and Nicaragua. Powerful Marxist insurgencies appeared likely to seize power in other countries during the 1980s, including El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, Peru and the Philippines. America’s alliances appeared to be in tatters. There was a general sense that American power and influence were on the decline while those of the Soviet Union were on the rise.

By the early 1990s, however, the situation had completely changed. Soviet forces, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, withdrew in 1989 without having defeated the anti-Soviet insurgency. The communist regimes of Eastern Europe that were allied to Moscow all collapsed in late 1989. Most Third World Marxist regimes either collapsed or realigned themselves with the West. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself broke apart into 15 separate countries. America was now seen as the winner of the Cold War and the sole remaining superpower by both friend and foe alike. One communist regime that has remained firmly in power since the end of the Cold War is the one in Vietnam, against which the United States fought for so many years. This, however, has not prevented Washington and Hanoi from developing and maintaining, friendly relations for well over a decade now.

This experience raises an intriguing possibility: if the United States could lose the war in Vietnam but go on to become the acknowledged winner of the Cold War less than two decades later, could the United States also lose either the war in Afghanistan or Iraq (or even both) and yet go on to win the “War on Terror” later on as well? It is, of course, not inevitable that such a sequence of events occur. But the fact that it occurred once raises the prospect that it could occur again.

Some will argue, of course, that the American withdrawal from Vietnam had no connection with the end of the Cold War, or that the Cold War ended in America’s favor not because the United States withdrew from Vietnam, but despite its having done so. They would point to the differences between the foreign and defense policies of the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations on the one hand and those of the Reagan administration on the other as explaining how the United States could lose the Vietnam War and yet win the overall Cold War. An American withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan or both by the Obama administration, according to this argument, will definitely not lead to America’s winning the “War on Terror.” To do this, the United States will have to adopt a tougher policy akin to the Reagan administration’s.

Although recognizing that this argument will appeal to many, its logic is flawed. There is, instead, a direct connection between America’s withdrawal from Vietnam and how the Cold War subsequently ended. For the American withdrawal from Vietnam unleashed or exacerbated forces — including the projection of an exaggerated image of American weakness, undue expectations on the part of the USSR and its allies about their own strength and their likelihood of prevailing in the Cold War, and divisions within the Marxist camp — that directly contributed to Soviet overexpansion in the Third World, the decline of Soviet power and influence, and the end of the Cold War. While the Reagan administration certainly pursued policies that took advantage of Soviet overexpansion, its policies were not so much a break with those of the three previous administrations, but both a continuation and an intensification of them. Finally, it was the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, undertaken by the Nixon administration, that led to subsequent Soviet overexpansion. This provided the opportunity for the Reagan administration to so successfully pursue policies that took advantage of Moscow’s predicament.

Could something like this happen again? In this series of articles, I will argue that — though it may seem counterintuitive — an American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan could do more to undermine Islamic radicals and strengthen the ability of America and its allies to deal with them than if the United States remains bogged down militarily in war efforts that it either cannot win or can only “win” at an unacceptably high cost. In order to make this argument, it is necessary to examine why the “War on Terror” has proven so difficult for the United States to deal with, the impact of American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, what choices American foreign policy would face afterward, and the larger geopolitical context in which the “War on Terror” is taking place. First, though, something needs to be said about the nature of the “War on Terror.”

Mark N. Katz is a visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

To read more articles in this series, click here.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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