What the War on Terror Cost America
Foreign Affairs. Article by Elliot Ackerman. September/October 2021
My first mission as a paramilitary officer with the CIA was against a top-ten al Qaeda target. It was the autumn of 2009, and I had been deployed in my new job for a total of two days. But I was no stranger to Afghanistan, having already fought there (as well as in Iraq) as a Marine Corps officer over the previous six years. On this mission, I was joined by the Afghan counterterrorism unit I advised and a handful of members from SEAL Team Six. Our plan was to conduct a raid to capture or kill our target, who was coming across the border from Pakistan for a meeting in the Korengal Valley.
The night was moonless as we slipped into the valley. The 70-odd members of our raid force hiked under night-vision goggles for a couple of hours, taking on hundreds of feet of elevation in silence until we arrived at a village on a rocky outcropping where the meeting was being held. As surveillance and strike aircraft orbited the starry sky, a subset of our force sprinted toward the house where an informant had told us the target was staying. There was a brief and sharp gunfight; none of our men were hurt, and several of our adversaries were killed. But the target was taken alive. Then we slipped out of the valley as expeditiously as we had arrived. By early morning, we had made it safely to the U.S. Army outpost, where our prisoner would soon be transferred to Bagram Air Base.
The sun was breaking over the jagged ridgeline as we filled out the paperwork transferring custody. The mood among our raid force, which had been tense all night, suddenly eased. We lounged in a small dirt parking lot, helmets off, laughing and recounting the details of our mission. A convoy would soon arrive to usher us back to our base, where we would get some much-needed rest and a decent meal. We would then await our next target, continuing what was proving to be a successful U.S. campaign to decapitate al Qaeda’s leadership. We were feeling, in short, victorious.
While we waited, a column of scraggly American soldiers, little older than teenagers, filed past. They lived at the outpost, and their plight was well known to us. For the past several years, they had been waging a quixotic and largely unsuccessful counterinsurgency in the valley. Many of their friends had been killed there, and their expressions were haggard, a mix of defeat and defiance. Our triumphant banter must have sounded to them like a foreign language. They gave us hard, resentful looks, treating us as interlopers. It occurred to me that although our counterterrorism unit was standing on the same battlefield as these soldiers, we were in fact fighting in two very different wars.
At a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush announced a new type of war, a “war on terror.” He laid out its terms: “We will direct every resource at our command—every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war—to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.” Then he described what that defeat might look like: “We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest.”
If Bush’s words outlined the essential objectives of the global war on terror, 20 years later, the United States has largely achieved them. Osama bin Laden is dead. The surviving core members of al Qaeda are dispersed and weak. Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, communicates only through rare propaganda releases, and al Qaeda’s most powerful offshoot, the Islamic State (or ISIS), has seen its territorial holdings dwindle to insignificance in Iraq and Syria.
Most important, however, is the United States’ success in securing its homeland. If someone had told Americans in the weeks after 9/11—as they navigated anthrax attacks on the Capitol, a plunging stock market, and predictions of the demise of mass travel—that the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence agencies would successfully shield the country from another major terrorist attack for the next 20 years, they would have had trouble believing it. Since 9/11, the United States has suffered, on average, six deaths per year due to jihadi terrorism. (To put this in perspective, in 2019, an average of 39 Americans died every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids.) If the goal of the global war on terror was to prevent significant acts of terrorism, particularly in the United States, then the war has succeeded.
But at what cost? Like that night in the Korengal, could success and failure coexist on the same battlefield? Can the United States claim to have won the war on terror while simultaneously having lost the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? The answers require untangling the many battles the United States has fought since 9/11 and understanding the impact they have had on the American psyche.
US AND THEM
Every war the United States has fought, beginning with the American Revolution, has required an economic model to sustain it with sufficient bodies and cash. The Civil War, for instance, was sustained with the first-ever draft and the first-ever income tax. World War II saw a national mobilization, including another draft, further taxation, and the selling of war bonds. One of the chief characteristics of the Vietnam War was an extremely unpopular draft that spawned an antiwar movement and sped that conflict to its eventual end. Like its predecessors, the war on terror came with its own model: the war was fought by an all-volunteer military and paid for largely through deficit spending. It should be no surprise that this model, which by design anesthetized a majority of Americans to the costs of conflict, delivered them their longest war; in his September 20, 2001, speech, when describing how Americans might support the war effort, Bush said, “I ask you to live your lives and hug your children.”
This model has also had a profound effect on American democracy, one that is only being fully understood 20 years later. Today, with a ballooning national deficit and warnings of inflation, it is worth noting that the war on terror became one of the earliest and most expensive charges Americans placed on their national credit card after the balanced budgets of the 1990s; 2001 marked the last year that the federal budget passed by Congress resulted in a surplus. Funding the war through deficit spending allowed it to fester through successive administrations with hardly a single politician ever mentioning the idea of a war tax. Meanwhile, other forms of spending—from financial bailouts to health care and, most recently, a pandemic recovery stimulus package—generate breathless debate.
If deficit spending has anesthetized the American people to the fiscal cost of the war on terror, technological and social changes have numbed them to its human cost. The use of drone aircraft and other platforms has facilitated the growing automation of combat, which allows the U.S. military to kill remotely. This development has further distanced Americans from the grim costs of war, whether they be the deaths of U.S. troops or those of foreign civilians. Meanwhile, the absence of a draft has allowed the U.S. government to outsource its wars to a military caste, an increasingly self-segregated portion of society, opening up a yawning civil-military divide as profound as any that American society has ever known.
Last year, in response to nationwide civil unrest, Americans finally had the chance to meet their military first-hand as both active-duty and National Guard troops were deployed in large numbers throughout the country. Americans also got to hear from the military’s retired leadership as a bevy of flag officers—both on the right and the left—weighed in on domestic political matters in unprecedented ways. They spoke on television, wrote editorials that denounced one party or the other, and signed their names to letters on everything from the provenance of a suspicious laptop connected to the Democratic nominee’s son to the integrity of the presidential election itself.
For now, the military remains one of the most trusted institutions in the United States and one of the few that the public sees as having no overt political bias. How long will this trust last under existing political conditions? As partisanship taints every facet of American life, it would seem to be only a matter of time before that infection spreads to the U.S. military. What then? From Caesar’s Rome to Napoleon’s France, history shows that when a republic couples a large standing military with dysfunctional domestic politics, democracy doesn’t last long. The United States today meets both conditions. Historically, this has invited the type of political crisis that leads to military involvement (or even intervention) in domestic politics. The wide divide between the military and the citizens it serves is yet another inheritance from the war on terror.
Although it may seem odd to separate the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from the war on terror, it is worth remembering that immediately after 9/11, the wholesale invasion and occupation of either country was hardly a fait accompli. It is not difficult to imagine a more limited counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan that might have brought bin Laden to justice or a strategy to contain Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that would not have involved a full-scale U.S. invasion. The long, costly counterinsurgency campaigns that followed in each country were wars of choice. Both proved to be major missteps when it came to achieving the twin goals of bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice and securing the homeland. In fact, at several moments over the past two decades, the wars set back those objectives. This was never more the case than in the months after bin Laden’s death in May 2011.
Few years proved to be more significant in the war on terror than 2011. Aside from being the year bin Laden was killed, it also was the year the Arab Spring took off and the year U.S. troops fully withdrew from Iraq. If the great strategic blunder of the Bush administration was to put troops into Iraq, then the great strategic blunder of the Obama administration was to pull all of them out. Both missteps created power vacuums. The first saw the flourishing of al Qaeda in Iraq; the second gave birth to that group’s successor, ISIS.
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has adopted an insane policy, setting itself up for a repeat of President Barack Obama’s experience in Iraq with the ongoing withdrawal. The recommitment of U.S. troops to Iraq in the wake of ISIS’s 2014 blitzkrieg to within 16 miles of Baghdad was a response to the fear not only that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might collapse but also that a failed state in Iraq would create the type of sanctuary that enabled 9/11. The United States’ vast counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were predicated on a doctrine of preemption; as Bush put it in 2007, “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”
But what makes the war on terror different from other wars is that victory has never been based on achieving a positive outcome; the goal has been to prevent a negative one. In this war, victory doesn’t come when you destroy your adversary’s army or seize its capital. It occurs when something does not happen. How, then, do you declare victory? How do you prove a negative? After 9/11, it was almost as though American strategists, unable to conceptualize a war that could be won only by not allowing a certain set of events to replicate themselves, felt forced to create a war that conformed to more conventional conceptions of conflict. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq represented a familiar type of war, with an invasion to topple a government and liberate a people, followed by a long occupation and counterinsurgency campaigns.
In addition to blood and treasure, there is another metric by which the war on terror can be judged: opportunity cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the depths of American political dysfunction and has hinted at the dangers of a civil-military divide. Perhaps even more important from a national security perspective, it has also brought the United States’ complex relationship with China into stark relief. For the past two decades, while Washington was repurposing the U.S. military to engage in massive counterinsurgency campaigns and precision counterterrorism operations, Beijing was busy building a military to fight and defeat a peer-level competitor.
Today, the Chinese navy is the largest in the world. It boasts 350 commissioned warships to the U.S. Navy’s roughly 290. Although U.S. ships generally outclass their Chinese counterparts, it now seems inevitable that the two countries’ militaries will one day reach parity. China has spent 20 years building a chain of artificial islands throughout the South China Sea that can effectively serve as a defensive line of unsinkable aircraft carriers. Culturally, China has become more militaristic, producing hyper-nationalist content such as the Wolf Warrior action movies. In the first, a former U.S. Navy SEAL plays the archvillain. The sequel, released in 2017, became the highest-grossing film in Chinese box-office history. Clearly, Beijing has no qualms about framing Washington as an antagonist.
China isn’t the only country that has taken advantage of a preoccupied United States. In the past two decades, Russia has expanded its territory into Crimea and backed separatists in Ukraine; Iran has backed proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; and North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons. After the century opened with 9/11, conventional wisdom had it that nonstate actors would prove to be the greatest threat to U.S. national security. This prediction came true, but not in the way most people anticipated. Nonstate actors have compromised national security not by attacking the United States but by diverting its attention away from state actors. It is these classic antagonists—China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia—that have expanded their capabilities and antipathies in the face of a distracted United States.
How imminent is the threat from these states? When it comes to legacy military platforms—aircraft carriers, tanks, fighter planes—the United States continues to enjoy a healthy technological dominance over its near-peer competitors. But its preferred platforms might not be the right ones. Long-range land-based cruise missiles could render large aircraft carriers obsolete. Advances in cyberoffense could make tech-reliant fighter aircraft too vulnerable to fly. The greatest minds in the U.S. military have now, finally, turned their attention to these concerns, with the U.S. Marine Corps, for example, shifting its entire strategic focus to a potential conflict with China. But it may be too late.
After two decades, the United States also suffers from war fatigue. Even though an all-volunteer military and the lack of a war tax have exempted most Americans from shouldering the burdens of war, that fatigue has still manifested. Under four presidents, the American people at first celebrated and then endured the endless wars playing in the background of their lives. Gradually, the national mood soured, and adversaries have taken notice. Americans’ fatigue—and rival countries’ recognition of it—has limited the United States’ strategic options. As a result, presidents have adopted policies of inaction, and American credibility has eroded.
This dynamic played out most starkly in Syria, in the aftermath of the August 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s stated redline by using chemical weapons, Obama found that not only was the international community no longer as responsive to an American president’s entreaties for the use of force but also that this reluctance appeared in Congress, as well. When Obama went to legislators to gain support for a military strike against the Assad regime, he encountered bipartisan war fatigue that mirrored the fatigue of voters, and he called off the attack. The United States’ redline had been crossed, without incident or reprisal.
Fatigue may seem like a “soft” cost of the war on terror, but it is a glaring strategic liability. A nation exhausted by war has a difficult time presenting a credible deterrent threat to adversaries. This proved to be true during the Cold War when, at the height of the Vietnam War, in 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, and when, in the war’s aftermath, in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Because it was embroiled in a war in the first case and reeling from it in the second, the United States could not credibly deter Soviet military aggression. The United States is in a similar spot today, particularly with regard to China. When Americans were asked in a recent poll whether the United States should defend Taiwan if it were confronted with an invasion by China, 55 percent of respondents said that it should not.
Obviously, if the Chinese undertook such an action, particularly if Americans or the citizens of allied countries were killed in the process, public opinion might change swiftly; nevertheless, the poll suggested that the threshold for the use of force has risen among Americans. U.S. adversaries understand this. It is no coincidence that China, for instance, has felt empowered to infringe on Hong Kong’s autonomy and commit brazen human rights abuses against its minority Uyghur population. When American power recedes, other states fill the vacuum.
U.S. adversaries have also learned to obfuscate their aggression. The cyberwar currently being waged from Russia is one example, with the Russian government claiming no knowledge of the spate of ransomware attacks emanating from within its borders. With Taiwan, likewise, Chinese aggression probably wouldn’t manifest in conventional military ways. Beijing is more likely to take over the island through gradual annexation, akin to what it has done with Hong Kong, than stage an outright invasion. That makes a U.S. military response even more difficult—especially as two decades of war have undermined U.S. military deterrence.
A FOREIGN COUNTRY
The war on terror has changed both how the United States sees itself and how it is perceived by the rest of the world. From time to time, people have asked in what ways the war changed me. I have never known how to answer this question because ultimately the war didn’t change me; the war made me. It is so deeply engrained in my psyche that I have a difficult time separating the parts of me that exist because of it from the parts of me that exist despite it. Answering that question is like explaining how a parent or a sibling changed you. When you live with a person—or a war—for so long, you come to know it on intimate terms, and it comes to change you in similarly intimate ways.
Today, I have a hard time remembering what the United States used to be like. I forget what it was like to be able to arrive at the airport just 20 minutes before a flight. What it was like to walk through a train station without armed police meandering around the platforms. Or what it was like to believe—particularly in those heady years right after the Cold War—that the United States’ version of democracy would remain ascendant for all time and that the world had reached “the end of history.”
In much the same way that members of “the greatest generation” can recall where they were when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor or baby boomers can remember where they were when JFK was shot, my generation’s touchstone is where you were on 9/11. Like most of us, I remember the day clearly. But when thinking of that time, the event I return to most often happened the night before. I was a college student and had requisitioned the television in my apartment because HBO was showing a new series, Band of Brothers. As an ROTC midshipman, I believed my entire future would be spent as part of a band of brothers. As I settled onto the sofa, that iconic title sequence started: sepia-toned paratroopers falling across the sky en route to liberating Europe, the swelling strings of the nostalgic soundtrack. There wasn’t a hint of irony or cynicism anywhere in the series. I can’t imagine someone making it today.
As the United States’ sensibilities about war—and warriors—have changed over two decades, I have often thought of Band of Brothers. It’s a good barometer of where the country was before 9/11 and the emotional distance it has traveled since. Today, the United States is different; it is skeptical of its role in the world, more clear-eyed about the costs of war despite having experienced those costs only in predominantly tangential ways. Americans’ appetite to export their ideals abroad is also diminished, particularly as they struggle to uphold those ideals at home, whether in violence around the 2020 presidential election, the summer of 2020’s civil unrest, or even the way the war on terror compromised the country through scandals from Abu Ghraib prison to Edward Snowden’s leaks. A United States in which Band of Brothers has near-universal appeal is a distant memory.
It is also a reminder that national narratives matter. The day before the United States departed on a 20-year odyssey in the Middle East, the stories people wanted to hear—or at least the stories Hollywood executives believed they wanted to hear—were the ones in which the Americans were the good guys, liberating the world from tyranny and oppression.
WINNING AND LOSING
Not long after President Joe Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I was speaking with a former colleague at the CIA. He had also fought in Afghanistan and Iraq as a marine, and he, too, was on that mission in the Korengal Valley. But when I left the CIA, he remained and has spent his career prosecuting the war on terror around the world. Today, he runs paramilitary operations at the agency.
We talked about the differences between the withdrawal from Iraq and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. We agreed that the latter felt harder. Why? Unlike Iraq, the war in Afghanistan was predicated on an attack against the United States. This had happened only once before in American history and had led to a decisive U.S. triumph. But unlike the greatest generation, our generation of veterans would enjoy no such victory. Instead, we would be remembered as the ones who lost the United States’ longest war.
When I told him that even though we might have lost the war in Afghanistan, our generation could still claim to have won the war on terror, he was skeptical. We debated the issue but soon let it drop. The next day, I received an email from him. A southerner and a lover of literature, he had sent me the following, from The Sound and the Fury:
No battle is ever won. . . . They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.