The attacks of September 11, 2001 were a watershed moment for American foreign policy. It prompted the United States to assert their influence around the world through both covert and overt military operations in the name of counterterrorism. Ten years later, has the war been won?
There is a good argument to be made that it has. The mastermind of 9/11, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was killed this May by American special forces. His organization has been all but crushed and certainly denied the ability to strike against the American homeland or even against American forces stationed abroad in a concentrated fashion. No terrorist attack against the United States has been successfully carried out in the wake of 9/11.
The uprisings across the Arab world might also herald an end to the War on Terror. As longtime dictators were toppled in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia this year with Syria’s authoritarian regime under unabated popular pressure to reform, there is a chance for democracy and secular nationalism to take root in the region. For youngsters in the Islamic world, Al Qaeda no longer represents an ideology that speaks to their interests and aspirations. They want democracy and economic opportunity — like Westerners do.
Then again, it may be premature to declare the War on Terror won. For one thing, Pakistan, a critical American ally in its war in Afghanistan, continues to consider terror a military tactic to be deployed against neighboring India. Recent attacks in Mumbai and New Delhi may be testament to this strategic mindset.
What is more, Pakistan is providing a safe haven for terrorists who may not pose a direct threat to the United States nor even its troops in Afghanistan but do keep the ideology of violent Islamism alive.
Terrorists don’t recognize the borders of nation states which may be the greatest challenge in fighting them. Previous ideologies that transcended frontiers were at least firmly rooted in some countries. Communism had universal appeal but it was the state ideology of Soviet Russia and China. In fighting the Cold War, Western countries could channel their anti-communist effort against left-wing regimes wherever they appeared while weakening Moscow’s influence simultaneously.
Muslim fanatics, by contrast, have no nation they can call home. Terrorism as a concept is even less tangible. The “War on Terror” is ill defined because it cannot target specific nation states. Indeed, like a “war on crime,” it can be waged indefinitely.
Another reason to suspect that the War on Terror might not soon be over is the West’s continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The United States’ strategic presence in the region necessitated by this economic reality provides legitimacy to the acts of terrorists who claim to resist a foreign occupation force. Moreover, it enables oil rich nations to funnel resources into the hands of terrorists.
In conclusion, it may be safest to state that the War on Terror still rages and that its outcome remains unclear. Especially if the United States disengage from South Asia as they did during the Cold War, there is a chance that the next terrorist attack against the American homeland will again emerge from the mountainous tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the meantime, the War on Terror continues.