The Longest Ongoing Armed Conflict in the History of the United States: What Is the War on Terror? | History Hit

The Longest Ongoing Armed Conflict in the History of the United States: What Is the War on Terror?

President George W. Bush discussing the war on terror with troops.
Image Credit: Kimberlee Hewitt / Public Domain

The war on terror was first introduced as a concept by President George W. Bush in September 2001 in a speech to Congress in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Initially, it was primarily a counter-terrorism campaign: the US vowed to seek retribution from the terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, who had planned and executed the attacks. It quickly spiralled into a decades-long conflict, engulfing much of the Middle East. It remains America’s longest-lasting and most expensive war to date

Since 2001, the war on terror has gained widespread international usage and currency, as well as plenty of critics, who condemn both the idea and the way in which it was executed. But what exactly is the war on terror, where did it come from, and is it still going on?

9/11 origins

On 11 September 2001, 19 members of al-Qaeda hijacked four aeroplanes and used them as suicide weapons, striking New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. There were nearly 3,000 casualties, and the event shocked and horrified the world. Governments unilaterally condemned the acts of the terrorists.

Garrett Graff's tells the oral histories of 9/11, from archive material he has collated to interviews he has conducted with people who responded to events on the day. Producer: Peter Curry
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Al-Qaeda were far from a new force on the world stage. They had declared a jihad (holy war) on the United States in August 1996 and in 1998, the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, signed a fatwa declaring war on the West and Israel. The group subsequently carried bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, planned bombings of Los Angeles International Airport and bombed the USS Cole near Yemen.

Following the 9/11 attacks, NATO invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which effectively told other NATO members to consider the attack against America as an attack against them all.

On 18 September 2001, a week after the attacks, President Bush signed the Authorisation for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, legislation which gave the President  power to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those who had planned, committed or aided the 9/11 attacks, including those who harboured the perpetrators. America had declared war: it would bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice and prevent anything similar happening again.

On 11 October 2001, President Bush declared: “the world has come together to fight a new and different war, the first, and we hope the only one, of the 21st century. A war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them”, adding that if you weren’t with America, then by default you would be seen as being against it.

The Bush administration also set out 5 main objectives within this war, which including identifying and destroying terrorists and terrorist organisations, reducing the conditions which terrorists seek to exploit, and re-iterating their commitment to protecting the interests of US citizens. Whilst Afghanistan had condemned the 9/11 attacks, they had also harboured members of al-Qaeda and refused to acknowledge this or give them up to America: this was deemed unacceptable.

Operation Enduring Freedom

Operation Enduring Freedom was the name used to describe the war in Afghanistan as well as operations in the Philippines, Northern Africa and the Horn of Africa, all of which harboured terrorist organisations. Drone strikes began against Afghanistan in early October 2001, and shortly afterwards troops began fighting on the ground, taking Kabul within a month.

The operations in the Philippines and Africa are less well known elements of the war on terror: both areas had groups of militant extremist Islamist groups who had, or threatened, to plot terrorist attacks. Efforts in northern Africa were largely centred around supporting the new Malian government to stamp out al-Qaeda strongholds, and soldiers were also trained in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Chad, Niger and Mauritania.

Coalition Special Operations Soldiers speak with Afghan children while conducting a patrol in Mirmandab, Afghanistan

Image Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Quarterman / Public Domain

The Iraq War

In 2003, the US and UK went to war in Iraq, based on controversial intelligence that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Their combined forces quickly toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and captured Baghdad, but their actions caused retaliation attacks from insurgent forces, including members of al-Qaeda and Islamists who viewed this as a religious war in which they were fighting to re-establish the Islamic Caliphate.

No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, and many consider the war to have been illegal as a result, driven by America’s desire to topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and to gain an important (and, they hoped, straight-forward) victory in the Middle East to send out a message to any other potential aggressors.

Increasingly vocal groups have argued that the war in Iraq cannot be included described as being part of the war on terror as there was little connection between Iraq and terrorism at the time. If anything, the war in Iraq created conditions which allowed terrorism and extremism to flourish and used up valuable troops, resources and money which could have been used in nation-building efforts in Afghanistan.

Ongoing operations

When the Obama administration took over in 2009, the rhetoric surrounding the war on terror ceased: but the money continued to flow into operations in the Middle East, particularly drone strikes. Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, was captured and killed in May 2011, and President Obama tried to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, but it became increasingly apparent that this would be impossible without leaving the fragile new regimes vulnerable to exploitation, corruption and ultimately failure.

Although the war in Iraq technically ended in 2011, the situation quickly deteriorated, with the militant extremist group ISIL and the Iraqi government becoming locked in a civil war. Some US troops (around 2,000) remain stationed in Iraq in 2021.

In August 2021, resurgent Taliban forces finally took Kabul, and after a hurried evacuation, American and British troops withdrew their remaining military personnel permanently. The war on terror may have temporarily ceased in Afghanistan, but it seems unlikely to stay this way for long.

The current withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan raises a lot of questions about the conflict. Why are they withdrawing now? Was there a better time for this? How might the assistance of Western countries have been more successful? In this episode, Rory Stewart OBE, former Secretary of State for International Development in the UK and now a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, shares his thoughts on the war in Afghanistan. Rory completed a solo walk across Afghanistan in 2002, and his experiences of the people and the country have informed his political, academic and non-profit work, including his 2006 New York Times Bestseller, ‘The Places in Between’.
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What, if anything, has it achieved?

It increasingly seems as though the war on terror has been something of a failure. It remains the longest and most expensive war fought by the United States, costing upwards of $5 trillion so far, and claiming the lives of over 7,000 soldiers, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilians across the world. Fuelled by anger against the United States, growing xenophobia and Islamophobia in the West and the rise of new technology, there are far more terrorist groups operating 20 years after the war on terror began.

Whilst some of the key figures in al-Qaeda were killed, several more who planned the attacks are languishing in Guantanamo Bay, still not brought to trial yet. The establishment of Guantanamo Bay and the use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ (torture) at CIA black sites damaged America’s moral reputation on the world stage as they circumvented democracy in the name of retribution.

Terror was never a tangible enemy: insidious and shadowy, terrorist organisations are notoriously web-like, comprised of members in small groups across large spaces. Declaring war on it was, many believe, a one way path to failure.

Sarah Roller