2001: War on Terrorism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The so-called war on terrorism is in some respects typical of other wars that the United States waged after 1917. In other respects, however, it is unique. In common with the two world wars in which the United States fought and the amorphous, quasi-military conflict known as the Cold War, the war on terrorism has been justified on ideological grounds rather than those of territorial, commercial, or imperial aggrandizement. Unlike those earlier conflicts, however, it is not a neatly staged “theater” war against a clearly defined territorial opponent. Instead, it has been represented as a global war against an all-pervasive foe whose most salient defining characteristic is the desire to inflict harm on the United States in particular and on the civilized world in general. The war on terrorism may thus be regarded in part as an outgrowth of wars of the past and in part as a novel extension of them.

The so-called war on terrorism is in some respects typical of other wars that the United States waged after 1917. In other respects, however, it is unique. In common with the two world wars in which the United States fought and the amorphous, quasi-military conflict known as the Cold War, the war on terrorism has been justified on ideological grounds rather than those of territorial, commercial, or imperial aggrandizement. Unlike those earlier conflicts, however, it is not a neatly staged “theater” war against a clearly defined territorial opponent. Instead, it has been represented as a global war against an all-pervasive foe whose most salient defining characteristic is the desire to inflict harm on the United States in particular and on the civilized world in general. The war on terrorism may thus be regarded in part as an outgrowth of wars of the past and in part as a novel extension of them.

Ideological Antecedents

When President Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany and its allies in 1917, he did so on the basis of the right of a neutral America to trade with belligerent (warring) states over the high seas, a right under attack by Germany’s resumption of unrestricted warfare against all nations trafficking with its enemies. Wilson subsequently broadened his war aims to include such far-reaching and vaguely defined purposes as the inherent right of peoples to political self-determination and the desire to create a world “safe for democracy.”

Similarly, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt depicted World War II not merely as a war against Germany, Italy, and Japan, but as a war against fascism. Although American entry into World War II was triggered by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the war’s ideological foundations had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston S. Churchill during the previous summer.

The Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century focused on the communist Soviet Union, China, and their allies but was represented primarily as an ideological war against communism. That war, although it never involved direct military conflict between the superpower principals–the United States and the Soviet Union–did involve theater actions against the Soviet Union and China’s perceived proxies in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Whereas the two world wars had been fought to decisive conclusions capped by unconditional surrenders–which are characteristic of wars of ideology that require total victory–the Cold War did not seem to offer a definitive resolution in the foreseeable future. The U.S. objective in the Cold War was merely containment of the Soviet Union and was coupled with avoidance of a nuclear exchange between the super-powers.

U.S. Marines patrolling in Beirut, Lebanon, during a multinational peacekeeping operation in 1982. (U.S. Navy)

The Post-Cold War World

The unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union during 1989–1991 provided a satisfying conclusion to the Cold War and appeared to vindicate the principles of political democracy, religious freedom, and market capitalism that the United States espoused. As the regimes of the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe fell, and China, Vietnam, and other erstwhile communist states moved away from managed economic systems toward market capitalism, a Western victory in the Cold War seemed complete.

Despite the end of the Cold War, the roots of future war had been sown. Although the United States had come into conflict with the theocratic regime of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini in Iran shortly after the latter’s assumption of power in 1979, the United States continued to train, equip, and finance Muslim insurgents fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Many of these insurgents were not Afghans. The consequence of this American policy was to lay the basis of the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, a former U.S. ally that had been encouraged and covertly supplied in its long border war with Iran, weakened a buffer against what was now perceived as a general threat to the region. Partly in response to this, American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War.

Until the United States entered the region during the early 1990’s, no Western army had occupied a Middle Eastern Muslim state since the departure of French forces from Algeria in 1962. The brief American incursion in Lebanon in 1983 had been swiftly withdrawn in the wake of a terrorist attack that had killed 241 soldiers. The Saudi garrison provoked a similar response, and on June 25, 1996, nineteen Americans were killed by a truck bomb detonated outside the U.S. Air Force compound near Khobar. This attack had been preceded both by another attack on the Riyadh headquarters of the U.S. military mission in November, 1995, and one on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993. These attacks were gradually traced to a shadowy, multinational network of Islamic militants known as al-Qaeda, Arabic for “the base.” Its leader, Osama bin Laden, was the heir of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families. A former Afghan resistance fighter sponsored by the United States, bin Laden had covert patronage from members of the Saudi elite, including state elements, as well as from the Taliban in Afghanistan, where he trained his agents.

U.S. Air Force compound near Khobar after the terrorist bombing of June 29, 1996. (U.S. Department of Defense)

The U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia were not the only source of resentment against the United States in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli dispute, in which Israel was widely regarded as an American client, festered despite attempts at a diplomatic resolution by President Bill Clinton during the 1990’s. Meanwhile, the Gulf War continued as a low-intensity conflict in which the United States sponsored a commercial embargo and a weapons-inspection regime against Iraq, enforced a no-fly zone over the northern and southern thirds of the country, and bombed suspected military installations at will. As the United States began to disengage its forces from Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khobar attack, neoconservative commentators in the United States, including former officials of the administration of President George Bush, envisaged Iraq as a possible site for American bases, and urged a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. At the same time, a Harvard scholar, Samuel P. Huntington, suggested in a widely influential study that the coming century would see a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim and Western worlds. This, too, helped to lay the ideological foundations for war.

The Bush Administration

As the administration of George W. Bush came to power in 2001, war with Iraq was given high priority. Its long-term planning, however, was primarily concentrated on identifying potential state antagonists, notably China. Warning signs of another al-Qaeda attack on the United States were ignored or lost in the bureaucratic maze of intelligence agencies. As a result, the events of September 11 caught the nation by surprise. Nineteen militants succeeded in hijacking four commercial American airliners. Two of the planes were crashed into the towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, resulting in the collapse of both buildings. A third was crashed into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. A fourth was downed by its passengers in rural Pennsylvania. In all, about three thousand American lives were lost, a number exceeding the total American fatalities at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, although first reports put the death toll at twice that number. Immediate economic damage was placed in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

As Americans and others reacted to the terrorist attacks of September 11 with shock, horror, and outrage, President Bush responded the next day by proclaiming a generalized war on terrorism. He characterized it in nearbiblical terms as “a monumental struggle between good and evil,” adding that the enemy was not simply a group or groups but “a frame of mind” that fostered hatred of Christianity, Judaism, and, in a word, “everything that is not them.” These comments were all the more extraordinary in that the identity of the hijackers had not been fully established at that time, although the Central Intelligence Agency reported that al-Qaeda had been involved. Several days later, the president declared his intention to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, “dead or alive.” Nevertheless, during the interval, members of bin Laden’s family had been permitted to leave the United States without even being interrogated.

Both the legal and operational dimensions of the new war were unclear. None of the military actions of the Cold War had been accompanied by a congressional declaration of war, including the major conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Likewise, certain other long-term military operations of earlier years, such as the U.S. occupations of Nicaragua (1912–1933) and Haiti (1915–1934), had not received congressional sanction. When President Bush consulted congressional leaders on September 12, he asked for a resolution endorsing the use of force under the War Powers Act rather than a declaration of war. His intention, however, was not to limit military action in either scope or duration, but to preserve maximum executive discretion about how, where, and when to use American power.

Launching the War

One evident difficulty in launching the war was knowing precisely whom to attack. Afghanistan’s Taliban regime was a logical target; its leaders had harbored al-Qaeda and permitted it to train forces on Afghan soil. In the days after September 11, a consensus developed in the Bush administration that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were to be treated as a single belligerent entity. However, members of the Taliban themselves were to a large extent creatures of Pakistan’s intelligence services, and al-Qaeda’s chief funding had come from Saudi Arabia. Neither nuclear-armed Pakistan nor oil-rich Saudi Arabia could be attacked with impunity. By contrast, Afghanistan, although difficult to access, had an established guerrilla insurgency, the Northern Alliance. Using Northern Alliance troops, American Special Forces units, and air power, the Taliban could be put to rout, and a symbolic initial victory achieved. Participation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was also secured. On October 7, 2001, following a last demand that the Taliban surrender Osama bin Laden, the United States commenced bombing attacks.

The Afghan campaign went raggedly. Determined to minimize American casualties, the Bush administration did not insert regular forces in unit strength into the country until March, 2002. Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance, itself divided by factions, ignored American instructions and captured Kabul. In the strategic confusion that ensued, Taliban leaders regrouped in the south, their base of ethnic support, and al-Qaeda commanders, including Osama bin Laden, escaped to sanctuary in Pakistan. Tribal chieftains and warlords asserted their authority in the northern and western parts of Afghanistan, leaving the American-appointed president, Hamid Karzai, effectively confined to Kabul under heavy American guard.

The war had its usual by-products: unknown thousands of civilian deaths and casualties, many caused by high-altitude bombing attacks, and fresh refugees in the millions, many of whom fled to Pakistan. The United States promised, but did not deliver, substantial reconstruction aid. In its absence, opium cultivation, banned by the Taliban, resumed in the north. American and allied forces remained, but with little or no control over large stretches of the country, and subject to guerrilla assault.

In October, 2004, Karzai was formally elected president but remained under American protection. The United States spirited captured fighters and others suspected of collaboration with al-Qaeda out of the country. The captives included an American citizen, John Walker Lindh, who was conspicuously displayed in confinement despite serious injuries. More than six hundred of the captives were imprisoned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while others were “rendered” to third-party countries for interrogation.

The Iraq War

In the meantime, the Bush administration prepared for war on a second front, Iraq. Planning for this war went forward at the highest levels from the first days of the Bush administration, but the September 11 attacks gave them new impetus. Some White House personnel were startled in the immediate aftermath of the attacks to find senior advisors preoccupied with Iraq rather than Afghanistan, and the president himself demanding evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. The improvisational response to Afghanistan and the absence of serious logistical commitment at key moments of the war may be explained in part by this preoccupation. Seven hundred million dollars appropriated for the Afghan war were subsequently diverted to prepare for invading Iraq, without notification to Congress.

The U.S. commitment to go to war against Iraq had several sources. Some Bush officials regretted the failure to depose Hussein during the earlier Gulf War, and thereby to reshape the Middle East. They coveted Iraq as a source of secure oil supply and a base of operations to replace the one evacuated in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Hussein had succeeded in interrupting United Nations efforts to monitor his military arsenal. After September 11, it was alleged that Hussein would share his arsenal with terrorist groups.

The road to war was carefully plotted. Under American pressure, Hussein readmitted U.N. weapons inspectors, but the United States insisted that he was concealing so-called weapons of mass destruction prohibited under Gulf War protocols. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that Hussein was on the verge of achieving nuclear capability, and the president’s National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, conjured up visions of mushroom clouds rising up over American cities.

In February, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the United Nations to display what he claimed to be incontrovertible evidence of Hussein’s hidden weapons caches. In the meantime, a legal rationale for attack was prepared. On October 10 and 11, 2002, both houses of Congress gave President Bush authority to invade Iraq should diplomatic efforts to dismantle Hussein’s presumed arsenal fail. The vote was 296 to 133 in the House of Representatives and 77 to 23 in the Senate. These congressional resolutions fell short of a declaration of war, and some members of Congress, notably Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, warned against ceding constitutional powers to the president. In November, the United Nations approved a Resolution 1441 after intense American lobbying, calling upon Hussein to disarm and warning of potential military consequences should he fail to do so.

U.S. soldiers cautiously enter a building in Zumrat, Afghanistan, that they believe may be storing illegal weapons, in October, 2004. (U.S. Department of Defense)

The War on Terrorism Begins

Despite concessions by Hussein, antiwar protests, and last-minute efforts by the international community to broker a compromise, the United States attacked Iraq on March 19, 2003 in company with a hastily improvised “Coalition of the Willing.” The latter numbered some thirty nations, but only Great Britain provided significant support. Some of the other allies supplied token contingents numbering as few as twenty-five troops. Baghdad fell on April 9, and on May 1 President Bush declared “major combat operations” over and Iraq liberated. Hussein and his chief officials went into hiding, but most Iraqi leaders were captured in the succeeding months, and Hussein himself was finally found in December.

Securing Iraq, however, proved elusive. Elements of Hussein’s army and Baathist Party organized resistance, and they were joined by native Islamic militants and foreign fighters. The American force, only 140,000 in number, proved grossly inadequate to pacify the country or even to secure military arsenals (which contained no WMDs, much to the embarrassment of the Bush administration). Repeated attempts to take rebel strongholds such as Fallujah resulted in devastation but no lasting success. The insurgency spread, and by the time of President Bush’s election to a second term of office in November, 2004, more than 1,100 American troops had been killed. Unnumbered thousands of Iraqi soldiers and insurgents had also died, and civilian deaths, based on projections of ordinary mortality, were estimated as high as 100,000.

Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners

A further complication arose when revelations of widespread torture and abuse in the central Baghdad detention center, Abu Ghraib, were made public in May, 2004. As worldwide condemnation mounted, prisoner deaths not only at Abu Ghraib but at other, sometimes secret, facilities were revealed. Abuses at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners had been held for two and a half years without charge or review, were brought to light as well. President Bush denounced the abuses, although he had himself signed off on memoranda defining captured terrorists as “enemy combatants” falling outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions against torture. Some notorious offenders were prosecuted by military tribunals, but senior officers and civilian officials were shielded, and the president resisted calls for the resignation of his defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Detainees, many of whom proved to be innocent persons swept up in dragnets or otherwise misidentified, remained in a legal limbo until the U.S. Supreme Court ordered their processing in June, 2004. Among them were two American citizens, Yaser Esam Hamdi and José Padilla, who had been held without charge or access to counsel. Hamdi was subsequently deported to Saudi Arabia. Their cases highlighted concerns about the erosion of basic constitutional safeguards at home. The so-called Patriot Act, hastily passed by Congress in September, 2001, to give the president extraordinary authority in pursuing terrorists, was widely criticized for permitting secret searches and other infringements of civil liberties.

The legal, constitutional, and civil rights issues raised by the war on terrorism were underscored by the uncertainty over its nature, duration, and purposes. Terrorism itself, as the action of organized, nonstate agents to promote political or social change through violence or coercion, has been a feature of modern life since the nineteenth century. The terrorist “problem,” like that of crime or narcotics (against which “wars” have also been periodically proclaimed), has proved ineradicable as such, although particular manifestations have been contained or suppressed by police work, such as the Red Brigades faction in Italy or the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany.

In proclaiming a war on terrorism, however, and in identifying an “axis of evil” of terrorist-associated or terrorist-sponsoring states (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), President Bush not only raised the rhetorical stakes of the U.S. response to September 11 but also laid the groundwork for a broad doctrine of intervention, collaborative if possible but unilateralist where necessary. Such an open-ended war against an ever-shifting foe– Secretary Rumsfeld had suggested that it might last a generation or more– conjured up fears of an entrenched national security state, and, among traditional allies as well as potential foes, the perception of the United States as a hyperpower in quest of global hegemony under the guise of a war of self-defense. When, in September, 2004, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan characterized the war in Iraq as “illegal” under the United Nations Charter, he gave voice to the opinion of many that American policy was undermining the international order.

Al-Qaeda itself, reputedly with cells in some sixty countries, remained active despite the capture of some senior operatives. Prominent attacks included bombings of a resort complex in Bali, Indonesia, in October, 2002, and of commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, in March, 2004. Saudi financing continued with little impediment, and in Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, al-Qaeda operatives and networks appeared to move freely, sometimes with covert assistance from state security forces or in concert with local terrorist groups.

The United States sent Special Forces units to the Philippines to help combat the Abu Sayyaf insurrection in Mindinao, established a new military base in East Africa at Djibouti, and spurred counterterrorist efforts elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Many governments faced a delicate balancing act between placating American demands for access, military or otherwise, and arousing hostility within their own populations, among whom there was frequently sympathy and support for al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, other groups emerged in the shadowy underworld of terror, whether connected to al-Qaeda or claiming independence of it. In this regard, too, the war on terrorism had created its own paradox, spawning new terrorist entities even as it worked to identify and eliminate existing ones.

American Reaction to the War on Terrorism

Within the United States, the war on terrorism had created a new culture of security in which ordinary citizens found their freedom of movement and expression burdened and sometimes curtailed; even Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the brother of a former president and one of the most conspicuous figures in American public life, was denied air travel when his name mistakenly appeared on a watch list. After initial resistance, the Bush administration embraced the creation of the new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, whose first director was Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennnsylvania. The new department’s mandate was to coordinate security activities, but it met with resistance from entrenched military and intelligence bureaucracies, and its color-coded terror alerts soon became the subject of ridicule.

A bipartisan commission to investigate the circumstances of September 11, also initially opposed by President Bush, detailed the grave intelligence failings that lay behind the World Trade Center attacks, but its recommendation that intelligence budgeting and activity be centralized and coordinated was not implemented. The Justice Department launched numerous investigations and prosecutions of suspected terrorist cells in the United States, but achieved few significant convictions. On the other hand. the United States suffered no new terrorist attacks in the three years following September 11, even as the worldwide civilian death toll from further al-Qaeda attacks approached 1,000. Few doubted, however, that al-Qaeda, and perhaps other groups as well, retained the will and the capacity to strike again at American interests–either at home or abroad. In particular, many pointed to the potential havoc of insufficiently secured Soviet arsenals and to nuclear trafficking by North Korea and Pakistan.

Terrorism is a complex reaction to the authority of the modern state and the associated phenomena, real or perceived, of imperialism, neocolonialism, globalization, and underdevelopment. The war on terrorism was a response, both real and rhetorical, to the trauma of September 11, the most devastating attack ever launched on American soil. By early 2005, it involved major armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither of which was favorably resolved; the threat of action against Syria and Iran; and covert action in other sectors. It has seen as well a major reorientation of American foreign policy in the direction of an aggressive unilateralism.

The case of Iraq is instructive in this regard. The Bush administration had planned a war against Iraq prior to September 11, which served it as a pretext. Although President Bush made the Iraq war the centerpiece of his war on terrorism, this rationale clearly subsumed other, prior purposes. Meanwhile, in 2005, the threat of terror to American security remained real. On the other hand, the response to it by the Bush administration was giving credence to those who feared that the war would be exploited to advance hegemonic American interests. The war on terrorism was, therefore, in the broadest sense a war in progress, whose character and objectives were still being defined, and whose end was nowhere in sight.

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