Should We End The ‘War On Terror’?

Scrolling through old NPR shows, I stumbled onto an excellent debate from around the time of the September 11 anniversary.  The debate question was “Is it time to end the War on Terror?”.  This Oxford style debate featured two sides.  (Note: Oxford style debates are conducted in collared, button down shirts with Khaki pants where as Bermuda style are conducted in long shorts.)

For ending the ‘War on Terror’ were Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation and Juliette Kayyem of Harvard University’s Kennedy school.  Bergen led the charge asserting the U.S. has achieved victory in this conflict killing the majority of AQ’s senior leadership and preventing any major AQ attack for several years.  While he noted AQ members or AQ affiliates could attack again, the wind is out of AQ and by perpetuating the ‘War on Terror’ mantra we are only further scaring the U.S. population and spending unnecessary resources to placate this fear.

Against ending the ‘War on Terror’ were former CIA/NSA director General Michael Hayden and Deputy NYPD commissioner/White House Dep. Homeland Security Advisor Richard Falkenwrath.  Both Hayden and Falkenwrath focused on the legal implications of ending the ‘War on Terror’.  As they importantly noted, declaring victory and ending the war would also end the legal authorities which allow the U.S. to pursue al Qaeda and its affiliate anywhere they might be in the world.  Hayden and Falkenwrath believe this reduction in authority could allow AQ to reemerge.

I found myself on both sides of this debate.  Earlier this summer, J.M. Berger brought up the important point about there being no clear definition of “Al Qaeda”.  Thus, it’s difficult to know if we’ve won since we can’t clearly define what we are fighting.

Meanwhile, Bergen provided an excellent challenge to Hayden and Falkenwrath noting that if the current state of AQ doesn’t represent a defeated organization and a U.S. victory then what will be the conditions in which the U.S. can declare victory.   Hayden and Falkenwrath couldn’t define those conditions. Hayden provided a particularly weak answer stating something to the effect (not an exact quote), “I think we’ll know what victory is when we get there/we’ll know it when we see it.” Hayden was strong at many points in the debate but particularly weak here.

Kayyem seemed to agree with both sides of the argument at times.  She noted that she thought the U.S. has won the ‘War on Terror’.  Kayyem thought we should scale down the resources dedicated to fight AQ while also protecting the legal authorities to continue pursuing terrorist threat.

Ultimately, I believe we need to end the ‘War on Terror’ while still pursuing any and all terror groups and their members wherever they may reside.  Ending the ‘War on Terror’ is important.  Pursuing a never-ending campaign against an undefined enemy ultimately hurts the U.S. financially and psychologically. Unfortunately, as mentioned in the debate, no politician will declare the end to terrorism as it is political suicide.  Politicians gain much more from building fear than allaying fear.

The crux of this debate ultimately hinges on the antiquated legal structure the U.S. uses to pursue its enemies.  The U.S. can’t end the ‘War on Terror’ without tying its hands.  Solving this problem requires the U.S. to update its laws to enable rather than disable the nation’s ability to pursue non-state asymmetric threats.  The U.S. appears far more likely to face terrorists than nation-states in the near term.  The challenges presented by cyber threats push the boundaries of warfare even further in the direction of asymmetry.

So what should the U.S. do?  Try to fight it’s enemies through guidelines constructed for a world we no longer live in? Or develop a more nimble approach cognizant of the asymmetric battlefields enabling our enemies? I’m guessing the U.S. will pursue the first option as the Executive and particularly the Legislative Branches appear incapable of accomplishing anything.  I hope the folks a Lawfare do a post sometime soon (or maybe a comprehensive book) describing how the law of war might be re-written.  They’ve had some good reviews lately.

Below is the audio for the debate and I think it’s well worth listening to and well moderated.

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