Ever wonder why the number of terrorists, terror attacks and terror cells (Boko Haram, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS) continues to balloon despite our numerous military interventions? Well, there are myriad reasons, some of which are centered around branding. The rise of social media, which is often used by terror organizations to propagandize and lure in new participants has played a role, as well as the fear-inducing moments of infamy generated by the 24-hour news cycle. It’s easier to celebritize than ever before.
But overall branding and mass communication are far from the only factors at work here. The reality is many of our military interventions end up doing more harm than good. This is not in any way an indictment on the soldiers themselves, these missions are remarkably difficult and limiting collateral damage is often impossible. Like the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Terror” confronts its problem with sustained aggression in an attempt to squash the life out of it, while remaining entirely obtuse to why these problems exist in the first place. We (the U.S.) do not seem to be concerned with how our actions feed into the malignancy of these extremist movements, or how our operations play a role in building adversarial narratives.
This approach is not working.
Terrorism thrives in chaos, it often rises in unstable regions decimated by war. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11, our goal was to eradicate terrorism in the region, spread democracy and thus, stability— and to satiate the overwhelming desire to “do something.” As those wars waged on it became evident that defeating terrorism wasn’t all that simple. Terror cells are frequently hidden within civilian communities, so the risk of innocent death is ever-present.
Since 2003, we have continued along the same trajectory, sending troops and/or funds to fight terror in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan while using drones and fighting proxy wars in many others. According to a study conducted by the Physicians for Social Responsibility completed in 2015, an estimated 1.3 million people were killed as a result of the wars in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan between 2003-2015. And these estimates are regarded to be quite low, the actual number is thought to be closer to 2 million. Every month these wars kill hundreds and since Trump, thousands of civilians.
In addition to the death toll, airstrikes have left many areas uninhabitable displacing millions from their homes. Terrorists want to paint the U.S. as the enemy—and it’s not exactly a hard sell these days.
A report released by Reuters on Wednesday stated the UN Commission of Inquiry found that at least 300 civilians have been killed in the Syrian city of Raqqa by U.S.-led forces since March. ISIS has a stronghold in the region and the fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces (led by the U.S.) and the Islamic State has ramped up considerably since we pushed into the northern city last week.
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the chairman of the UN Commission addressed the UN Human Rights Council for the twentieth time regarding the unceasing violence in Syria stating:
“In areas controlled by extremist factions, we are gravely concerned with the mounting number of civilians who perish during airstrikes. For civilians to enjoy the protection to which they are entitled, warring parties must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and, in particular, the rules of distinction, proportionality, and precaution. We note in particular that the intensification of airstrikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced.”
Now compound the destruction and death in Raqqa with the devastating numbers coming out of Yemen. We have been supporting the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis for two years. The Obama administration sold the Saudis over $20 billion worth of arms, much of which was haphazardly deployed leading to thousands of civilian deaths. Not to be outdone, the Trump administration is in the final stages of approving a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen cannot be overstated, there are an estimated 18 million people in need of humanitarian assistance there. This is not all due to the U.S.-aided Saudi coalition, but a significant portion is. The coalition has been continually accused of war crimes. Last August, a hospital was bombed killing 11 people and injuring 19. Last October a funeral was bombed killing 140 people and wounding 525.
In March, there was a U.S.-led attack in Mosul, Iraq that was said to have killed up to 200 civilians.
According to data from Airwars, a minimum of 3,962 civilians have been killed in Iraq, Syria, and Libya from international air strikes.
We continue to support Saudi Arabia, a government who is known to fund terror organizations, we continue to play a big role in the Syrian Democratic Forces, we fund extremist and authoritarian regimes when we need to and denounce other nations for doing the same thing. The United States profiting from, supporting and occasionally employing war criminals is nothing new, but since 9/11 our interventionism has increased exponentially and dispersed throughout the world. The U.S. Special Forces Command currently have troops on the ground in 134 countries. 9/11 was a world-altering event, and a proportional response of some sort was warranted. But it’s been 14 years since we invaded Iraq. We’ve spent an estimated 4.79 trillion dollars as of September of last year, and yet the number of terrorists and terror attacks have increased over the last decade.
A study by Jessica Stern (Harvard) and Meghan K. McBride (Brown) found that our military presence in Iraq did not quell the number of terror attacks in the region, but increased their frequency substantially. There is a positive correlation occurring here. As Stern and McBride point out, our presence was used as a highly-efficient recruiting tool. Mustafa bin Abd al Qadir Setmariam Nasar, a prominent figure in al-Qaeda claimed the Iraq war “almost single-handedly rescued the Jihadi movement.”
America’s default setting has become perpetual war. Actions within this system can, at times, provide a quick fix in terms of surface-level wins, but there is no end game here.
Terror cells, much like cancer cells attack weak areas and multiply therein.
War begets war begets war.
This is not the path to victory and yet we continue to double-down. Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter. Obama built upon Bush’s war, and Trump is primed to build upon both. Another year, another few wars. Some settle down, some flare up, some shift—all feed the same self-fulfilling cycle.
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.