The War on Terror: still a losing proposition

In February 2015, President Obama released a new National Security Strategy (NSS), sounding several notes of improvement and cautious optimism for the United States going forward. In particular, the NSS heralds the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside significant gains against al Qaeda. However, Obama also reminds us that the US faces a “pivotal moment” pregnant with “serious challenges to our national security”, including the continued specter of “violent extremism and an evolving terrorist threat”. Despite progress, Obama concludes, continued vigilance and industry in the prosecution of the War on Terror (WoT) are required.

Compared with the G.W. Bush administration, Obama has effectively combined legal precedents with unprecedented tactical successes in the WoT. But despite these departures from the Bush years, Obama’s latest vision of US security policy repeats and encourages the same flawed logic that has stalked the country since 2001. Therefore, it is worth underlining and elaborating the point that the WoT presents the US with a fight it cannot win. In spite of American military superiority, the very nature and meaning of “victory” in late modern war has shifted beneath our feet in such a way that conventional notions like negotiated settlements, surrender for the sake of survival, and total conquest are either impossible or turned upside down. That is, while both Obama and Bush understand[1] that terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and now Islamic State (IS) present unconventional adversaries, neither administration has appreciated the implications of an unconventional adversary for the strategic relationship between military might and political purpose.

These implications resolve most clearly against the backdrop of conventional, modern wars. In such conflicts, adversaries are typically territorially defined nation-states deploying uniformed militaries to incapacitate rivals or conquer territory. Each foe wants to win the war in order to advance its own interests. More importantly, each side wants to survive the war one. Historically, there have been few causes worth fighting a losing war to the death, as the Belgians did against a superior German opponent in 1914 for the sake of national honor and European community.[2] Setting aside the possibility of mutual exhaustion, the upshot of this is that victory in modern war usually comes in one of two basic forms: total victory by comprehensive annihilation and conquest of your adversary, or victory through negotiated settlement. The latter is much more common in modern history, not least because it produces a victor without killing off the vanquished. We can think of this as surrender-for-survival.

Like most political entities, conventional nation-states are committed first and foremost to survival. Therefore they each have an interest in committing to and respecting the terms of a negotiated settlement. Placed in a position of clear military inferiority, they would rather surrender-to-survive than fight-to-their-death. This lends modern war a social character, or what political scientists refer to as an “intersubjective” quality based on shared beliefs or values on both sides,[3] for while they are willing to commit systematic acts of extreme violence against each other, modern nation-states still share a mutual interest in the sanctity of their ability to speak to one another, hammer out a deal, and respect it going forward so that they can live to pursue politics of a less costly and deadly variety another day. Short of total annihilation of one side by the other, then, victory is a social bond that requires both sides to acknowledge (perhaps to varying degrees) who won and who lost. Negotiated settlements are crucial to this because they allow adversaries to find acceptable terms of victory and defeat. They are the social connective tissue of modern war because the intersubjective power of the settlement adheres two violent foes to each other in a way that retains the possibility of limiting and even ending their conflict. It is the social bond that keeps their war from becoming a one-time-only affair that ends in utter annihilation of one side. The latter option is exceedingly unattractive because it makes war not so much a policy option of last resort as a total existential struggle where victory and defeat are cast in the starkest terms, as they were for Hitler in WWII.

When compared with these core aspects of conventional warfare, the war on terror does not look like a winning proposition. This is largely due to the unconventional nature of terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, but also to particular American foreign policy habits. First, unlike modern nation-states, al Qaeda and its affiliates have no strict territorial connections or limitations. Affiliates may add a geographical qualifier, but this does not link them to the named territory in the same way as territorial sovereignty. Al Qaeda in the Magreb or the Arabian Peninsula do not possess the same geopolitical qualities as, say, Mali, Saudi Arabia, or other nation-states, which correspond to discrete and exclusive areas. Additionally, because they are more fluid and less dependent on fixed assets for their capabilities, it is much more difficult to identify stable geographic or strategic vulnerabilities of terrorist organizations. In terms of victory, this means that there is no direct relationship between devastating or occupying a territory and debilitating our adversaries—as lengthy and unsuccessful[4] occupations in Iraq or Afghanistan showed, military superiority is insufficient to defeat those who possess few hardwired links to an area and can move easily in and out of it. It thus becomes implausible that al Qaeda would surrender to save territory or that the US and its allies could win simply by overrunning territory.

Furthermore, when thinking about al Qaeda and later IS, we tend to conflate intentional unpredictability with irrational and even “absurd” qualities and behaviors,[5] all of which encourage the view that terrorists cannot be engaged as strategic actors. The Obama administration claims that “no compromise or political bargain” is available with terrorists.[6] This is likely accurate, but the logic behind it is flawed in a crucial way. Terrorists do not exist in a vacuum; quite the opposite, they are largely defined by their opposition to the US and its allies, or perhaps Western democracy, or even the modern Enlightenment. The important point here is not the particular object of their dissent but rather that their very identity depends on a conflictual relationship with more established international actors. Much as the Afghanistan mujahideen emerged to fight Soviet occupation, al Qaeda sprang from their remnants only once it found its raison d’etrê in opposing the actions and policies of the US and its allies.[7]

Now most social and political actors depend to some extent on an “other” by which they define what they are not, but in the case of terrorism this is especially bad news. Whereas nation-states can surrender-to-survive, thereby preserving their territorial integrity, sovereignty, and international standing, the moment that al Qaeda capitulates it ceases to exist in any meaningful way. The war on terror is therefore in a sort of double bind because terrorists do not need to consider surrender for the sake of territory or geopolitical assets and they cannot surrender-to-survive. Surrender in the conventional sense has little traction here because it is only by continuing to fight (and take losses) that al Qaeda can continue to exist. It has become something of a cliché that Islamist terrorists love to die as much as others love to live, but the more important strategic point is that while battlefield casualties count as tactical losses for nation-state militaries, they provide a sort of perverse index of the health of the jihadist cause—not because of some nihilistic obsession with violence but because of the dependence of such causes on a conflictual relationship to conventional actors.[8] This takes negotiated and unilateral surrender off the table for terrorists. In either case they preserve no territory and save no population while confronting their own dissolution.

Modern states possess more flexibility so long as their national pride can accept defeat or imbalanced terms. However, it would be strange for a country possessing the world’s preeminent military to take such steps; furthermore, surrender is not typically considered part of the American way. In any case, the US’s historical position on terrorism denies this option: if we categorically do not negotiate with terrorists, then we cannot pursue a negotiated victory, surrender, truce, or other end to the war on terror. On the menu of victory, then, the US has only the option of comprehensively disabling terrorist organizations once and for all: for a country that has positioned itself as the US has, any fight against terrorism is necessarily a fight to the death.

Now given our military superiority, this might seem like a plausible option. Obama’s rhetoric of “degrading and ultimately defeating” or “destroying” <NSS> al Qaeda and now IS certainly suggests that the nation embraces a policy of existential elimination. But once again the unique make-up of terrorist organizations in relation to organized violence poses problems. Were al Qaeda and IS composed of a fixed or constrained number of fighters whose continuing capacity for large-scale violence and critical mass provided the material component of some country’s political power, then we could talk about destroying them once and for all. But terrorist violence requires comparatively tiny amounts of people and materiel to wreak havoc, while the absence of links between terrorist organizations and state sovereignty renders the strategic question of casualties largely moot. Furthermore, it is much easier to join or become affiliated with a terrorist organization than a state military—you can become affiliated with IS today simply by a few clicks online, but it would require much more to join, say, the Russian army. This means there is no guarantee that al Qaeda or IS cannot reconstitute itself following conventionally catastrophic losses. Here, the use of American torture and drone policies in al Qaeda and IS recruitment techniques demonstrates just how quickly terrorist organizations can populate their ranks.

Terrorist organizations cannot eliminate the US and its allies, but despite our military superiority it looks as though we cannot decisively eliminate terrorists either. Absent the ability of either side to negotiate an end to the conflict, the war on terror is the worst kind of war: unwinnable and perpetual. For terrorists this is fine because it promises their continued relevance to international politics. For a superpower such as the US, an unwinnable and unending war is a lost war. This conclusion casts the recent NSS assessment in a different light than it was likely intended. Obama notes that in spite of “decimating” al Qaeda and its affiliates, the US still faces a “persistent risk of attacks on America and our allies”.[9] However, rather than addressing the possibility that terrorism is not a winnable war in conventional terms, Obama’s point is that we need more funding, vigilance, and support so it can continue.

Perhaps Obama and Bush understood some variant of this reasoning this all along. Both have stated that the war on terror is won once “Americans feel safe”. But then this is a strange belief to hold while prosecuting a war that shows no sign of ending, no signs of resolving in any decisive victory for the US, has cost an enormous amount in terms of blood, money, international prestige, and national values, and requires repeated reminders that we are still at risk of catastrophic terrorist attacks (which, it should be noted, take precedence in the new NSS over much larger-scale dangers such as global economic crisis, weapons of mass destruction, pandemic outbreaks, and climate change[10]). Perhaps we must settle for policies of degradation and destruction that do not result in Americans actually feeling safer (which is, in any event, a matter of psychology or public health rather than foreign policy) but “end” in an endless policy of “keeping pressure” on debilitated groups like al Qaeda.[11] Such a strategy, if it can be called that, would be difficult to sell to the American people and Congress on a rolling basis.

Going into the fourteenth year of the war on terror, there is no real victory in sight. Even worse, because neither side can accept defeat—either for reasons of national conceit or organizational identity—there is no end in sight. In light of this ongoing disconnect between American security policy, terrorism, and the idea of victory in unconventional conflict, an alternative assessment makes more sense. Contrary to Obama’s claims, when it comes to terrorism we are in the habit of acting based on “fear” rather than “hope”;[12] “principled and clear-eyed diplomacy” cannot be “our first line of action” because it is not even on the table; and our leadership on this issue possesses no “long-term perspective”[13] and no coherent conception of how addressing terrorism through war can become a winning proposition for the world’s strongest country and its partners.

Andrew R. Hom, PhD, University of Glasgow

[1] ‘Jeh Johnson Speech at the Oxford Union’, Lawfare, accessed 24 February 2015,; Jeh Johnson, ‘Remarks by Secretary Of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at the Council on Foreign Relations – As Delivered’, Department of Homeland Security, 10 September 2014,; Jim Garamone, ‘Rumsfeld Says Link Between Iraq, Al Qaeda “Not Debatable”’, American Forces Press Service, 27 September 2002,

[2] Brent J. Steele, Ontological Security in International Relations: Self-Identity and the IR State (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), chp. 5.

[3] Mark A. Neufeld, The Restructuring of International Relations Theory (Cambridge ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 16.

[4] Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, First Edition edition (Boston: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

[5] ‘Jeh Johnson Speech at the Oxford Union’.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Reprint edition (New York: Vintage, 2007).

[8] It can be argued here that not all opposition needs to be violent but without violence and especially unconventional violence, terrorist organizations must compete with other, more robust and successful organizations that check or oppose the influence of powerful actors in world affairs.

[9] Barack Obama, ‘2015 National Security Strategy’ (The White House, February 2015), introductory remarks,

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] Ibid., introductory remarks.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 4.

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