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Published on December 5th, 2013 | by Bilawal Atwal
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Why the US implemented a ‘war approach’ to Counter-Terrorism

The 9/11 attacks were the first foreign attack on US soil since the end of the Cold War, and with the US considered the major actor on the international stage, there was pressure for an immediate response. This is the war approach, and meant that the US was able to use ‘counter-terrorism’ more aggressively than a legal approach would have allowed. The biggest superpower in the world had just suffered its worst attack from a foreign actor and there were outcries from the US public to eliminate terrorism and take revenge. But to whom? War approach advocates would argue that the US had to declare war to prove its prestige as a global heavyweight, anchored at the time through the US public supporting this war strategy towards counter-terrorism.[1] The US had a huge sphere of influence in the Middle-East, with that possibly in jeopardy; the US’ war-cry towards terror was an influential publicity campaign. This “war rhetoric” has been pre-dominant in US media during the 20th century; i.e. the “War on drugs”. The US’ position before 9/11 regarding terrorism wasn’t adept. There was little CIA Intel towards terrorist groups in the Middle-East, while the US knew that Al-Qaeda was a threat they did not consider the possibility of an aerial attack towards their World Trade Centre.[2] The consequences meant that the US had little significant information regarding individual terrorist groups; thus ensuring a war approach to attempt to tackle this.

The war approach was able to boost morale for the US public, while also being able to maintain their tough posture in the international arena. Two other significant reasons for their infamous ‘war approach’ lay in the military strength of the US. The US is the military powerhouse of the world, by a mile, and therefore can use unilateral action without co-operating with other nations while also making use of science and technology.[3] The US with their military might, and also their global position, were able to implement a war approach in the first place. The US’ military could potentially listen, record, and track practically anyone in the world while also striking them down through drone use.[4] A Law approach for counter-terrorism would mean using or obtaining information under torture would make such evidence inadmissible and also putting a terrorist on trial is near impossible.[5] However any evidence gathered under torture is questionable.

To continue this discussion, it’s significant to evaluate some of the theoretical issues with this war approach. There are fundamental flaws for declaring a war against a concept; terrorism does not have a concrete definition that everyone uses. When the US declared a war against terror, they declared a war against anyone that they would classify as a terrorist. However with no concrete definition of what a terrorist is, how can there be a concrete enemy? The lack of definition means that the US can classify any potential enemy under their “terror” banner and therefore the United States can bypass international laws as they have done before under this terror banner. [6] This can also be anchored by the coercive interrogation for tackling terrorist regimes, though this will be discussed in further detail later on in this article. Another theoretical flaw for implementing a “war” approach is that a war only ends when the enemy is defeated. However with a war on terror, there is no concrete enemy and thus could consequently lead to a never ending war against terror.This is a fundamental flaw through enforcing a war approach towards a criminal act.

The other issue with taking a war approach was Al-Qaeda’s infamy addressed globally; through the extensive media attention, worldwide, towards the war on terror. This is another fundamental problem with declaring a war on terror since a terrorist group wants that attention in order to better argue out their ideology/manifesto on an international stage.[7] This isn’t helpful through the US’ intensive war campaign towards terrorism which is usually directed at the Middle-East; thus creating a potential paradox regarding this approach to counter-terrorism. This paradox means that a war approach to tackle terrorism, fused with an already large discontent within the Middle-East towards the US, in-fact breeds new terrorists.

Military action towards terrorism has been statistically proven to be flawed. Kovalik argued that, after studying 648 terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006, that military operations against terrorists are among the least effective means of success, achieving the desired effect in only 7% of the cases. Moreover, “the use of substantial U.S. military power against terror groups also runs a significant risk of turning the local population against the government by killing civilians.”[8]

The Iraq and Afghanistan invasions anchored the “grave error” of using a war approach, with both invasions coming under the US’ counter-terrorism policy, despite both invasions having no effect on terrorist activity in the Middle-East.[9] For the Iraq War; the US bypassed UN intervention for NATO forces thus splitting opinion on the war. However, in 2004, it was discovered that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction; questioning the legitimacy of the invasion.[10] The Iraq war underpins the failure of tackling terrorism through this approach. Using a war approach allowed the US to invade Iraq bypassing International Law, even though they had no evidence for Hussein creating WMDs. There are conflicting theories as to why the US decided to invade Iraq; including the official argument that Iraq represented a serious and potentially rising threat to a critically important region, while the materialist thesis is that the US was determined to secure direct control of Iraq’s massive reserves of oil.[11] It de-legitimised the war approach and their counter-terrorist operations amongst, not only the international scene, but even amongst the public. Public opinion polls during Bush’s elections infer that the public believed Iraq did not constitute under the War on Terror banner that the US had been promoting.[12]

The Afghanistan invasion was not quite similar to the Iraq invasion, in the sense that it was legitimate and the Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan at the time. Regardless it too proved the failure of the war rhetoric since despite all their efforts, the Taliban still exist today. If the war on terror is to tackle terrorism, then the invasions proved the failure of using a war approach in addressing counter-terrorism as they did nothing to contribute to this “war on terror” despite the ethical implications.

The economic cost of using a war strategy, not only in both invasions but also across the war on terror, helps assist this argument. It has been estimated that the War on Terror has cost trillions of dollars from the American tax payers alone.[13] In the 10 years since U.S. troops went into Afghanistan to root out the Al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11, 2001, attacks, spending on the conflicts totalled up to $2.7 trillion; the cost of U.S. military action now will run to at least $3.7trillion with the staggering figure reaching as high as $4.4trillion. [14] The overall immeasurable cost from the war on terror concludes that the practical implications of carrying out a war approach for counter-terrorism was too high.

According to the UN, 700 civilians have died in the Afghan conflict in 2008. Human Rights Watch reports that 1,633 Afghan civilians were killed in 2007 and 929 in 2006. And, those killed in U.S. bomb attacks are accounting for a greater and greater proportion of the civilian deaths as that war went on.[15] While in the Iraq war, 224,000 to 258,000 people have died directly from warfare – including 125,000 civilians in Iraq.[16] The death toll is staggering, considering that the terrorist attacks on September 11th were a criminal act and not a war crime. Yet, the response of the US addresses the ethical issues for using a war approach as the amount of casualties resulting from the invasions did not help the US win this “war on terror” nor did it defeat any major terrorist organisation.

Using a war approach for counter-terrorism meant that the CIA could theoretically torture potential terrorists without international legitimacy. As discussed earlier, advocates for counter-terrorism would argue that torture is necessary to tackle terrorism, but the ethical failure from the US for torturing innocent people[17] exacerbates the arguments against torture. The conditions of Guantanamo Bay also contain ethical implications; with anyone who is only suspected of being a terrorist sent there. This is a huge moral issue regarding the war approach and torture; since the US can brand anyone a terrorist, or receiving wrong Intel, and innocent people can get tortured violently and there have been innocent people sent to Guantanamo.[18]

The other issue of using torture to gain information is the reliability of the evidence from using torture. With the US allegedly using waterboarding and other excruciatingly painful methods of torture, when retrieving information from suspects who have been under these intense conditions, the information is scientifically proven to be unreliable.[19] The majority of the torture exhibited by the US wasn’t needed. The use of extensive, sometimes unnecessary use of torture by the US, answers the lack of normative foundation for the acceptance of torture.

For the US, using a military approach towards counter-terrorism was a weak strategy in tackling terrorist operations. The structural flaw that arises from this military approach concludes the theoretical error that the US initially and continued to ignore. The practical implications from the invasions was too cost-worthy; both invasions failed to stop terrorist activity in the Middle-East, millions of civilians have been killed as a result, and the amount of money invested only for it to be a waste, anchors the practical limitations of the war approach. The way the US had responded to terrorism, is without the same ethical foundations that terrorist organisations would operate. Yet it still continues to this day. Regardless of enacting with ill intentions or not, the outcome is immoral and detrimental with innocent lives at stake. With using a war approach the US lost direction from their moral compass, and acted out a totalitarian approach to stop a concept, no specific enemies, just vaguely wage war with a concept. Next week we’ll be returning to the second part of our Censorship in Britain blog that will assess surveillance within the UK and also some of the borderline propaganda techniques implemented within the media today such as ‘soft language’. Until then…

[1] N. Conan, “How 9/11 Changed How Americans View The World”, NPR,
[2] A.W. McCoy, A Question of Torture (New York: Owl Books, 2006), p.120.
[3] R. Crelinsten, Counterterrorism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) pp. 76-77.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid p.59.
[6] G. Greenwald, “Bush and Blair found guilty of war crimes for Iraq attack”, Salon , November 23 2011,
[7] D. Schultz, K. Dudnosi and F. Bolz, The Counterterrorism Handbook, (Boca Raton: CRC Press,. 2012) p.63
[8] D. Kovalik, “Rand Corp – The War on Terror has been a failure”, Huffington Post, 31 July 2008,—-war-on-terro_b_116107.html
[9] Richard Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005) pg 14.
[10] J.Borger, “There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”, The Guardian, 7 October 2004,
[11] J. Baylis, S. Smith and P. Owens (2011) p.79.
[12] “Iraq is not War on Terror”, Angus-Reid Public-Opinion, 13th May 2007,
[13] M. Tompson, “The $1 Trillion bill for Bush’ War on Terror”, The Times, December 26th 2008,,8599,1868367,00.html
[14] D.M. Reporter, “The true cost of the war on terror”, Daily Mail, June 29 2011,
[15] D. Kovalik (2008)
[16] D.M. Reporter (2011)
[17] L. Siems, “How America came to torture its animals”, April 20th 2012
[18] A.W.McCoy (2006), pp. 149-150.
[19] Ibid p. 124

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About the Author

Bilawal Atwal

Bilawal Atwal has a BA in International Relations from the University of Leicester.

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