Fighting the Bad Fight: The War on Terror Revisited

Twelve years have passed since President George W. Bush declared before a nation traumatized and enraged by the events of 9/11 the start of a “crusade . . . on terrorism,”[1] a so-called war on terror, after which he authorized the invasion of Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was known to have established itself.  The War in Afghanistan, which still rages unabated, presaged a greater U.S. military presence in the Middle East, and was eventually followed by the Iraq War in 2003.  Today, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined, have cost the U.S. a staggering $6 trillion, nearly a third of the nation’s $17 trillion national debt, and the lives of 6,772 of its soldiers.  To what end?

President Bush, in making his case for going to war in the Middle East, suggested that taking up arms against nations suspected of aiding and abetting terrorism would help to bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice.  But Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s titular head, was not killed fighting American troops on the field of battle.  Rather, he was assassinated by a small team of Navy S.E.A.L.s in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, far from the turmoil in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Needless to say, fighting al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Taliban in no way brought the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.

President Bush also pledged to eradicate terrorism wherever and whenever it might flourish by, in his own words, “direct[ing] every resource at our command––every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war––to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.”[2]  This certainly is a telling statement in light of what we’ve learned since about the lengths to which the U.S. went to preserve its national security: Mr. Bush’s prevarications regarding the existence of nuclear weapons in Iraq, which in large part allowed the U.S. to cow the U.N. into going along with its plans to invade Iraq; the incarceration of as many as 780 illegal combatants at Guantanamo Bay, many of whom have been held indefinitely without being tried; the torture of Gitmo detainees by the C.I.A. in complete violation of international standards like the Geneva Convention; and more.  But, as committed to quashing terrorism as the U.S. has shown itself to be, the world is arguably more dangerous for Americans now than it was right after 9/11.  Al Qaeda, once a ragtag group of roughly ten thousand, has matured into a thriving community that transcends borders and has acquired some degree of mainstream recognition amongst Muslims.  Terrorist groups have sprung up all throughout the Islamic world, from Algeria and Mali to Pakistan and Indonesia, and though the trend towards a more radicalized, anti-American Muslim society cannot be established conclusively, the world certainly seems to be headed in that direction.

A Wrong-headed Agenda

The U.S., to a large extent, has only itself to blame for its withering stature amongst Muslims.  Mr. Bush’s ambitious “Freedom Agenda”––which proposed that the U.S. enforce “the spread of freedom as the great alternative to the terrorists’ ideology of hatred”[3]––may have seemed like the best course of action when first conceived, and, in all fairness, met with some early success, but ultimately sowed the seeds of hatred.  Examples of the Freedom Agenda’s initial success are the overthrow of the Taliban, which inadvertently improved the lives of Afghan women who had suffered grievously under the previous regime’s strict application of sharia law, and that of Iraq’s ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein, whose departure has since enabled the formation of a popularly elected government that, if not perfect, certainly does its best to see to its people’s needs.  But these successes came at the exorbitant price of hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.  And, in any case, whatever successes one could derive from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were irrevocably tarnished by the sadomasochistic abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the 2007 massacre of Iraqi civilians by independent military contractors from Blackwater USA, the 2002 torture and killing of the Afghan taxi driver Dilawar, last year’s spontaneous murder of sixteen Afghan villagers, and various other isolated acts of violence by American military personnel that give the U.S. a bad reputation.

Nor has the U.S.’s standing improved under President Obama’s watch.  Indeed, if possible, it has worsened.  For despite overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and playing a key role in ensuring the success of the Arab Spring, Mr. Obama has also authorized the expansion of a Bush-era drone program jointly run by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Academi (formerly known as Blackwater USA).  This program, whose objective is to assassinate individuals whose names appear on the so-called Disposition Matrix, a “kill list” of suspected enemies of the U.S., has received increasing condemnation from foreign governments that accuse the U.S. of interfering with their sovereignty and with the safety of their citizens.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s account of U.S. drone activity in Pakistan between 2008 and 2011, published on February 4, 2012, as many as 535 civilians, 60 of whom were children, were killed by drone strikes; still others have estimated that 890 civilians, including 197 children, were killed during the same interval, but the Bureau’s numbers are generally regarded as most accurate.[4]  Be that as it may, this is no numbers game, and the poignant tales told of the victims of drone attacks––wide-eyed villagers grieving for livelihoods destroyed, limbs lost, and loved ones killed––are certainly enough to account for the anti-American sentiment that pervades the region.  As draconian as the fundamentalists’ worldview might seem to these humble villagers, their shared hatred of the U.S. transcends such differences and makes them reluctant allies against the ‘invading’ Americans.

The Civil Equation

One of the goals of Mr. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, described above, was to export American ideals of liberty and democracy to the Middle East, in effect replacing centuries-old institutions with the U.S.’s particular brand of democracy.  In a fit of hubris, it was expected that the Arabs, force-fed American-style freedom, would yield to the wide-ranging changes unprotestingly.  This presumption extended to changes to their very way of life, which, outmoded and unjust as it in many ways would have seemed to Americans preoccupied by their idiosyncratic conception of what liberty ought to be (I speak of the limited opportunities offered to women, the application of cruel and unusual punishments for comparatively minor criminal offenses, and the practice of polygamy), was inevitably earmarked for westernization.

Now, Americans may indeed have a point about the injustices of Islamic society.  It certainly is true that women in the Muslim world are denied a proper education––the 2012 World Economic Forum identified in its annual global gender gap report “17 of [the] 18 worst performing nations, out of a total of 135 nations,”[5] as member-states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.  Likewise, sharia law’s punishments for adultery, theft, apostasy, and the consumption of alcohol, which include public floggings, amputation of the hands or feet, stonings, and, in some extreme cases, death by the sword, smack of an unnecessary cruelty that, while not representative of Islam as a whole, give credence to Americans’ suspicions of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

But the fact that Islam may, like any other religion, have flaws in no way gives the U.S. the right to arbitrarily discard traditions that have endured for over 1,400 years.  After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the U.S. likewise struggled to come to terms with the injustices perpetrated by its own institutions.  Fifty years ago, in the 1960s, the U.S. was in the throes of an identity crisis as African-Americans fought (literally) to end segregation, and as late as 1930 black Americans were still being lynched, often without cause, by their white counterparts.  And last but most definitely not least, the institution of slavery was abolished not a century and a half ago in 1865, and only at the conclusion of a four-year civil war that cost the lives of over 600,000 Americans, no less.  Had France or Great Britain, which by the 1860s had long outlawed slavery, ever thought to deem the U.S. unfit to settle its own affairs without their intervention, Americans would surely have erupted in collective outrage, and rightfully so.  Why, then, should Americans see fit to intervene in the Middle East when they themselves would balk at receiving the same treatment?

By no means do I condone the oppression of women or the implementation of cruel and unusual punishments––verily do I believe that these and other issues should be addressed, and certain international standards of human decency enforced, without question.  Nonetheless, I have reservations about the U.S.’s ability to organize Muslims in a revolt against their very way of life, and am convinced that such change in the Middle East can only come from within, not without, if it is to be sincere and long-lasting.

What Should’ve Been

In any case, that the U.S.’s progress in fighting the war on terror leaves much to be desired is beyond question.  Indeed, the recent assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, is perhaps expressive of the futile nature of our efforts to eradicate terrorism, for Mehsud was immediately replaced by Mullah Fazlullah, who, if possible, is “more ruthless and ideologically driven than his predecessors.”[6]  Now, as Thanksgiving looms on the horizon, perhaps the time is ripe for Americans to reflect on their nation’s military escapades in the Muslim world, and to consider what might’ve been had they and their leaders reacted differently to 9/11.  For though Afghanistan and Iraq will, for better or worse, leave an indelible mark on America’s national identity, we can learn from our past mistakes.  The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, ever the skeptic, once suggested that “[w]e’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what,” but I’d dearly like to believe otherwise.

The U.S.’s biggest mistake, in retrospect, may have been to act on its all-consuming thirst for vengeance.  For however much Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda deserved to be brought to justice, the U.S., by going to war in the Middle East, made enemies of millions of Muslims who might otherwise have been supportive of America had not the U.S. needlessly inflicted pain upon their spiritual brethren in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Rather, the U.S. should have reacted to 9/11 with prudence, or perhaps not at all.

Not react to 9/11?  Such a statement seems preposterous and, worse, unconscionable, a veritable slap in the face for the loved ones of the 2,977 people whose lives were destroyed on that fateful day.  Indeed, the entire nation would have taken to the streets in violent protest had Mr. Bush suggested such a course of action.  But, as politically outlandish and morally indefensible as it would have been to refrain from retaliating against the perpetrators of 9/11, Americans should have had the presence of mind to recognize that, when the exaction of revenge supersedes the pursuit of justice, a once-unimpeachable cause can become twisted and aberrant, founded on corrupt ideals.  Stoicism, accompanied by an unstinting benevolence, may have been the worthier alternative in the long run.  Rather than embarking on an impossible quest to speedily democratize the Islamic world, had the U.S. instead sought to empower the Middle East by investing in its future, it surely would have made friends of the oppressed millions who now are discreet proponents of terrorism, if not jihadists themselves.  Indeed, a gladdened Middle East might very well have caused the global terror network to implode, bereft as it could have been of its bedrock amongst the disadvantaged.


The war on terror has been an ignominious failure for the U.S.  Hounded, terrorized, economically spent, militarily demoralized, and ethically compromised, the U.S. has tragically lost its way, as is increasingly apparent with each subsequent whistle-blowing revelation, the latest being the disclosures made by Edward Snowden.  The verdict is clear: the U.S. has become an enemy of the very freedoms it once championed, and, in that regard, has allowed Islamic jihad to achieve an ideological victory over American democracy.

Works Cited

[1] Tenth Crusade. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2013 from Wikipedia:

[2] George W. Bush: Declaration of War on Terrorism. (September 20, 2001). Retrieved November 12, 2013 from

[3] Freedom Agenda. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2013 from

[4] Drone attacks in Pakistan. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2013 from Wikipedia:

[5] Women in Islam. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2013 from Wikipedia:

[6] Sahi, A., & Magnier, M. (2013, November 10). Pakistani taliban’s choice of leader signals an ominous turn. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,4807073.story#axzz2kOSUm3cS

Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on November 13, 2013, in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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