“Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s New American engagement initiative (NAEI). The series stems from NAEI’s monthly networking events that invite analysts to come together virtually and discuss an important topic. The goal of this series is to give you an overview of their Zoom Room and a deep understanding of the problem in less time than it takes to sip your morning coffee, without the jargon, acronyms and congestion that often accompany the expertise. .
What are the experts talking about in September? The Withdrawal US forces in Afghanistan marked the end the largest ongoing component of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), launched in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. What does the GWOT look like 20 years later? Does the increased focus on US competition with China mean the end of the GWOT era, or will the systems put in place over the past two decades persist?
Does the increased focus on US competition with China mean the end of the GWOT era, or will the systems put in place over the past two decades persist?
The Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI) brought together a number of experts to discuss key lessons from the ongoing GWOT. The discussion was broad, covering the initial decision to respond to the September 11 attacks with the invasion of Afghanistan, the challenges of the non-military components on the missions of the war in Afghanistan and that on terrorism as development, and the massive expansion of the US security state focused on preventing a narrow band of possible threats. There was general consensus that the GWOT model was no longer useful in meeting U.S. foreign policy goals and agreement that resources needed to be reallocated to better meet the demands of the day. There was less agreement on how the United States could best use its non-military tools to help countries mitigate terrorist threats on their own. Four of the participants developed below their thoughts on the most important lessons to be learned from GWOT:
Aude Darnal, associate director, NAEI
Waging war to counter extremism often amounts to stopping a leak in a roof rather than looking for the source of the leak.
While many wonder what could have been done differently in Afghanistan to win the war, the more difficult question is whether the US government could have taken non-military action to counter the threat of violent extremism after 9/11. . Of course, force may be the easiest way to temporarily degrade terrorists’ ability to attack or seize territory. However, it is unlikely to address the root causes that allow violent extremist groups to recruit and thrive. This riddle is not specific to Afghanistan, and should lead every political discussion on countering violent extremism, regardless of the country or region, or the violent extremist group targeted. After years of disastrous military operations in the Middle East and Africa, it has become clear that targeted assassinations and military tools do not effectively counter violent extremist groups, although they can – often only temporarily – Have an impact on their attack capacity. These groups are generally networks, deeply rooted in the areas where they operate, and foreign military interventions to root them out have proven to be largely to fail, even if they exacerbate grievances it can be in fact used by violent extremist groups as justification for violence.
Waging war to counter extremism often amounts to stopping a leak in a roof rather than looking for the source of the leak. Local expertise is invaluable, but even there it can be difficult to harness it into a cohesive strategy. In short, policymakers need to understand and consider the underlying dynamics that drive these groups and their support base, and consider whether America’s own military campaigns are part of the problem rather than the solution.
Madison Schramm, Postdoctoral researcher, Institute for Politics and Strategy, Carnegie Mellon University
The study and practice of war is often siled in time (onset, conduct, and end), thematically (e.g., coalition building, operational planning, technology, institutions, negotiations), and institutionally (e.g. White House, USAID, Defense, State, Universities). , and think tanks), making it a complex coordination challenge. To develop coherent and achievable goals, we need wide-ranging exchanges between various actors and groups to discover overlapping and contradicting actions and policies, and to adapt to new dynamics.
While the prospects of “winning” in Afghanistan (and what would have constituted victory) can be debated, there is little doubt that the United States could have better done. The lack of inter-institutional, political and intellectual discussions regarding both ends and means at all stages of the conflict appears to have been just as important to the outcome as the realities of physical and human geography on the ground.
This kind of coordination is no easy task. There are bureaucratic and logistical challenges, not to mention the cognitive barriers to keeping track of all those moving parts. Perfection is unattainable even for a country as rich and powerful as the United States, and we have many examples of similar failures. at home and abroad. It is not unreasonable, however, to ask that we do better. And if we do not succeed, it is all the more a reason to rethink the usefulness of military intervention and the long-term feasibility of regime change imposed by foreigners.
(The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)
Harlan ullman, Senior Advisor, Scowcroft Center for Atlantic Council Strategy and Security
The most important lesson that should have been learned after the 9/11 attacks and was not is this: 9/11 ended the dominance of the state-centric Westphalian system in international politics. The Westphalian system was based on both sovereignty and the ultimate authority of states as arbiters of the decisive use of force to affect matters of war and peace. Of course, individuals have always had a limited capacity to do so – Gavrilo Princip with a handful of bullets precipitated World War I by murdering an Archduke and his wife in June 1914.
The most important lesson that should have been learned after the 9/11 attacks and was not is this: 9/11 ended the dominance of the state-centric Westphalian system in international politics.
But al-Qaeda has demonstrated that non-state actors have acquired this capacity, in part playing on state vulnerabilities, ironically derived from globalization and the spread of power that has dramatically raised living standards. In this process, greater vulnerabilities to disruption have been created. As we have become more reliant on technology and more interconnected due to globalization, we have also become more vulnerable, ushering in an era symbolized by what I call the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse armed with a new MAD for them. massive disruption attacks ranging from government failure and failure in the face of climate change to cyber social media, all exacerbated by COVID-19, which claimed more american lives that WWI, WWII and the Vietnam War combined.
Sadly, MAD’s as menacing as possible presence of state opponents – and possibly more – was not realized. So the United States and others are facing the 21st century with concepts still married in centuries past dealing with the main dangers emanating from states when MAD became the new threat.
Micah Zenko, Director of Research and Learning, McChrystal Group
The terrorist attacks of September 11 were catastrophic and heartbreaking, as well as an anomaly in the history of international terrorism. It is a bad idea for a great power to design and implement its grand strategy on extremely rare and recent events. However, if this great power chooses to do so, it must carefully and accurately diagnose the event – from the underlying causes and conditions to the best corresponding preventive measures.
Fortunately, the United States produced such a diagnosis in the form of the bipartite 9/11 Commission Report. The conclusions and recommendations of the Commission could have served both as an X-ray and as a roadmap to structure the foreign policy component of the grand American strategy after September 11. Sadly, this diagnosis was quickly dismissed by civilian and military leaders, and GWOT was subsequently prosecuted on the basis of a flawed and historically inaccurate description of 9/11.
This alternative and misleading diagnosis centered on the “safe haven thesis”: the proposition that a “safe haven” in Afghanistan was essential for the planning and conduct of the September 11 attacks. This was not determined by the Commission, which more strongly emphasized shelters in Germany, Florida, Arizona, California, Minnesota, Maryland and elsewhere. Nevertheless, this thesis has become the accepted truth for politicians, experts and government officials. It is high time the United States reassessed the GWOT and the unnecessary damage it has caused to the international system.