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Understanding the Failure of the Global War on Terrorism and Suggestions for Future Strategies Analytical Essay

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Updated: Oct 21st, 2019

The Global War on Terror (GWOT) is a worldwide military campaign initiated by the US, UK and several other countries in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre. Its stated aim was the eradication of militant Islamic groups that were targeting America and its allies and its scope was the whole world.

The concept of a GWOT originated from the US, which before 2001 had been the target of Islamic militant attacks at its overseas interests. However, the 9/11 attacks changed the country’s defense approach, with former President George W.

Bush declaring on September 16, 2001, at Camp David that, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while”. These remarks marked the beginning of a change in strategy. Hitherto, terrorists had attacked the US on foreign soil and even at sea in the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 .

However, 9/11 was the first time ever since Pearl Harbor that the country had experienced an aggressive act on its own soil. With the Bush administration taking longer than usual to find its feet in its first year of office, the attacks gave it renewed focus. On September 20, 2001 the US president addressed congress and for the first time used the phrase “war on terror”.

He said, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaida, but it does not end there”. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated”, he continued.

The president and other leaders in his administration such as Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, went to great lengths to prepare Americans for a long and almost endless campaign that aimed at destroying what they described as the international terrorist infrastructure.

In American thinking, an attack at home, against one of the best-defended countries in the world, was an outrage that required immediate attention. From that point on, the American Government increasingly reshaped its policies to fit the demands of the war on terror. The national budget had to accommodate a war, the defense systems required reorganization and country’s foreign policy went through a redesign, and most importantly, a campaign to win public support ensued.

Over the last 10 years, several commentators came up with various reasons to explain the waging of the war on terror. Most of these observers fall into three groups; those who supported the war at the start and still do, those who always opposed the war from the beginning and those who initially supported the war but changed their position. By examining these three groups, it is possible to come up with the rationale behind the GWOT.

The first group that always supported the war was of the view that there was a need to maintain America’s territorial integrity. They maintained that pursuing anti-American Islamic militants wherever they were must be a priority policy.

This is because according to them, “the attacks struck at the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the united states and the principle of just cause could be vindicated in a most fundamental sense when military operations are undertaken for the purpose of national self defense”. Many of the policy advisers of the Bush administration belonged to this group, and they still support this position today.

To this group, reliable National Security was a non-negotiable position and any threat to the American people called for neutralization through all possible means. The influence of this group led to the increased use of detention facilities inside and outside the US and the passage of laws such as The Patriot Act that took place to facilitate the hunt for terrorists in the country.

As far as foreign policy was concerned, the administration started pushing allies across the world to join its military campaigns, pass laws similar to The Patriot Act, and build military bases to facilitate the movement of the US military. To the war supporters, this was a clear-cut issue and the best way to deal with terrorists was to kill or bring them to justice.

The second group that consisted of those opposed to the war was of the view that if terrorists attacked the US then the there was a very strong reason that led to that daring move and that was what America needed to address. Many observers who opposed the war and pacifists who advocated dialogue expressed the opinion that America had to reshape its foreign policy, especially its support for Israel, in a bid to understand and eventually pacify the forces that had precipitated the attack.

This pacifist view received little attention as the American media quickly jumped into the bandwagon of the pro-war group. The last group consisted of those who supported the war initially then changed their views reached that point of change after the military efforts showed no tangible returns.

After four years in power with the economy performing poorly, President Bush made it back to the White House on a slender majority despite the fact that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden, had not been captured, killed or tried. Another four years passed and the focus shifted from the GWOT to the global economic crisis and the food crisis in late 2007.

As a result, these early supporters of the war had nothing to show for their support and global hostility towards the US was growing even among the country’s friends. To put it simply, the rationale behind the GWOT was that if anyone had the courage to attack America, then the country had to go out and defend itself while proving that it was ready to back its policies with military might.

The main reason why the GWOT failed was that America never moved to address the primary problem that ignited terrorism it the first place. The most prominent reason that the US never addressed was its unwavering support for Israel despite the country’s poor treatment of Palestinians.

In the eyes of Islamic militants, the US could solve all the problems in the world but if did not address the issue in Israel, all its efforts would be useless. A sense of religious kinship with Muslim Palestinians kept the greater Islamic world concerned about Israel’s actions within and without its borders.

The second reason was the support of dictators in the Arab world. This confirmed to the Islamic militants (jihadists) that the US was not interested in democracy and only used it as an imperialist tool. The third major reason that caused the failure of the GWOT was the Bush administration’s blatant fabrications against the Saddam Hussein regime that led to the invasion of Iraq.

The claim that Mr. Hussein was a terror mastermind, who had weapons of mass destruction, destroyed all the goodwill that the US and its allies may have had. While this invasion took shape, Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network continued to operate freely and planned more attacks on America. This loss of focus was to cost the administration dearly.

Hoffman (2006) stated, “The war on terrorism has now lasted longer than America’s involvement in World War II: yet, even today we cannot claim with any credibility, much less, acuity that it was successful”. As these events unfolded, radicalism increased. Instead of retreating and reforming, terrorists became as brave and active as America and started massive recruitments across the globe, targeting even Muslims within America and elsewhere.

Militants in a massive display of fanaticism and hatred attacked US allies in the GWOT such as Spain and the UK, with suicide bombings becoming the choice technique. The ability of terrorists to maintain sleeper cells across the world also worsened the situation. The final reason why the GWOT failed was due to the alienation of allies and their citizens across the world.

The United Nations, Western Europeans, and many countries across the world were staunchly opposed to the invasion of Iraq because the evidence tabled by the Bush administration before the commencement of hostilities was insufficient as pointed out by Stich. However, the president went ahead with his plans without the support of the world, starting a new chapter that was to prove costly to American interests and standing everywhere.

The failure of the GWOT brought about repercussions not expected by its architects, key among these was increased radicalism. Despite the US championing the campaign as an effort to end anti-American sentiments among jihadists, the opposite effect was the consequence. Instead of Islamic militants abandoning their quest, they increased their activities.

Today jihadists are everywhere especially in Muslim majority countries and many are even striving to take over governments. Countries like Somalia are now in debilitating civil wars as radical Islamic militias such as Al Shabaab seek ways of taking over government. In the Middle East, the radical Muslim Brotherhood is pushing for leadership positions and Al Qaeda is actively recruiting Muslim youth across the world.

The second repercussion of the failed war on terror has been the increase of sympathy among Muslims for jihadists, with countries like Pakistan harboring terror masterminds such as Osama Bin Laden and paying lip service to military cooperation with the US in fighting terrorism. Rich Middle-Easterners in the Arab world have also been providing extremists with funding and the terror infrastructure, which is turning out to be even more pervasive than before the war on terror.

Within America, the failure of the GWOT has had multi-dimensional effects, hitting the country economically, socially and politically. On the economic front, the US now has a budget deficit of $14.32 trillion, racked up as the country spent $1.283 trillion to wage the war.

The effect is a reduction in funding for important services like health, education and pensions as budget cutbacks continue to affect the standard of living. Socially, the ethnic tension among Americans has risen and suspicion of Muslims has hit an all time high. Racial and religious profiling has increased and inflammatory security procedures approved in a bid to reduce the risk of attack in public places and transportation systems.

A country that once prided itself as the home of freedom is becoming increasingly insular and cynical. The moral authority of the countries that spearheaded the GWOT has also waned as more and more states seek unilateral solutions to weighty global problems. The multi-lateral approach to issues of regional concern has reduced when it comes to security related issues and the major cause has been the US and its allies pushing a campaign that only benefitted security sector corporations.

To make the GWOT a success, the US and its allies could have undertaken a number of measures such as the ones listed below. First, they should have adapted a consultative approach to actions that may have resulted in a drawn out war such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. This would have prevented the populations of the nations in question turning against the US and allied troops whenever they visited, as has been the case.

Currently, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan view the US as an unprovoked aggressor out to steal their mineral resources. A large proportion of citizens in other countries share this view. A multilateral approach would have also raised the evidence threshold and justified any aggressive moves.

Second, the US and UK invasion of Iraq should have been conducted with greater transparency. Currently, no one can explain who provided evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction in the country despite President Bush’s claims that there was, “a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and is capable of killing millions”‎. The lack of results also put to question the competence of American intelligence agencies and their real roles.

Even more suspicious is the position of the UK, which insisted on being involved despite having more to lose if the effort failed. Third, the countries spearheading the GWOT should have supported democratization processes in the Middle East and elsewhere. This would enable leaders who respect dialogue and mutual understanding to take office.

It would also have made it easier for those pursuing terrorists to gain cooperation from leaders who understood that they represented a majority voice that does not support the activities of Muslim radicals. The cooperation with despots who oppressed their people only provided more propaganda for jihadists to use among the citizens.

Lastly, the champions of the GWOT should have tried to stimulate economic growth and the creation of jobs in countries that potentially served as terrorist recruitment grounds. This would have pulled the youth away from radical sects and terror networks and put them on a path to prosperity.

A great deal of jihadists fighters tend to be in the fifteen to thirty year age group and many come from backgrounds of poverty and disillusionment thus serving as the best recruits whenever they are given a cause to fight for. There exist several options for future efforts to contain terrorism. Key among these should be a more determined effort to end poverty in impoverished countries that produce terrorists.

It is clear that the key ingredient for most terror network is unemployed youth. The richer middle-class and employed youth rarely take interest in radical sects except at the ideological and coordinating level. At the same time, a balanced global trade field would enable poorer countries to increase their incomes and provide opportunities for citizens.

A second step should be the reassurance of Israel of the inevitability of the creation of a Palestinian state. This does not threaten the Jewish state’s existence. Israel needs to understand that its siege mentality that is a result of the Holocaust is not furthering the cause of global peace. Middle-Easterners are ready to accept a Jewish state and expect reciprocation.

The expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the continued existence of Palestinian refugees will always serve a rallying point for radical Islamic militias. Another prime cause of global terrorism even beyond the jihadist version is the imperialistic practices of Western nations in developing countries. The exploitation of developing countries within their own borders and the creation of artificial trade imbalances is the main cause of global poverty.

Efforts by the World Trade Organization to balance this out are still bound to fail due to inherent flaws in the proposed pacts that would place poor countries in a much worse state economically. The poverty stemming from these policies fuels hatred and hopelessness, leading to radicalism and eventually terrorism. Western corporations need reigning in and subjection to stringent rules that will prevent them from seeking profits at the expense of host nations’ environments and economies.

The fostering of democracy across the globe should also be a major agenda, since strong and stable governments legitimately chosen by citizens tend to be more determined to fight internal and external terrorism. The US rejection of a Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections served to worsen radicalism in the Middle East. Many noticed that for the first time America was undermining a democratically elected government.

In that process, “Nothing was left but the good old democracy pretense, which worked well until Palestinians cast their vote on that critical day in late January … the majority voted for Hamas. This was “not because of its Islamic agenda, but because of its uncompromising anti-corruption platform, its stance on Palestinian rights, and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza”,.

A further description of the sentiments at the grassroots will suffice, “ Those who understand the intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict must have also decoded the vote as a strong rejection of the U.S. government’s dubious role in the conflict and in abetting Israel’s defiance of international law”,. This increased extremism in the region and cost the US a lot of public sympathy considering its stated stand of democratizing Iraq. People noticed these double standards.

Suggestions on how to deal with terrorism in future range from the soft measures that may be active or passive to hard measures that may even border on war. Below is a discussion of the soft measures that would work best. Firstly, intelligence-gathering methods need refining and synchronization among countries likely to suffer harm from terrorists.

The abject failure of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigations and Central Intelligence Agency in snuffing out the 9/11 plotters was a stark reminder that even the best trained and funded intelligence gathering units on earth can frequently sleep on the job. A replication of the situation took place in the London bombings of 2006 that missed by UK spy agencies.

It is necessary to eradicate the lone ranger tactics applied by these organizations in conducting their activities in order to save ordinary citizens the anguish of terror attacks. Secondly, the alienation of terrorists within their support bases would work well in triggering the natural death of extremist ideologies. One of the reasons the radical Islamic of Somalia have not managed to take over the country is because the local populace in the country accord them no comfort.

It is therefore imperative that governments such as Somalia’s and others actively take up the role of sensitizing citizens about the long-term adverse effects of harboring terrorists or being sympathetic to their extreme views. This would slowly erode the gains that terrorists may have made.

Among the hard measures that would serve to reduce the influence or effect of terrorism is the application of state sanctions against countries whose regimes cooperate with terrorists. The target of the sanction should be specific government officials. By isolating the facilitators of terror, the task of cutting down their influence would become much easier as their power wanes.

The support networks that sustain global terror often thrive when government officials in countries like Pakistan ignore or facilitate the activities of terrorists. Another key ingredient of future hard measures would be the acceptance of the International Criminal Court by all countries as a global court to tackle world crime of which terrorism is one.

The fact that the US and Israel have rejected this institution in favor of their local judicial mechanisms means that their citizens can commit crimes overseas with impunity in the knowledge that they will not answer any charges. This gives numerous interest groups the opportunity to commit acts that cause resentments abroad and the obvious response is terror acts.

If the worst comes to worst, then military support or intervention may apply against terrorists in a coordinated and multinational approach. Terrorists have no qualms about targeting innocent civilians and their weaponry is often devastating in effect. In many countries, even the police force cannot intervene to neutralize terrorists and this is the reason the military intervenes whenever a situation goes out of hand.

In conclusion, interpreting the failure of the global war on terror as a sign of surrender by the countries that spearheaded the campaign against radical elements is foolhardy. The failure should serve as new platform for recollection and the construction of a new campaign against extremism. This is the only way to consolidate the painstaking gains made so far, and to ensure the long-term success of the war.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Understanding the Failure of the Global War on Terrorism and Suggestions for Future Strategies'. 21 October.

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