What Exactly Is the "War on Terror?"

War on Terror in Perspective

Mark N. Katz

The phrase "War on Terror" was popularized by President George W. Bush and his administration in the aftermath of 9/11. It has been widely criticized ever since then. Terror, after all, is a tactic. How, many asked, can war be waged against a tactic? Others claimed (rightly or wrongly) that many U.S. allies — or even the United States itself — also engaged in terror, or state terrorism. "Terrorists," then, was what the U.S. government called those whom it dislikes, but not those whom it does like — even if (the argument runs) they engage in similar activities. In addition, many have claimed that the term the War on Terror is really a war against America’s Muslim opponents, or even against Islam itself.

The U.S. government argues that it is not at war with Islam or Muslims in general, but only with radical Islamists who engage in terrorism. In March 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the Obama administration had stopped using the Bush-era War on Terror terminology. But coming up with an alternative phrase has proven difficult. The Obama administration reportedly tried to substitute "Overseas Contingency Operation," but quickly dropped this. More recently, it has begun referring to its efforts as "Countering Violent Extremism," or CVE. Even the Bush administration used other terms, including the "Global War on Terror" (or GWOT), and the "Long War." Bush’s first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, reportedly promoted the term "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism" (or GSAVE), but Bush himself rejected this. Indeed, it seems that all the alternatives to War on Terror are rather awkward and have simply not caught on. Despite its flaws, the War on Terror remains the term whereby the ongoing struggle between the United States and its allies on the one hand and al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist movements and governments on the other is popularly known. And so this term will be employed here.

The War on Terror is not the first imprecise phrase that has become the popularly accepted term for a conflict. The "Cold War" was another. The term Cold War was intended to differentiate the Soviet-American conflict from a "hot war" that involved actual conflict between great powers, as in World Wars I and II. But in many parts of the world, there was nothing cold about the Cold War. Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America experienced many actual wars with the United States and the USSR actively supporting opposing sides in them. Further, American armed forces became heavily involved in multi-year wars in Korea and Indochina, while Soviet armed forces fought a long war in Afghanistan. Yet despite its inaccuracy, the Cold War was the term that was — and still is — the common designation for the era between 1945 and 1991, when Soviet-American competition was the predominant feature of international relations. Similarly, the War on Terror is the common designation for the era since September 11, 2001, when the ongoing struggle between the United States and its allies on the one hand and al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist movements and governments on the other has been the predominant feature of international relations.

But, in addition to being the commonly accepted designations for different eras, the Cold War and the War on Terror have something else in common. The eras they designate refer not just to one conflict, but many conflicts that, to a greater or lesser extent, were — or are — linked to one another. While the Soviet-American competition was the predominant feature of the Cold War, many other conflicts occurred in many regions of the world during this era. These conflicts had their own distinct issues and causes: the quest for independence from European colonial rule, ethno-religious rivalry, border disputes, secessionist attempts and others. In addition to the local stakes involved, however, the competition between Moscow and Washington was so pervasive and widespread that most (if not all) conflicts occurring during the Cold War era also had a Soviet-American dimension. Indeed, this Soviet-American dimension was often seen, whether correctly or incorrectly, as more important than the local dimensions of various regional conflicts — and even as the primary cause of such conflicts.

Similarly, while the U.S. government on the one hand and al-Qaeda and many of its affiliates on the other see themselves as engaged in an all-pervasive worldwide struggle, the War on Terror era includes many other conflicts in which the United States vs. al-Qaeda element is present, but which also have their own distinct issues and causes. These include the Israeli-Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni, Somali, Indian-Pakistani and many other conflicts. Indeed, although the Cold War ended over two decades ago, some of the regional conflicts that were part of it continued and have become part of the War on Terror. These include the Israeli-Palestinian, Indian-Pakistani and Afghan conflicts.

There is, though, an important difference between these two eras. While the Cold War ended around 1989, the War on Terror has not ended, and does not appear likely to end any time soon. The fact that the prolonged Cold War finally ended, though, raises the possibility that the "War on Terror" will also end one day. Still, the Cold War that began in 1945 lasted some 46 years, while the Marxist-Leninist regime that arose to power during the 1917 Russian Revolution remained in power for over 74 years. If dated from 9/11, the War on Terror has only been in existence for (not quite) a decade. Of course, al-Qaeda’s struggle against the United States began earlier, at the time of the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis. The United States conflict with radical Islam began even earlier still, with the 1979 Iranian Revolution — just as the Russian conflict with radical Islam began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yet even if this earlier date is chosen, the Western (and Russian) struggle against Islamic radicalism has only lasted just over three decades so far. If the longevity of the Cold War or the Soviet Union are guides to how long the War on Terror might last, it may still have many years or even decades to run. Worse still, the continuation of several regional conflicts that took place during the Cold War long after its demise raises the possibility that, even if the War on Terror does somehow come to an end, many (if not all) of the regional conflicts now occurring during it may also grind on after that.

This is not a hopeful picture. But it is not one devoid of hope either.

Mark N. Katz is a visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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