Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is the War on Terror Increasing Terrorism?



Much of the public rhetoric regarding the War on Terror is framed in such a way that any debate, on the rare occasion there is one, focuses on whether or not the war efforts are worth the fight against terrorism. Does it cost too much? Are too many American lives lost? A larger and more central question seems to go routinely unaddressed: is the war on terrorism even accomplishing its mission? Is it reducing the level of terrorism? Or, like the War on Drugs, is it failing in its primary mission while simultaneously dumping copious amounts of taxpayer dollars into a bottomless pit?

On one of Bill Maher’s latest shows, David Frum remarked that our war on terror must be going excellently because the latest failed attempt to set a car bomb off in New York City was such a slipshod effort. This is an interesting characterization of the latest terrorist attempt, which was made by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani American citizen who, according to US officials, was acting on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban. Maher, and the guests on his panel, for all their seeming sophistication, seemed to have no trouble equating Al Qaeda with the Taliban, and talking about the groups interchangeably. To make matters worse, no one asked the obvious question: when was the last time the Pakistani Taliban attacked the United States? The answer is never. They never had a reason to before. This is the first time this group has launched an attack on American soil. This attempt on the lives of American citizens, along with the last few attempts, are direct responses to the US’s wars in the Middle East. Major Hasan of Fort Hood, and the underpants bomber, were also motivated to attack Americans by the wars we are waging in the Middle East. Is it possible that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have just been inciting more terrorism?

We can move beyond mere speculation in this matter by referring to US government documents on global terrorism to determine if terrorism has been declining or rising since the 2001 declaration of the ‘War on Terror’. Up until 2003 the State Department released its annual report “Patterns of Global Terrorism” which tracked international terrorist attacks worldwide. The 2004 report wasn’t released, and instead was replaced with the 2004 “Country Report on Terrorism”, which listed no statistical data. There is an interesting and suspicious back-story behind the Bush administrations motivations for not releasing the statistical data from 2004. Motive aside, the end result is a virtual gap in information for 2004. Statistical data on worldwide terrorism resumes in 2005, with the National Counterterrorism Center, whose data form the basis for “Country Reports on Terrorism” to the present day. While current reports from the NCTC are comprehensive, the switch from the “Patterns of Global Terrorism” reports to the “Country Reports on Terrorism” make it impossible to form a meaningful data trend that spans across 2003 to 2005 because the methodology for tracking terrorist attacks was changed. However, even with this distortion, the conclusions from examining the reports from year to year are clear.

The data clearly indicates that worldwide terrorist incidents have risen sharply since the declaration of the War on Terror, and moreover that deaths from terrorism are the highest in the very places the US is fighting the War on Terror, with the vast majority of the victims being civilians.
In fact, for every year since the NCTC began tracking terrorism in 2005, the largest share of terror fatalities in the world has been in Iraq. From 2005 to 2007, deaths from terrorism in Iraq were more than the rest of the world combined, with a particularly high toll in 2007 of 13,606 people killed, before dropping to 5016 in 2008 (tragically, a low for Iraq since the US invasion in 2003). It would seem to follow that terrorism springs up wherever the US military plants its boot.
Across the world, terrorism has actually risen since the “War on Terror” was declared in 2001. According to the old “Patterns” methodology, 3072 deaths attributable to terrorism in 2002 climbed to 4271 in 2003. In 2004 we have the aforementioned information gap. In 2005 the broader methodology for tracking terror records 14,602 worldwide deaths, 14,618 deaths in 2006, 22,685 in ‘07, and 15,765 in ‘08.

Sadly, the criteria for terrorism used above is not the one most Americans have grown to accept. We’ve become more accustomed to the following, more provincial definition of terrorism: “violence against Americans”. And yet even according to this selfish and one-sided definition of terrorism, the current war still seems to be woefully ineffective.
Before the attacks of 9/11, the number of Americans killed by terrorists was 12 in 1998, 6 in ’99, and 23 in 2000. Since 9/11 and the declared War on Terror the number of Americans killed by terrorists has risen slightly. There were 27 Americans killed in 2002, 35 in ’03, no data for ’04, 56 in ’05, 28 in ’06, 19 in ’07, and 33 Americans killed by terrorists in 2008. Not only has the enormous and costly war on terror not made Americans any safer, it seems to be putting them in greater peril.

None of this should come as a great surprise. Asymmetrical attacks of this nature can be launched from anywhere, plotted anywhere. It doesn’t take an army to make a car bomb- that’s the point of terrorism. Timothy McVeigh didn’t need to live in Afghanistan to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing. Joe Stack didn’t need a safe haven in Yemen to crash his plane into an IRS building in Texas. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has had no discernible effect on terrorism, other than greatly increasing the level of terror in those countries, and quite likely creating more enemies for the US.
I can anticipate the criticism to this argument-- I am not so na├»ve as to doubt that there are people in the world who would be willing to attack America no matter what our foreign policy was. But we needn’t help them by “playing the role of the villain” and invading and occupying countries. This only serves to assist terrorist organizations in their recruitment efforts, and so long as we continue to occupy Muslim lands we can count on Al Qaeda’s continued existence.
The War on Terror, almost a decade underway, may be becoming another War on Drugs—an immensely costly, obscenely destructive, never ending government program that not only fails in its stated goals, but actually seems to be counterproductive.



(note: I intended to release this article with the release of the 2009 report from the NCTC, which was supposed to be relased on April 30. It still hasn't been released, so the article above is based on the data up through 2008. When the 2009 data becomes available I will update the article to reflect the new information)

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