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Response to 9/11: The War on Terror

In response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States initiated an international military campaign known as the War on Terror (or the War on Terrorism). Led by the United States and the United Kingdom with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) support, the War on Terror was waged initially against al-Qaeda and other militant organizations but soon expanded to include Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

Finding al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden

The attacks, carried out by 19 members of a fundamentalist Islamist group called al-Qaeda (“the base”), killed a total of about 3,000 people.

On September 17, President Bush formally identified al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as the mastermind behind the attacks. A wealthy member of a prominent Saudi Arabian family, bin-Laden had operated out of Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, under the protection of a group called the Taliban. The Taliban (which means “student”) followed an extreme version of Islamic law, and had seized control in Afghanistan in 1998.

In addition, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an advisor and financier of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was identified as a principal planner of the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed admitted his involvement in April 2002.

Speaking to a joint session of Congress on September 20, Bush demanded the Taliban hand over bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders and dismantle terrorist training camps within Afghanistan. President Bush stated, “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

The phrase “War on Terror “was first used by U.S. President George W. Bush and other high-ranking U.S. officials to denote the global military, political, legal and ideological struggle against organizations designated as terrorist and government regimes that providing them with support or posed a threat to the U.S. and its allies. The central aims of the War on Terror include:

  • Defeat terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and destroy their organizations

  • Identify, locate and destroy terrorists along with their organizations

  • Deny sponsorship, support and sanctuary to terrorists

  • Diminish the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit

  • Defend U.S. citizens and interests at home and abroad

  • Ensure an integrated incident management capability

The War on Terror in Afghanistan

On October 7, after Taliban leaders had rejected Bush’s demands, U.S. and British aircraft unleashed a massive bombing attack on major Afghan cities. Afghan capital of Kabul fell by mid-November. By mid-December, air attacks coupled with ground forces that included troops from the United States, allied countries, and anti-Taliban Afghan militia toppled the Taliban regime. Osama bin Laden was believed to have escaped to Pakistan during the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.

Operation Enduring Freedom was the official name used by the Bush administration for the War in Afghanistan. The global operations were intended to seek out and destroy any al-Qaeda fighters or affiliates. Operations were also conducted in the Philippines, Horn of Africa and Trans-Sahara region of Africa.

While out of power, however, the Taliban was not out of business. Taliban forces gradually began an insurgency that showed no signs of abating. The insurgents’ efforts were aided by an ineffectual and corruption-riddled Afghan government, and fueled by funds from control of Afghanistan’s vast opium production. The enemy also took advantage of safe havens in mountainous areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by scampering into Pakistan, where it was politically difficult for U.S. and allied troops to follow.

The War on Terror in Iraq

In March 2003, the Iraq War began with an air campaign immediately followed by a ground invasion led by U.S. forces. The Bush administration contended the invasion had been authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441.

Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad fell in April 2003 and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s government quickly dissolved. On May 1, 2003, Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. An insurgency arose, however, against the U.S.-led coalition and the newly developing Iraqi military and government. The insurgency, fueled in part by external forces such as al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and part by centuries-old enmity between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite Muslims, caused far more coalition casualties than the invasion itself.

Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in December 2003 and executed by Iraqis in 2006. In 2004, the insurgent forces grew stronger. The United States conducted attacks on insurgent strongholds in cities like Najaf and Fallujah.

In January 2007, President Bush presented a new strategy for Operation Iraqi Freedom based upon new counter-insurgency theories and tactics, and violence and insurgent attacks decreased. The war entered a new phase in September 2010, with the official end of U.S. combat operations. However, 50,000 U.S. troops remain in an advisory role to provide support for Iraqi security forces.

The War on Terror in the U.S.

A month after the September 11 attacks, Bush pushed for a proposal called the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act — or the USA PATRIOT Act. The PATRIOT Act was approved 357-66 in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the vote was 98-1, with only Senator Russell Feingold, D-WI, opposed.

The far-reaching “temporary” act (most of which was made permanent by Congress in 2006) greatly expanded the authority of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, look at medical and other personal records, such as what materials an individual took out from public libraries, and spy on those suspected of potential terrorist acts without court approval. It allowed foreigners to be held for up to seven days without charges or deportation proceedings.

In January 2002, the U.S. established a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to hold inmates defined as "illegal enemy combatants.” President Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay facility and transfer the inmates either to prisons in the U.S. or to other countries. Congress, however, prohibited the use of fund to transfer inmates to U.S. prisons and placed conditions on transfers to foreign countries in the 2011 Defense Authorization bill. As of May 2011, Guantanamo Bay still holds 171 prisoners.

In July 2002, Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to listen in on phone calls American citizens made to other countries and to monitor e-mails. The order wasn’t made public until 2005 and Congress didn’t sanction the actions until 2008.

In November 2002, President Bush signed a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, consolidating dozens of government agencies, from the Secret Service to the Coast Guard, into one super-agency.

Cost of the War on Terror

No generally accepted figure exists for the number of people killed or wounded so far in the War on Terror. Some calculations estimate the following loss in human life.

  • Iraq: between 392,979 and 942,636 estimated Iraqi civilian and combatants, 655,000 with a confidence interval of 95% (second Lancet survey of mortality).

  • Afghanistan: between 10,960 and 49,600

  • U.S. military killed: 5921

  • U.S. military wounded 42,673

  • U.S. civilians killed (includes 9/11 and after): 3000 +

  • U.S. civilians wounded/injured: 6000 +

  • Total American casualties: 54,800+

A March 2011 Congressional Research Service report, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” analyzed the financial outlays for the conflict since its inception. The report concludes the War on Terror cost $1.283 trillion through fiscal year 2011 for such purposes as military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care.

The total cost of the War on Terror may exceed $1.415 trillion in 2012 and may reach $1.8 trillion by 2021. The report’s total does not include supplementary economic, food and military aid to Pakistan or assistance to several countries in Africa involved in the War on Terror.

Criticism of the War on Terror

The concept of a “war” against “terror” is highly controversial with many critics pointing to a host of concerns, including allegations that participating governments have exploited the war to pursue long-standing policy objectives, reduce civil liberties, and violate human rights. The chief criticisms include:

  • The term “war” is not appropriate in this context since there is no identifiable enemy and it is unlikely international terrorism can be brought to an end by military means.

  • The war is inefficient, counterproductive, consolidates opposition to the U.S., aids terrorist recruitment, and increases the likelihood of attacks against the U.S. and its allies.

  • The U.S. permits a double standard in its dealings with key allies that are also known to support terrorist groups, such as Pakistan.

  • Many believe the true purpose of the war is American control of Middle East oil and U.S. domination of the world.

  • The war has been a huge overreaction and increased militarization and politicization of U.S. efforts is the wrong approach to terrorism.

End of the War on Terror?

Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was arrested on March 1, 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and is currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

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