Defining the Enemy: Rethinking the War on Terror

By Michael Tang


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he War on Terror is a mistake. Military operations against terrorist groups are necessary, but the War on Terror’s fatal flaw is combining all terrorist groups into a monolithic enemy. Military campaigns against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and the plethora of other extremist groups that destabilize regional order are all justified. However, these battles require unique strategies that are tailored specifically to each group.

The War on Terror prevents nation building. It is impossible to build trust within communities when America’s campaign against “terror” inevitably fails to separate civilian populations from the enemy. America’s inability to narrowly define enemies leads to classifying enemies by association, and creates new ones through the use of indiscriminate violence. “The ever-expanding scope of the American offensive convinced many Muslims worldwide that the US considered them enemies too,” noted Dr. Nicholas Lotito, lecturer of Political Science at Yale. “This exacerbated a rift between the US and the Muslim world that has never fully healed.”

The United States’ military can never conduct a successful counterinsurgency while struggling to identify the enemy. The causes of modern insurgencies and terrorism cannot be solved if the enemy remains ambiguous. Dr. Isaiah Wilson III, Senior Lecturer with the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and retired US Army Colonel, cited the lack of a definite mission as one of the War on Terror’s major flaws. “We have fallen far short of the mark of fully and accurately defining the enemy, the adversary, the threat at the center of the bullseye of our so-called wars,” he said.

The War in Afghanistan, America’s only “open conflict,” is threatening to spiral out of control. The Taliban is running a successful military campaign against the Afghan government, decimating Afghan security forces and even launching attacks against high-ranking Afghan and NATO officials.



          According to an October 2018 report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government only “controls or influences” 55.5 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, the lowest percentage SIGAR has recorded since it began receiving data in 2015. In the past year, the Taliban has overrun Ghanzi and Farah, inflicting heavy damages before being forced out of the cities. Civilian mortality and military casualty rates in Afghanistan in 2018 are the highest they have ever been, and the Taliban’s frequent attacks in the last months of 2018 indicate that those figures are going to rise. In addition, while infiltrator and insider attacks against NATO military advisors and the Afghan Security forces are not new, the recent high-profile attacks have heightened mistrust between both groups and hinder efforts to transfer military responsibility over to the Afghan government.

        America cannot win the War on Terror. “The idea of waging a war on a concept is made for political speeches, not military planning,” Dr. Lotito said. “The War on Terror was assigned to the military, as though terrorism could be defeated on the battlefield.” The War’s ambiguous and unending nature leads to poor strategy and creates a plethora of enemies. The fight has become reactionary. The United States and its allies scramble to combat new threats while continuing to focus on diminishing old ones in a spiraling campaign that has forced the military to fight in a global theater. This scrambling is unsustainable. America’s continued commitment to the fight against global terrorism requires it to commit indefinite resources to fight any new terrorist group that arises.

        But the United States can win wars if it fights correctly. Current military strategy needs to be reconsidered. Dr. Wilson stresses the central issue with the War’s mission, “Terror and terrorism is a tactic; a method. You can’t declare war against a method of approach.” The War on Terror must become more focused: it needs to be about identifying and combating specific enemies in an effort to restore regional stability rather than focus on accomplishing any vague macro-level goals. The War on Terror does not need to be abandoned—America just needs to rethink who it’s at war with.


Michael Tang is a first-year in Grace Hopper College. You can contact him at