The War on Terror has been a total failure.

Sep 11 JDN 2459834

Since today happens to be September 11, I thought I’d spend this week’s post reflecting on the last 21 years (!) of the War on Terror.

At this point, I can safely say that the War on Terror has been a complete, total, utter failure. It has cost over $8 trillion and nearly a million lives, and not only didn’t reduce terrorism, it actually appears to have substantially increased it.

Take a look at this graph from Our World in Data:

Up until the the 1980s, terrorism worldwide was a slow smoldering, killing rarely more than a few hundred people each year. Obviously it’s terrible if you or one of your loved ones happen to be among those few hundred, but in terms of its overall chance of killing you or your children, terrorism used to be less dangerous than kiddie pools.

Then terrorism began to rise, until it was killing several thousand people a year. I was surprised to learn that most of these were not in the Middle East, but in fact spread all over the world, with the highest concentrations actually being in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Notably, almost none of these deaths were in First World countries, and as a result most First World governments largely ignored them. Terrorism was something that happened “over there”, to other people.

Then of course came 2001, and 9/11/2001, in which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in a single day. And suddenly the First World took notice, and decided to respond with overwhelming force.

We have been at war basically ever since. All this war has accomplished… approximately nothing.

The deadliest year of terrorism in the 21st century was not 2001; it was 2014, after the US had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, and in fact withdrawn from Iraq (but not yet Afghanistan). This was largely the result of the rise of Daesh (which is what you should call them by the way), which seems to be the most fanatical and violent Islamist terrorist organization the world has seen in decades if not centuries.

Even First World terrorism is no better today than it was in the 1990s—though also no worse. It’s back to a slow smolder, and once again First World societies can feel that terrorism is something that happens to someone else. But terrorism in the Middle East is the worst it has been in decades.

Would Daesh not have appeared if the US had never invaded Afghanistan and Iraq? It’s difficult to say. Maybe their rise was inevitable. Or maybe having a strong, relatively secular government in the region under Saddam Hussein would have prevented them from becoming so powerful. We can at least say this: Since the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban retook control, the Taliban and Daesh have been fighting each other quite heavily. Presumably that would have been happening all along if the US had not intervened to suppress the Taliban.

Don’t get me wrong: The Taliban were, and are, a terrible regime, and Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator. But Daesh is clearly worse than either, and sometimes in geopolitics you have to accept the lesser evil.

If we’d actually had a way to take over Afghanistan and Iraq and rebuild them as secular liberal democracies as the US government intended, that would have been a good thing, and might even have been worth all that blood and treasure. But that project utterly failed, and we should have expected it to fail, as never in history has anyone successfully imposed liberal democracy by outside force like that.

When democracy spreads, it usually does so slowly, through the cultural influence of trade and media. Sometimes it springs up in violent revolution—as we hoped it would in the Arab Spring but were sadly disappointed. But there are really no clear examples of a democratic country invading an undemocratic country and rapidly turning it democratic.

British colonialism was spread by the sword (and especially the machine gun), and did sometimes ultimately lead to democratic outcomes, as in the US, Australia, and Canada, and more recently in India, South Africa, and Botswana. But that process was never fast, never smooth, and rarely without bloodshed—and only succeeded when the local population was willing to fight for it. Britain didn’t simply take over countries and convert them to liberal democracies in a generation. No one has ever done that, and trying to was always wishful thinking.

I don’t know, maybe in the very long run, we’ll look back on all this as the first, bloody step toward something better for the Middle East. Maybe the generation of women who got a taste of freedom and education in Afghanistan under US occupation will decide to rise up and refuse to relinquish those rights under the new Taliban. Daesh will surely die sooner or later; fanaticism can rarely sustain organizations in the long term.

But it’s been 20 years now, and things look no better than they did at the start. Maybe it’s time to cut our losses?