America’s Trajectory in the Long War: Redirecting Efforts toward Strategic Effects versus Simply Tactical Gains


Eleven years following the attacks on 9/11 the United States has a significant disconnect between its strategic and tactical efforts against violent global jihadists. Some American leaders and commanders are confusing effectiveness and success, improperly associating tactical disruption of enemy elements with strategic effect. While the country has won some important tactical victories, it is not clear that they are amounting to a strategic impact, or that the gains will last.

Al Qaeda (AQ), its affiliate organizations, the Taliban, and most recently, AQ-inspired violent extremists, have demonstrated a tenacious resiliency. Their resiliency has primarily manifested itself through a unique ability to evolve and grow over time, enabling them to continue attacking U.S. interests abroad and at home. This resiliency is also evident through continued extremist recruitment, radicalization, mobilization, and funding. The frustrating aspect of this for U.S. counterterrorism officials is the enemy’s success in these areas despite tremendous American and Coalition efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat these organizations.

By necessity the U.S. has also adapted, changing the way it defines the enemy, how it refers to the conflict, its stated National Security Strategy, and its National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. This paper explores why these counterterrorism responses have not had greater strategic effect. Are U.S. tactical victories coinciding with our strategic vision of success? Where does the U.S. stand in the ‘Long War?’ I argue that America remains stuck at the tactical and operational levels, largely falling short of making strategic progress because of its failure to address the long term drivers of the threat from global jihadis.

Falling Short of Strategic Success

Strategically, American successes have been limited. The most significant is that there have been no successful spectacular attacks against U.S. interests since 9/11. Otherwise the strategic scorecard for the U.S. has been sparse. Even with the raid on Osama Bin Laden (OBL), we may not know the true nature of his death’s impact for years to come. (As some say about the outcome of the French Revolution, it is too early to tell.) Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s long time number two and bin Laden’s replacement as the head of the terrorist group, lacks the credibility and unifying power that made bin Laden and Al Qaeda so powerful. Zawahiri does bring experience and a keen mind, but lacks the storyline of success against two superpowers. He needs a spectacular success similar to 9/11 to solidify his base of support and rally new recruits. Whether he scores such an attack will determine the extent to which OBL’s death was a significant counterterrorism success.

America’s first point of deficit in the Long War is that national means to accomplish our ends have been oriented primarily on tactical military efforts rather than political outcomes. Clausewitz reminds us of this when he mentions that the primary concern should always be political—that a leader should not enter a war without having first considered the end state he wants to achieve, the means at his disposal, and how he will employ those means to reach the desired end.
Second, the economic strength of the country—always the element that undergirds the viability of a nation and its range of policy options—is significantly diminished. Despite massive spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Roger Altman and Richard Haas correctly pointed out in their 2010 Foreign Affairs article, the primary culprit is not American endeavors abroad. Rather, it is “American profligacy at home that threatens American power and security. ”

Third, the U.S. is conducting the Long War without substantively engaging in the realm of strategic communication. Although AQ claims that they do not target Muslims, the reality is that 85% of the victims from attacks claimed by Al Qaeda and its associated movement (AQAM) from 2004 to 2008 are from Muslim majority countries, while the number climbs to 98% when looking at the years 2006-2008, thereby excluding the 2004 Madrid train and the 2005 London subway/bus bombings. The U.S. needs to highlight this inconsistency between AQ’s words and deeds time and again.
Finally, American leaders have failed to recognize that the ‘center of gravity’ in the struggle resides in the non-fighting populations of both sides. From the global jihadists’ vantage point, they are dependent upon a ‘renewable resource’ (i.e. new Muslim recruits). The source will not remain ‘renewable’ indefinitely if they continue to kill fellow Muslims at high rates and demonstrate substantial inconsistencies between word and deed. In fact, if left to their own devices one esteemed jihadi scholar believes international jihadis will precipitate their own demise. Since either internal or external factors can lead to the end of a terrorist organization, the relevant question in this case is: how can the U.S. best use external factors to precipitate the collapse of AQAM along its internal fault lines? Would a Periclean strategy actually be the best approach?

The U.S. must determine how lasting success will be made and then act accordingly. But how will we know when we are succeeding? Daniel Byman lists three semi tangible indications of success in this war: (1) low levels of death, (2) the level of fear is reduced, and (3) counterterrorism is done at an acceptable cost. In addition to these markers, a couple of the intangible indicators that will signal American success in the Long War will be the ability to treat terrorism as isolated crimes instead of part of a broader terrorist campaign, and an American psyche resilient not only against thwarted or failed terrorist attacks, but also against successful attacks. A final condition for success is a society that is largely inoculated against radicalization. There will always be fringe elements in any society, but the key is that the radical messages on either side of an issue are unable to go main stream.


In the long term and from a strategic perspective, it is critical that the U.S. work with its allies and Muslim nations to address grievances, counter militant ideology, and disrupt the movement’s ability to mobilize individuals for violence. This will be the means for long term “victory” against international terrorists. America also needs to strengthen its economy and prioritize its spending to ensure its long term solvency, thereby preserving its ability to pursue terrorists globally, indefinitely, and with state of the art technology. The U.S. must strengthen its national resiliency, adopting and educating its citizenry regarding appropriate expectations of success, how long it will take, and how to respond to the next major terrorist attack that is successful. America needs to find ways to engage in strategic communications, even while maintaining kinetic pressure on the networks of violent global jihadists. This narrative should remind the Muslim world of the evil Al Qaeda has perpetrated and challenge its assertion that armed jihad is the only solution, a story line particularly vulnerable now in light of the non violent portions of the Arab Spring.

Domestically, American officials at all levels need to reach out to build trust with Muslim leaders and communities, empowering them at the local levels to craft their own narratives, identities, mentor and police their own, and to thank them for their patriotism. After all, two out of five Al Qaeda attacks plotted against the U.S. homeland since 9/11 have been thwarted with the help of the American Muslim community; within the last couple years, that number soars to 75%.

Besides ensuring the support of the U.S. Muslim community, continuing the emphasis on capable domestic intelligence and intervention are appropriate, financially feasible defensive measures and have proven successful on multiple occasions in the last few years. The U.S. government also needs to do a better job of engaging the private sector. Multinational corporations have direct interest in terrorist threats when they invest internationally, and likewise have a need to protect their employees, clients, and infrastructure on the homeland from attack. In addition, private companies can serve as additional “eyes and ears” for suspicious activity. Finally, America must develop a realistic plan to become energy independent (particularly non dependent on Middle Eastern oil) and follow through with it.


America may experience strategic success in its struggle against global jihadists, but the verdict is still out. The tactical victories the U.S. has won will not automatically translate into strategic and long lasting success. The kinetic emphasis and military-centric efforts internationally need significant complementing by diplomatic messaging efforts abroad and community building at home.

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