Academic journal article Parameters

Measuring the Effectiveness of America's War on Terror

Academic journal article Parameters

Measuring the Effectiveness of America's War on Terror

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: America's efforts in the war on terror have been substantial and sustained, with more than four trillion dollars spent, two and a half million military members sent into harm's way, and nearly 7,000 service members losing their lives over the past 15 years. To date, however, few studies have sought to measure the effectiveness of those efforts. This study empirically assesses the extent to which US efforts in the war on terror have achieved the government's objectives and concludes those endeavors have been largely ineffective.


Whether seeking the defeat of al-Qaeda or, more recently, that of the Islamic State, the United States government has been prosecuting a war on terror for nearly 15 years. Tangible costs to the United States include 6,874 service members killed, 2.5 million Americans sent to fight, and an estimated $4.4 trillion dollars spent. (1) Despite such significant costs, little attention has been focused on what has been achieved. How effective have US efforts been in the war on terror?

Determining an answer to this question is complicated by the inherently political environment in which the terror attacks of 9/11 and US responses took place. Terrorism is, itself, inherently a political act. Moreover, US leaders faced reelections as they attempted to balance varying constituent perspectives domestically and alliance interests globally. Significant national debates have occurred, and many continue, over the decision to invade Iraq, the closing of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, the use of drones, Syria, Libya, the Islamic State, et cetera. The stated objectives of President Bush and President Obama, however, remain a crucial component of any assessment by any side of the debate. Are Americans safer today? To what extent have al-Qaeda and terror groups of global reach been defeated?

This question of effectiveness can be carved out as a technical exercise. This paper attempts to measure the government's effectiveness in achieving its stated objectives. Its focus is on US efforts outside the homeland, rather than on domestic efforts to protect against attacks. The first section briefly outlines US objectives in the war on terror. An overview on measuring policy effectiveness in general and the war on terror, in particular, follows. The data are analyzed in section three and then a theoretical explanation for the results follows.

US Objectives for the War on Terror

America's stated objectives have remained consistent over time. As outlined in various strategy documents published by the White House, they include protecting Americans, preventing terror attacks, defeating specific terror groups, and diminishing the conditions that fuel terrorism through promoting democracy. Less than two weeks after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush articulated the defeat of al-Qaeda and all terrorist groups with global reach as a US goal. President Obama has echoed that objective and added the Islamic State to the list. Both administrations pursued a broad objective of preventing terror attacks worldwide and a narrower one of protecting Americans and the homeland. Both administrations also sought the additional goals of diminishing the underlying conditions that facilitate terrorism by promoting democracy. (2)

Measuring Policy Effectiveness

Significant gaps exist in the scholarly research regarding the measurement of government effectiveness. The literature focuses more on how effectiveness could be measured, rather than on actually measuring it. The war on terror is no exception.

In war, measuring effectiveness is typically difficult absent a total victory. War inflames human passions and is, inevitably, subject to psychological biases. Additionally, accurate data are often unavailable in conflict-affected states. Some scholars note that attempts to measure effectiveness in prosecuting a war, without one side surrendering, will be controversial and fraught with uncertainty. …

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