Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Why Strategy Matters in the War on Terror

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Why Strategy Matters in the War on Terror

Article excerpt

"You know you never defeated us on the battlefield," said the American colonel.

The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. "That may be so," he replied, "but it is also irrelevant."

?Conversation in Hanoi, April 1975 1

"We thank God for appeasing us with the dilemma in Iraq after Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation for both countries. If they withdraw they will lose everything and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death."

?Ayman Zawahiri, September 2003 2


The two statements above, separated by twenty-eight years of history, reflect the views of enemies who, unable to defeat the United States militarily, adopted similar long-term strategies of attrition to defeat instead the American national will. One had just defeated the United States, and the other has declared itself at war with the United States. In 1973, after more than ten years of conflict in Vietnam and Southeast Asia (at an average annual cost of sixty-one billion dollars a year in FY2006 dollars 3 and more than 211,000 American casualties, including more than 58,000 American dead 4 ) the Vietnam War ended in the United States suffering the first defeat in its history. It is difficult to grasp how a Western industrialized superpower could be defeated by an underdeveloped agrarian nation - with a fraction of its population and no gross national product to speak of - without accepting that the larger nation's overall objectives and strategy in that war were flawed. The lesson of Vietnam, a war of policy and limited political objectives, is that while the United States military accomplished every tactical objective it set on the battlefield, in the end North Vietnam emerged strategically victorious.

From a strategic perspective comparisons to the current war on terror are possible. After more than five years of conflict, with more than 28,000 American casualties (including more than 5,900 combatant and noncombatant deaths) 5 and a total cost that by some estimates could exceed one trillion dollars (thereby exceeding the cost of Vietnam), 6 the United States finds itself involved in another war of limited objectives against non-state entities with extremely small memberships, no gross domestic products, and no national boundaries to defend. In the war on terror - the U.S. response to the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 - the final outcome has yet to be determined and may not be decided for generations to come. Whether or not the United States will be able to apply the lesson of Vietnam to avoid a similar outcome in the war on terror remains to be seen. It is more certain that while it is possible to learn from past wars, each war is a special case and it is necessary to focus on the task at hand. 7 However, as with Vietnam, it is difficult to understand how an information-age superpower could be defeated by a non-state entity without accepting that the superpower's overall objectives and strategy were flawed. For the nation to repeat its failure in Vietnam by achieving all its objectives in the war on terror, yet failing to achieve strategic success, would have grave consequences for both the United States and the international community.


In labeling its post-9/11 efforts the "war" on terror, the United States invoked a specific metaphor to galvanize the national effort. In doing so it has tied success or failure to the doctrinal rules of war. Evidence of the war metaphor can be found in the opening words of the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism: "America is at war with a transnational terrorist movement fueled by a radical ideology of hatred, oppression, and murder" [italics added]. 8 This article uses the metaphor to look at the war on terror from the vantage point of the new strategic reality facing the United States in the information age. …

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