Whose Terror War?

June 3, 2014–President Barack Obama remains an elusive character, endlessly confounding. Just when you think he’s gone over the top Obama says something both wise and appropriate. Or, he promises the right thing and then doesn’t follow through. Months ago, Mr. Obama noted that the use-of-force permissions Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks had become obsolete and he invited a national debate on war authorities. After that, nothing. In another instance, the president promised transparency in his actual uses of force. But, aside from briefings to congressmen when drones are used the war he is waging remains entirely behind closed doors.

Obama did it again last week. The president went to West Point, where on May 28 he delivered the commencement address for the graduating class of U.S. Army officers. Aside from his declaration of an end to the Afghan war, which will be widely discussed, President Obama observed that “U.S. military action cannot be the only–or even primary–component of our leadership.” Equally astutely he went on to say, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Then the president took off the other way. “For the foreseeable future,” Obama declared, “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” Listen to someone who has drunk the Kool-Aid: “Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate.”

Let’s unpack all this. America went to war after 9/11 against the perpetrators, Al Qaeda. That movement has been reduced to isolated remnants hiding in mountain wildernesses. Should have been “end of story” at that point. Instead we are now assured the threat is  the “al Qaeda affiliate.” What is that? Anything you want. Today we have intelligence chieftains and supposed technical experts earnestly insisting that because somebody from group x talks to group y, they are affiliates. The public is supposed to read “allies” and to understand them as a direct threat to the United States. At the margin, militant groups are “affiliates” simply because they have certain interests in parallel (such as fighting the governments of their countries).

Mr. Obama actually understands this nonsense. At West Point he said, conceded, that militants have “agendas focused in the countries where they operate.” But did the president draw the appropriate conclusion? No. Take the Syrian civil war–entirely focused on who holds power in Damascus: as it “spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” Spills across borders? I guess I missed the memo. The same is true in Indonesia, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, most of the places where there are active insurgencies today. In east and central Africa there are exceptions–but there too the focus has remained regional and has not aimed directly at the United States.

We are in more danger from the fights we are picking than from the militants with their agendas. Our so-called security “experts” consistently make two huge errors. First, they pretend to a monolithic enemy–much like the Cold War enemy–rather than a diffuse constellation of corpuscular elements with assorted (and sometimes conflicting) goals. Second, they reject the agendas the militants do have in favor of attributing international aims to them. This kind of projection is for advocacy. It is the opposite of sound intelligence practice.

The truth is the war on terror ended a long time ago. There was 9/11, then . . . what? Remember the last big terrorist attack on the U.S.? I didn’t think so. The bigger danger seems to be rampages by soldiers deranged in fighting our wars on terror or driven by religious beliefs to take sides where really that was not necessary. The number of Americans killed by terrorists in the entire time since 9/11 is less than were lost on that one day. Not just fewer but less by an order of magnitude (2,600 to 3,100 depending on what you count compared to 311 up to 2011). The number of Americans who died in terror incidents in the Obama years is also less–again by an order of magnitude (270 versus 41)–than those who perished under George W. Bush. And the number of Americans who were murdered over this same period? 180,000!

Between 2000 and 2010 there were 293 Americans who died as a result of being struck by a falling piece of furniture, television, or appliance. That figure compares well with total American losses to terrorism. In 2012 there were 410 citizens killed by police action. Just to make another startling comparison– the number of Americans who die every year from allergic reactions to being stung by bees, wasps, and hornets averages about 40. During Obama’s first term the number of American terrorism victims was 41.

Even if you take this straight up–at the international level–the problem of terrorism is not the huge crisis that Obama portrayed at West Point, or others have done in many places. For 2012, the most recent year for which I have the data, the top ten afflicted countries account for 83 percent of the worldwide total incidents, 91.5 percent of deaths, and 89.3 percent of those wounded. Six of the ten countries are those in which the United States has been at war. Thus our measures of the terrorism “problem” are now mixing together the outputs from warfare with those of terrorism as we conventionally understand it.

Walk away from the wars and “terrorism” diminishes enormously. For example, 11,098 persons worldwide died from terrorism in 2012. Subtract war casualties and the number falls to less than 3,500. Take out the civil war in Syria and deaths remaining are fewer than on September 11. Take out Nigeria and you’re under 1,500. That’s worldwide. All forms of terrorism. All countries. All conflicts, both nationalist and religious. –And only ten of the dead were Americans.

The data clearly show that the “terrorist threat” is localized, aims at local issues, and is being conflated with war. We are manufacturing the “war on terror.” As a real conflict that ended long ago. Let’s stop playing this game.