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The legacy of the War on Terror

The 20-year war was different from any war a country or a group, a UW-Madison professor said. It was a war on a concept.
Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 9:38 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - After two decades abroad, US troops are out of Afghanistan, and to evaluate the war’s legacy, one expert begins with why America invaded Afghanistan in the first place.

“If the goal was to disrupt al-Qaeda, we did that,” Jon Pevehouse, who teaches US foreign policy at UW-Madison, said. “If the goal was to build a functioning civil society and country that would, sort of, be a successful democracy, no. That did not happen.”

The last Air Force transport plane departed Kabul one minute before midnight Monday. The withdrawal marks the end of the longest war in American history, a war sparked by the attacks on September 11, 2001.

In an address to the country Tuesday, President Joe Biden called the 20 years a “forever war.” He added, he was “not extending a forever exit.”

Pevehouse explained why the war in Afghanistan lasted through multiple administrations.

“There’s two answers to that,” he said. “One is the mission was difficult... I think the more political answer is, I think Obama wanted out. I think Trump wanted out. And I think neither of them wanted the situation that we’re seeing today during their presidency.”

Throughout the war, Pevehouse said the US found “progress” learning more about terrorist groups and disrupting many of their plots. But he continued to explain the obstacles against the mission.

“Both monetarily and with the number of troops for things like counterinsurgency, there was always, in my opinion, a design flaw there,” he said. “And the American public eventually also got tired of dumping people and material into the country.”

Since 2001, the Taliban have gone from losing to regaining control. Now, Pevehouse said uncertainty is ahead.

“It’s hard to know. There may just be so much chaos that no group can fully come to power and launch those attacks again. It may be that the Taliban tries to keep a lid on this and they fail, or maybe they don’t. And maybe unfortunately we would get another sort of major global terrorist event again,” he said.

Pevehouse also suggested how the future of fighting terrorism could look, noting that the War on Terror is different from any war a country or a group. It was a war on a concept.

The future, he said, would depend on how “terror” is defined and whether there are immediate or long-term threats. He also said leaders will have to determined whether “terror” requires a militarized response.

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