Critical Discussion of the Securitization Theory Using the Case Study of War on Terrorism in Afghanistan (2001-2012)


Security study was in the past regarded as a sub-discipline of international relations underpinned in Anglo-American thinking. Until early 1990s, security studies were considered as a strategic studies focusing on a strong military focus. This traditional view of security involved the protection of the state and a scientific agenda to secure the state from definable threats and maintain the status quo. This is a positivist approach which was based on rationalism and realism. The Copenhagen School presented an alternative view of security studies by responding to the traditional approach of forming a clear sense of ‘what is security’. This approach is defined in three mechanisms: development of sectors approach to security, developing a regional focus on security and critically engendering a social constructivist theory of security through securitization studies. This theory will be the main focus of this discussion.

To achieve a critical discussion of what securitization really entails, this paper will use the case study of USA’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan. The approach used by the US government to fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq can be considered as a securitization approach which has led to security problems in the two countries rather than solving the issue. Securitization of USA’s war on Afghanistan can be viewed in three perspectives: securitization by the president and the government, securitization by the media and securitization by the society. In this case, the paper will attempt to explain how sectors such as political, social and economic sectors influence or result in securitization. This will be done with a specific focus on the USA’s war on Afghanistan.

Securitization theory

Smith (2005) considers Copenhagen School as one of the most innovative approaches to the study of security. He considers the Copenhagen School as the most interesting developments in the contemporary security studies. However, CS approach to security has faced a lot of criticisms due to its failure to include the normative implications within their securitization theory. For instance, Williams (2003) criticizes CS’ securitization theory for being politically irresponsible. He claims that the approach also lacks ground on which critical evaluation of claims of threat, enmity and emergency may be based. This paper will discuss securitization theory in depth and explain how it has contributed to analysis and conceptualization of security. It will also include the discussion of approaches of the theory’s critics. It also highlights some of the steps taken to attempt to overcome the normative dilemma of the securitization studies. By doing this, the paper will first address the Copenhagen School’s approach to the question of normative dilemma and secondly carry out a consequentiality approach. The discussion further outlines some of the weaknesses and strengths of the approaches and how they contribute to the question of normative dilemma.

Securitization theory was described by the Copenhagen school as “an inter-subjective and socially constructed process through which a given referent objects is acknowledged and considered worth protecting” (Abrahamsen, 2005). Security in this sense is considered as a political issue in which political actors use even extraordinary mechanisms to protect from what is perceived as a threat. Political actors may include the state, the president, members of a house assembly, institution and religious groups. Media also plays a crucial role in securitizing a given object by discussing it and giving opinions about it through their programs, news and bulletins. The media also encourage the state and other political actors to perpetuate protectionism against what is considered a threat to a given referent object. The media does so by providing these political actors with information concerning the threat and analyzing it in such a way that the political actors become convinced that their actions to protect the referent object are justified. This encourages continue with their securitization.

Securitization of war on terror in Afghanistan by political actors

Given the definition of Securitization above, it can be argued that war on terror in Afghanistan by the US Army has also been securitized in many aspects. Several aspects of securitization as described by theory indicate that securitization is a common phenomenon in the war against Afghanistan by the US army. The war which begun in 2001 and ended in 2012 after the killing of Osama Bin Laden was a response to what the US government termed as a threat on international security. Securitization theory suggests that securitization occurs when an object is considered to be threatened and protected by a political class.

Security is one of the factors which the political actors consider as worth protecting. In the case of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, USA’s security became the referent object which the country considered worth protecting. The political actors who sought to protect the world security that was threatened by terrorism include the president, the state and the members of the house assembly. The two presidents who spoke of terrorism as a threat to world security were George W. Bush and his successor Barrack Obama.

As mentioned earlier in this paper, the war on terrorism in Afghanistan began in October 2011 after the attack of USA’s world trade center by the Al Qaeda group that was led by Osama Bin Laden. The attack on USA by Osama and his terror group was carried out on September 11, 2001. The former president of the USA later addressed the UN congregation on October 2001 explaining why he considered terrorism as a threat to international security (Oberleitner, 2004). The war then began on October 7, 2001. Listening to the address of the congress by the US president, representatives of the UK, Australia, France and Canada agreed with the president and decided to support the USA with its fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

The main purpose of the invasion of Afghanistan was to dismantle the Al Qaeda group which had its military base in Afghanistan and end the Taliban Regime in the leadership of Afghanistan. USA and its allies succeeded in seizing control of Kabul and other major cities of Afghanistan. However, members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda groups escaped safely out of the country.

The approach of the US towards terrorism was evident since 1990s but it became more pronounced in 2001 after the attack of US by the Al Qaeda group led by Osama Bin Laden. In 1990s, the Pakistani government and the Al Qaeda helped the Taliban group to seize power of Afghanistan from the Islamic State government led by Ahmad Shah Massoud.  In 1999 the US government had sanctioned the Taliban government following the attack of US embassies in 1998. In 2001, the Al-Qaeda attacked the US World Trade Center in New York City. This attack led the US government to launch series of attacks against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda groups citing the move as a fight against terrorism.

The US government worked with other UN nations including UK, Australia and France to fight against Afghan’s Taliban group. In 2003, the Taliban group was defeated by the US army and a new Afghan government started which was opposed by the Taliban group (Entman, 2004). The Taliban started an insurgency group which fought against NATO which then was leading the Afghan government. NATO increased its soldiers as a response to the insurgency. The attack of Afghanistan led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. This led to the withdrawal of US soldiers and NATO in general from Afghanistan in 2012.

The war on terrorism in Afghanistan is one of the steps taken to protect countries and their security from terrorism. Such a war was initiated by the then US president who seemed to securitize the problem of terrorism. The US president represented a section of political class whose function is to provide security to its citizens. While addressing the UN congress in 2001, the president seemed to suggest that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda groups were a threat to international security. He recommended that the USA and other like-minded nations should join forces to fight against the two terror groups in Afghanistan so as to protect countries from further attacks from the terrorists. This indicates that the security was politicized by the political actors (including the USA president) as suggested by the securitization theory.

The fact that US army in collaboration with NATO and other UN security forces participated in the attack of Afghanistan indicates a peformative action which displays terrorism as a threat. Securitization theory asserts that security relates to the politicization of issues. It is not just about recognizing pre-existing threats but also a performative action that makes an issue to be viewed as a threat. The US action of investing heavily in war against terrorism using its military is a way of reiterating the fact that terrorism is a threat to a peaceful coexistence in the world (Buzan and Wæver, 2003). Therefore, securitization as experienced in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan is not just about saying, but also putting things into action as a way of defending what may be referred to as a significant part of the society.

According to securitization theory, ability to invoke security entails a shared understanding among political actors (Huysmans, 2002). Explaining how war and terrorism affects security of nations, US president got support from countries such as Italy, France and Japan. All these countries have a shared understanding with the USA and all considered terrorism as a threat. The US president and other political players had a common stand on security. The US army and the NATO who participated in the war against terrorism in support of USA and the UN also had a shared common sense of peril (Entman, 2004). The USA and other allied UN countries shared the understanding that terrorism in Afghanistan is a real threat to world peace and security, and that these objects can be protected by engaging in war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

During the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2012, the US army and NATO used carrier based F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bombers to hit Taliban vehicles in pin-point strikes. Cluster bombing was also used. The army also targeted Mazari Sharif, Hazrat Ali’s shrine, a sacred Muslim site. Cutting this transport link was also a way of limiting food supply to Afghanistan, hence alleviating the problem of hunger which had threatened the lives of over 6 million people in Afghanistan. This site was also a transportation hub which connected Afghanistan with Uzbekistan.

The use of such mechanisms to fight terrorism indicates that the USA used all the possible means to eliminate what they perceive as threat to world’s security – terrorism. This is in line with the Copenhagen School’s view of securitization which suggests that political actors (such as US president, the state and the army) defend their act of securitization by protecting what they term as the object of threats using all the possible means (Huysmans, 2002). In this case study, the object is world peace and security, and human life and rights while the threat is terrorism.

Securitization of the War on terrorism in Afghanistan by the News Media

Given the fact that security according to the CS’s securitization theory is a specific way of framing an issue, it is clear that the media plays a significant role in securitization because it may frame security in specific ways. In this essay, two newspapers of USA will be used to illustrate how news media may be used to securitize issues of security. In 2006, a year within the 2001-2012 period of USA’s fight against terrorism, USA’s leading circulation daily newspaper was USA Daily. It reported a total of nearly 2.3 million circulations within the same year. The slogan of the newspaper is “easy-to-use, comprehensive source of timely news and information to entertain and inform the affluent and influential people of the world” (Vultee, 2010). It is read by people from different cultural levels and it uses a high level of standardized format. On the other hand, the New York Post is a newspaper company which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The paper takes a conservative stand on subjects such as law and order, abortion, drugs and defence (McKnight, 2003).

The phrases “War on terror” and war on terrorism” dominated the three papers since October 2001 until the death of Osama Bin Laden in (Vultee, 2010). In some cases, the mention of the two phrases was either done in the voice of the newspaper or as a quotation from another source. In most cases, other sources which were quoted by the two newspapers were political actors including the president, the state and members of the house assembly. While the mention of the two phrases in the voice of the news papers reflects a securitization scenario, direct quotation is not securitized. This is because apparently, the source of the phrases securitized issues regarding war on terrorism but the newspapers merely reported what has already been securitized.

In a study of war on terror and war on terrorism undertaken by Vultee (2010), a total of 841 articles and 1,098 mentions of “war on terror” or war on terrorism were identified in the two newspapers plus a third newspaper: the Washington Post. This study involved the three newspapers’ circulations for every October since 2001 until 2010. In overall, the discussion of the war on terrorism is similar in many aspects among the three papers, especially in October 2001 just immediately after the attack of USA by the Al Qaeda group led by Osama Bin Laden on September 11. This month was also the month when USA started its war on terrorism in Afghanistan after the president successfully securitized the issue. The mentions of the phrases in October 2001 included 89 mentions in USA Daily and 57 times in the New York Post. These are the newspapers which are used in this study, but other newspapers also mentioned the phrases including the Washington Post which mentioned it 176 times within the same period.

The highest percentage (89%) of mentions of the phrase “war on terror” or “war on terrorism” during the month of October 2011 in the three newspapers appeared in news pages. These news pages cover local news, business news, editorial news and national news. Furthermore, 88.2% of the mentions phrased “war on terror” in the newspapers’ own voice. This indicates a high level of securitization of war on terror or war on terrorism because it involves the news media which puts the mentions of the phrase in its own words. Securitization theory suggests that the news media plays a crucial role in securitization by engaging in discussions which seem to posit a given issue as a threat (Entman, 2004). While mentioning the phrase “war on terror” without quoting from a different source, the news media seems to create an ideology of terrorism being a threat to the world peace and needs to be fought against so as to protect the peace that the world seemingly enjoys.

USA Daily and New York Post (95.5 and 96.5 respectively) indicate that the war on terrorism is unambiguously real.  In terms of the location of the war on terrorism, USA Today and New York Post suggest that the war is global as opposed to Al-Qaeda specific. In this case, war on terrorism is presented by the news media as a global issue which could also affect USA (Balzacq, 2005). The two newspapers term the war as a real war and speak of it in their own voices. There are few cases of sources mentioned. In overall, these approaches indicate a situation of securitizing war on terror by the news media. This was more rampant in the early days of the war in 2001 and towards the killing of Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden.

Generally, it is clear that there is an overall consensus between the two newspapers to put the war on terrorism in the center of many discussions. The war can be viewed from the two newspapers as a context in which crucial matters such as politics, budgeting and entertainment are discussed (Pearlstein, 2001). This also indicates a securitization of the issue by the news media.

Mentions of War on terror were more evident after the attack of USA by the Al-Qaeda group and before any elections, especially the 2004 elections. The mention of terrorism in 2004 was significant because the critics of Bush and his administration discussed the phrase in terms of the chosen frame of the administration. Kerry, Bush’s main challenger in 2004 elections of the US challenged Bush’s government for failing to capture Osama after a tape of him was released in October of the same year saying, “Why haven’t we caught him, if the Bush administration was going to be so effective on the war on terror?” (Millbank, 2004)


According to this critical discussion, it is clearly evident that securitization can be viewed from different perspectives. In this paper, securitization of war on terror is considered a major issue in the US political and media fraternity between 2001 and 2011. Within this period, the mention of the phrase “war on terrorism” or “war on terror” is common in two newspapers in USA: USA Today and New York Post. These newspapers securitized the issue of war on terror by raising discussions on the issue in their various news bulletins. They termed war on terror as real and spoke of it in their own voices, raising issues of securitization. On the other hand, the president and the state securitized the issue of war on terrorism by giving their stand on terrorism; terming it as a threat to the world peace and security. This is in line with what the securitization theory terms as a constructive view of an issue as a threat to a given object which is worth protecting by political actors. The political actors in this case are the president, the members of the house assembly, the state, the US army, NATO and other UN security personnel. All these political actors hold a shared view as predicted by the securitization theory and used all possible means to eliminate terrorism as also suggested by the theory.


References list

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Vultee, F. (2010). Securitization. Journalism Practice, 4(1), 33-47.

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