What the West should have learned from its long ‘war on terror’

December 7, 2015
A police officer picks up a weapon from the scene of the investigation around the area of the SUV vehicle where two suspects were shot by police following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California December 3, 2015.  Authorities on Thursday were working to determine why Syed Rizwan Farook 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, who had a 6-moth old daughter together, opened fire at a holiday party of his co-workers in Southern California, killing 14 people and wounding 17 in an attack that appeared to have been planned.  REUTERS/Mike Blake (TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)   - RTX1X2D8

A police officer picks up a weapon from the scene of the investigation around the area of the SUV vehicle where two suspects were shot by police following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Behind President Barack Obama’s Sunday night speech lies an awkward reality. Ever since 9/11, the West has been fighting two in some ways separate, but deeply intertwined battles against Islamist militancy.

One — to protect the West from attack — has actually gone remarkably well. The other, however — to shape events in the Middle East and surrounding regions and push back radical militant groups — has been something of a disaster. Somehow, those two campaigns must be reconciled if groups like Islamic State and its ideology are to be defeated.

Last week’s shooting at a San Bernardino, California, special needs center was the deadliest jihadist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. In all, such post-9/11 attacks have killed 45 people: a series of senseless deaths, yet a relatively small number considering the level of concern and attention paid to the topic.

The vast majority of those attacks appear to have been homegrown plots, albeit in many cases inspired and sometimes carried out by those in direct contact with militant groups elsewhere in the world.

Why have there been so few attacks? There are several reasons, including sheer distance and air travel controls that make it hard for any foreign assailants to get themselves into position. Additionally, the U.S. Muslim population remains well-integrated, particularly compared to Europe; law enforcement efforts have been massive and relatively effective; and strikes overseas have disrupted plots — as has the incompetence of the militants themselves.

And much of it, current and former security officials concede, comes down to luck.

What the Paris attacks showed, though, was the last decade of war in the Middle East coming home to roost. Those attacks may have been largely carried out by European-born or resident attackers, but the planning had clear links to Syria — and with the continent awash with refugees from Middle East war zones, stopping a handful of militants from slipping through the net is all but impossible. That’s much less true in the United States and Britain, both of which can control borders much more easily.

Simply protecting the West and letting the Middle East burn is not really an option. Many of the West’s actions over the last decade and a half, however, have made matters worse.

In Iraq and Libya in particular, we used military force to dismantle dictators, with no good alternative to fill the gap. In Syria, the West did even worse by encouraging the opposition to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad without backing them sufficiently to finish the job. The resulting instability provided the perfect environment for Islamic State to thrive.

The result has been devastating — a nine-fold increase in deaths worldwide from militant attacks, almost all of them concentrated in a relatively small number of countries across the Middle East and Africa.

Yet the situation isn’t necessarily as bad as many think it is. Yes, Islamic State still controls a disconcerting amount of Iraq and Syria. Its expansion, however, has largely been halted as a result of airstrikes and efforts by local forces. As a result, it has become much harder for the group to maintain its narrative of invincibility, particularly as it begins to be pushed back in Iraq, in particular.

With the exception of Islamic State and its urban strongholds around Raqqa and Mosul, Islamist groups have had remarkably little success making serious territorial inroads around major cities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has never managed to hold serious urban ground for more than a handful of hours. Nor has Boko Haram in Nigeria or the various groups in Pakistan — who so brutally terrorized Mumbai in 2008 and who hit targets in their own country even more often.

Those states might have their weaknesses, but today they are more urbanized than at any point in history. For now at least, their governments have the ability to hold the cities, and their populations seem to have little appetite for Islamist militant rule. The endless attacks have a high human cost — and it’s almost impossible to stop militants infiltrating the target-rich cities — but total takeover seems unlikely.

For the United States and its allies, simply degrading Islamic State to the extent that it could no longer hold major towns would be a success. That, though, will take time — not least because the ethnic Sunni populations of places like Mosul and Raqqa would rather take their chances with Islamic State than live under — and risk recriminations by — the Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Persuading them otherwise will not be easy.

There is one country in which outside intervention has achieved such results, however — Somalia, where local African forces, backed by U.S. strikes and intelligence, have pushed Al Shabaab militants first from Mogadishu and now from wider swathes of territory.

The strategy Obama outlined on Sunday is very much in that model. Yes, there will now be small numbers of U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Syria as well as Iraq. In both cases, however, the plan is to build local capacity. If the last 15 years have shown anything, it is that larger Western interventions can be less effective. Everyone knows they will one day leave, so it’s hard to achieve lasting effects.

On that front, targeted air strikes should help. The West may be lousy at long-term strategy, but their militaries are really good at destroying structures and systems. In Iraq and Libya, that’s probably done more harm than good, but it augers badly for Islamic State’s hope of becoming an actual functioning state.

To build on that strategy, though, you need a functioning state in areas that Islamic State would otherwise control. That’s still a long way away — particularly in Syria, where regional and global powers have long been fueling the conflict by picking sides based on wider geopolitical and ideological disagreements.

What binds the two interlocking battles against militancy — to stop attacks in the West and stabilize the current conflict areas — comes down to the same thing: integration.

By that, I do not necessarily mean cultural integration — although that is unquestionably important. I mean that the populations from which potential militants are drawn — be they disenfranchised groups in Iraq and Syria, Muslims in America and Europe — feel that they get something back from the nation-state they reside in.

In the United States and Europe, that is still not that difficult. Even relatively ill-integrated new migrant populations get plenty back in terms of benefits, opportunities and the rule of law. After all, that’s why many came in the first place.

In countries like Iraq, Nigeria and most particularly Syria, rebuilding that social contract is going to be much, much harder. It will require unpleasant compromises and dealing with people the United States really, really doesn’t like. But it is not impossible. Building those structures needs to be at the heart any truly effective strategy.

There will still, of course, be fanatics who will need to be robustly tracked down and neutralized. But that is a much more manageable problem.

It will not be easy — not least because the West and its allies are themselves often ineffective, transparently hypocritical and capable of huge mistakes. In general, though, both it and the globalized world it has created remain much more appealing places to live than anything Islamic State or its allies have to offer.

 

This piece is published courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century. For more information and commentaries, please visit www.projects21.com.

13 comments

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The reason people use terrorism as a techniques is because they are weak. The core premise of terrorism is that the enemy is not likely to completely destroy the perpetrators. It depends on the victim only exacting revenge rather than completely destroying the terrorists. I doubt the west could ever become as vicious as they would need to be to completely knock the terroristic tendency out of the middle east. But here is how they win, the terrorist that is. They make us spend extreme amounts of money and attention on them, even though the threat to our existence is almost nil. You see, the terrorist supply the most fascist of political opportunists a path to power, and if the most fascist lead us them terrorism has accomplished step 1. To make us more enslaved by a demagogue fascist leader. Second will come the decrease in our freedoms (the patriot act) and third, we spend tons of money to prevent any events and thus decrease the effectiveness of our governance since many resources are thrown toward the resolution of terrorism. Generally speaking the terrorist spend nearly nothing compared to us, and our efforts in the middle east help to create the suicidal fanatics they use to make the occasional attack. This enrages us and takes our attentions away from everyday stable life to a focus on the somewhat obscure events they create. In my opinion because we lack societal intelligence they are winning. We lack societal intelligence because our leaders (business and government) wanted compliant followers and so the American people have been trained to be cowed rather than free and thinking.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The terror can only be stopped by capital punishment for the whole family of the terrorists. That way FBI phone lines will be ringing at early signs of radicalization.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

This idea of looking for “masterminds” and “terrorist training camps” is already outdated. We’re up against people who walk into rooms and spray them with machine gun fire. Basically terrorists acting Americans.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

When mankind teaches religious garbage, christian, muslim blah blah blah, dividing all human souls into separate camps to fight each other over their religious insanity, we reap the consequences of what we sow.
Teach science and humanity to children and you will have a happy world based on reason. Teach that muslims and christians and jews can never see eye to eye and – surprise – no one is at peace.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

The subtext in the propaganda effort above papers over (again) the massive fault lines under the foundation of the ‘Global war Against Terror”.

Let’s focus on the most obvious one. WTC #7. It fell directly down at gravity speed for no apparent reason after a countdown. How did Muslim Terrorists manage to rig that building, while avoiding notice by the many banks and insurance companies tenanted in the building, as well as the obviously much higher security of the local, state and federal Emergency Management command posts and the local CIA branch office, also tenanted there? And how did they organize that countdown?

Forget about Mohammad Attas’ plane crash proof passport. Forget about the fact that half the hijackers are still alive. Don’t even ask what was so fascinating about “My Pet Goat”. Wonder instead who rigged building 7.

There stands your culprit.

The thought that America might have enemies after killing a million people overseas to further a repressive domestic political agenda is hardly surprising. What is surprising that this SEEMS to be unexpected.

Unexpected by who?

Posted by KurtisEngle | Report as abusive

Oh good! We’re bombing for all the right reasons, Thanks Pete!

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

The problem in the Middle East goes back to the initial religious war between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It has rolled through numerous tribes and countries in an almost non-stop mode and created further probems since each side tended to add all who were non-Muslim people to their enemy’s list.

Posted by ThoseWhoServe | Report as abusive

The problem in the Middle East goes back to the initial religious war between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It has rolled through numerous tribes and countries in an almost non-stop mode and created further probems since each side tended to add all who were non-Muslim people to their enemy’s list.

Posted by ThoseWhoServe | Report as abusive

It’s not much of a discussion when we can’t make notice of some more relevant points that work to define and continue the senseless tragedies. A good portion the current conditions in the MENA have some uncomfortable truths attached. Without going into that any further, the realities on the ground are a humanitarian crisis of considerable proportion.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

It’s not much of a discussion when we can’t make notice of some more relevant points that work to define and continue the senseless tragedies. A good portion the current conditions in the MENA have some uncomfortable truths attached. Without going into that any further, the realities on the ground are a humanitarian crisis of considerable proportion.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Islamic problem. Not ours.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The real problem is our policies in middle east, resulting in a rallying cause for Jihad calls, helped that transformed ideology into global ideas with the help of Saudi Arabia money and Pakistan strategy in the name of Islam, both eh real heart and soul of this new culture and its spread.

Posted by moriganti | Report as abusive

“Islamic problem. Not ours.”

Which would have been an acceptable policy had we not actively fomented regime change in that country, providing cia and military support in concert with other nations to destabilize the current government.
Providing billions of dollars and personnel would qualify as “our problem”.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive