Why we are losing the long war

The United States went to war with Islamic extremism in the aftermath of the murder of nearly 3000 people on 9/11, when its adherents were largely concentrated in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration called this the Global War on Terror (GWOT), a term that misleadingly included the invasion of Iraq. The Obama Administration has abandoned that appellation but continued what others now term the “long” war, which has spread throughout the Greater Middle East into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Syria, Egypt, Libya and into sub-Saharan Africa, even as it has subsided in Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Asia.

Even this rudimentary description suggests we are not winning. It isn’t even clear what “winning” means, but it almost certainly does not entail spreading the enemy to a dozen or more additional countries, where they are challenging established governments. The geographic spread makes this a tougher fight. Our military much prefers to concentrate forces on a center of gravity whose defeat spells the end of the war.

But now it is no longer clear where the center of gravity is: we used to think it was Al Qaeda Central, holed up in Peshawar or somewhere else along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. But Osama bin Laden’s death did nothing to stem the jihadi tide, even if Al Qaeda Central has lost significance. Today the press would have us believe the center of gravity is with the Islamic State (ISIS), somewhere in eastern Syria or western Iraq. But defeating it there will all too obviously not defeat Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Yemen and Mali, or the ISIS affiliate in Sinai.

Islamic extremism, despite ISIS’s claim, is still more an insurgency than a state. Insurgencies do not need to win. They only need to survive.

This one is not only geographically resilient but also demographically resilient. I know of no indication that anything we have done for the past decade or more has seriously limited recruitment to Islamic extremism. To the contrary, efforts to repress it using military force seem to make recruitment easier, not harder. New leaders have far more often than not stepped into the roles of those we have killed. Nor have any of our propaganda/psychops efforts worked. There is on the contrary lots of anecdotal evidence that ISIS propaganda efforts do work, at least to recruit cannon fodder.

So we’ve got an enemy that is difficult to locate, whose center of gravity is unclear, and whose psychops are better than ours. What should we do about it?

First is to keep a sense of proportion. For Americans, trans-national terrorism is a vanishingly small threat. The odds are one-ninth those of being killed by a policeman, and comparable to those of being killed by an asteroid. Ninety-nine per cent of the time no American need really fear terrorism outside a war zone, and those who enter war zones do so knowing the risks.

Second is to recognize that if we want to reduce the risk–in particular reduce the risk that the risk will grow in the future–military means are proving massively inadequate and inappropriate. Islamic extremism was far less likely to grow like topsy when confined to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than it is now, dispersed in at least a dozen weak states. Those cats are out of the bag. We are not going to be able to force Islamic extremists back to where they came from. But we should be cautious about continuing to bombard them with drones wherever they appear. We may think the risks of collateral damage are minimal, but the people who live in Yemen don’t. For those who join extremist groups because of real or imagined offenses to “dignity,” drone strikes are an effective recruiting tool.

This brings us third to the fraught question of countering extremist narratives. I know of no evidence that direct government efforts to counter extremist narratives have been successful. There is evidence that former terrorists and their families can have some influence, working with local communities. But that requires the existence of a relatively free civil society in which religious institutions and private voluntary organizations are at liberty to organize. Community policing is also an effective strategy. But community policing requires the existence of a legitimate and inclusive state that uses security forces to protect its citizens rather than itself.

It is no wonder that we are losing the long war. We are using our strengths, which lie in technology and military action rather than in the far messier (and more difficult) tasks of building civil society and legitimate governance. It is arguable that our technology and military are actually making the task of countering violent extremism even harder. Drone strikes don’t encourage people to think their government is committed to protecting them. Nor do they encourage former terrorists and their families to speak out against extremism, as community-based civil society organizations might.

If the long war is worth fighting, it should be fought to win. For now, we are fighting it in ways bound to make us lose.

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