USIP’s discussion today of “Getting Ahead of the Curve: the evolving threat of violent extremism” was a study in contrasts. The first panel, of experts who contributed to The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond was devoted to hard-nosed analysis. The second, which discussed both CSIS’ Turning Point and Communities First: A Blueprint for Organizing and Sustaining a Global Movement Against Violent Extremism, was devoted to right-minded but airier policy propositions, at least until I left about 45 minutes before it ended.
The analysis panel, ably chaired by Robin Wright of USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center, offered a gloomy picture: each generation of jihadis is larger than the last, mobilizes faster, draws on more diversified sources of foreign fighters, gets more extreme, and spreads to more locations and causes.
That said, Brookings’ Will McCants noted that ISIS has lost perhaps half its territory as well as 50,000 killed, Raqqa and Mosul are under attack, and its finances are under pressure. It won’t disappear but will return, as it did during the near-defeat in Iraq in 2008/10, to terrorist tactics and prison breaks. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies concurred that the ISIS star has fallen, because of its brutal tactics and readiness to make enemies of too many people. But Al Qaeda is reviving and spreading, especially in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mali and Somalia. It is even controlling territory, it financing has become more open, and it is embedding Al Qaeda Central cadres, like the Khorasan Group, with its franchisees.
The franchises are increasingly important, Carnegie Endowment’s Fred Wehrey concurred. Al Qaeda has been more successful than ISIS in establishing durable franchises, partly because it focuses on “Dawa” (proselytizing), is relatively “moderate” in behavior towards the local population, and integrates more effectively with local forces. Egypt is particularly fertile ground, as is Yemen.
Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institue for Middle East Policy underlined that jihadism is not going away any time soon. Its narrative and appeal are increasingly entrenched. Al Qaeda and ISIS share the objective of creating a caliphate, but Al Qaeda is the more dangerous as it often works quietly and is more successful at “marbling” (interweaving) local and global strategies.
McCants views state failure as fuel for the protean diversified jihadist resurgence we are witnessing. The diversification and rapidly shifting organizational landscape are big problems, as they make prioritization difficult. Gartenstein-Ross believes the Middle East states will continue to weaken, as they face dramatic challenges like lack of water and parlous finances. Internet penetration in the region is still low, so jihadi mobilization is likely to become more effective and quicker as it expands. Social media are particularly adapted to boost secret identities across boundary lines. Hassan concurred, noting that ISIS in defeat will retreat into the desert, as it did in Iraq in 2008, leaving sleeper cells who will kill its enemies in newly liberated areas. Sunni disenfranchisement, alienation, and lack of leadership make ISIS a viable political option.
Wehrey concluded the first panel by underlining that terrorism is a political strategy and requires in part a political response. Jihadism is not really about religion but about the need for reform. Governance issues are central, vastly compounded by population displacement and Western intervention.
The second panel chaired by USIP’s Georgia Holmer focused, far less decisively, on non-military responses to jihadism.
The National Security Council’s Amy Pope underlined that countering violent extremism (CVE) is now established as an important part of the response to terrorism focused on its root causes in particular communities. She and State Department Under Secretary Sarah Sewall were confident that this community-focused approach, based on civil society and holistic investments, is the right one. We need to be able to tell this story across the security and human rights communities.
Shannon Green of CSIS cited the “measured security response” advocated in Turning Point, noting that anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces extremism. So too have some of America’s traditional partners in the Gulf, who have financed extremists. We need to be able to levy punitive sanctions in response, undertake a global educational partnership to ensure that extremism has no place in curricula, and review assistance to oppressive governments. She also thought an assistant to the president for CVE would help the cause.
The Prevention Project’s Eric Rosand emphasized community-level engagement that recognizes communities have many problems other than violent extremism and offers them incentives to engage locally in CVE. Law enforcement should have a limited, not a dominant, role.
Asked about what they would advise the incoming Trump Administration, Sewall emphasized the need to coordinate military and intelligence counter-terrorism with civilian CVE and the relative lack of resources for the latter (amounting to no more than .1% of the total). Pope also thought the balance out of whack. CVE needs to grow much bigger. There is lots of evidence that democracy and inclusion work and that alienation and exclusion don’t.
Asked to adduce some concrete examples of CVE that has worked, Pope cited a roundtable in The Hague, Sewall an ongoing project pilot project in East Africa and an AID project in Pakistan. Rosand noted that all too often autocrats readily take up the anti-messaging banner, as it enables them to crack down on dissident voices. That, he suggested, does not work.
My bottom line: Little in this discussion gave me any reason to believe that the incoming Trump Administration will take up the cause of CVE, which would require it to drop its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, agree to support reformist and more democratic states rather than autocratic ones, invest in aid that is difficult to distinguish from conventional development assistance, accept evidence-based indications of effectiveness, and increase funding for civilian rather than military efforts. #fatchance
No doubt one of the few international issues President Obama will highlight in tonight’s State of the Union speech is the threat of international terrorists associated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. He will cite the American military response in Iraq and Syria as vital to our national interests and claim we are making progress, at least in Iraq.
He is unlikely to acknowledge that the problem is spreading and getting worse. In Libya, there are two parliaments and two governments, one of which has ample extremist backing. In Yemen, rebels have laid siege to the government the Washington relies on for cooperation against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram is wrecking havoc. In Syria, moderates have lost territory and extremists have gained. Taliban violence is up in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Fourteen years ago when the World Trade Center was attacked in New York City Al Qaeda amounted to a few hundred militants hiding out mainly in Afghanistan, with small clandestine cells in Europe and the US. Now estimates of the number of extremists change so rapidly it is hard to know which to cite, but there are surely more than 100 times as many actively engaged in extremist Islamist campaigns or recruitment efforts in close to a dozen countries, including (in addition to the ones cited above) Somalia, Egypt, Niger, Mali, Algeria, Palestine and Tunisia. Counting the numbers of sympathizers in Europe, Russia and the United States is just impossible.
The long war against Islamist extremism is not going well. It can’t, because we are fighting what amounts to an insurgency against the existing state system principally with military means. Drones and air strikes are killing lots of militants, and I am even prepared to believe that the collateral damage to innocents is minimized, whatever that means. But extremist recruitment is more than keeping up with extremist losses. We are making more enemies than we are killing. Insurgencies thrive on that.
The Obama administration is apparently prepared to make things worse, as it now leans towards supporting UN and Russian peace initiatives in Syria that are premised on allowing Bashar al Asad to stay in power. The Islamic State will welcome that, as it will push relative moderates in their direction and weaken the prospects for a democratic transition. Bashar has shown no inclination to fight ISIS and will continue to focus his regime’s efforts against democracy advocates.
President Obama knows what it takes to shrink extremist appeal: states that protect their populations with rule of law and govern inclusively and transparently. This is the opposite of what Bashar al Asad, and his father, have done. But President Obama has no confidence the US or anyone in the international community can build such states in a matter of months or even years. So he does what comes naturally to those whose strongest available means is military power: he uses it to achieve short-term objectives, knowing that its use is counter-productive in the longer term.
But producing more enemies than you can kill is not a strategy that works forever. The Union is recovering from a devastating economic crisis and can now afford to take a fresh look at its foreign policy priorities. I’ll be with the President when he calls tonight for completion of the big new trade and investment agreement with Europe (TTIP) and its counterpart in the Pacific (TTP). These are good things that can find support on both sides of the aisle, among Democrats and Republicans.
I’ll groan when he calls for a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) but says little or nothing about building the kind of states in the Greater Middle East that are needed to immunize the region against extremism. Support for restoration of autocracy in Egypt and for Gulf monarchies is not a policy that will counter extremism. We are guaranteeing that things are going to get worse before they get better.
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.
Here are peacefare’s top ten posts of the year, determined by numbers of clicks. Heavy on Balkans, but with a reasonable scattering of Middle East and North Africa, Ukraine and other issues.
Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia–the remaining trouble spots in the Balkans–still attract lots of readers. I’m not indifferent to them myself, though I (and my Middle East Institute interns) write about them much less often than about the Middle East and North Africa, where the problems are still burdgeoning.
Let me renew my appeal for more contributors: peacefare was never meant to represent only my views. I enormously appreciate the contributions and comments from my interns, colleagues, former students, and knowledgeable people I have never met. Registered users can comment directly on peacefare.net. I moderate all comments and try to eliminate those that are blatantly commercial, repetive or truly offensive. If you want to contribute a post, just give me an idea of what you want to write about before you do it. The best email address to use for that is email@example.com
It has been a tough year for those of us who once hoped the Arab uprisings would succeed in improving the lot of citizens throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The year hasn’t seen many improvements in the Balkans either. I hope, but doubt, that 2015 will be a huge year for humanity. I’ll write about those doubts in the next day or so.
I take comfort from smaller things: a run this morning in Rock Creek Park, listening to Amahl and the Night Visitors, and now to Beethoven’s nine symphonies. Grandson Ethan will arrive late today or tomorrow, accompanied by his parents, and I’ll meet up tomorrow with two talented friends from grade school. We’ll visit the Hale Woodruff Rising Up exhibit wife Jackie co-curated at the National Museum of American History. Alas, the new building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where she is chief curator, won’t open until 2016, but you can see it rising now on the Mall:
That is something to look forward to!
I hope your 2014 holiday matches such pleasures and prepares you well for the new year!
This year’s Council on Foreign Relations Preventive Priorities Survey was published this morning. It annually surveys the globe for a total of 30 Tier 1, 2 and 3 priorities for the United States. Tier 1s have a high or moderate impact on US interests or a high or moderate likelihood (above 50-50). Tier 2s can have low likelihood but high impact on US interests, moderate (50-50) likelihood and moderate impact on US interests, or high likelihood and low impact on US interests. Tier 3s are all the rest. Data is crowdsourced from a gaggle of experts, including me.
We aren’t going to be telling you anything you don’t know this year, but the exercise is still instructive. The two new Tier 1 contingencies are Russian intervention in Ukraine and heightened tensions in Israel/Palestine. A new Tier 2 priority is Kurdish violence within Turkey. I don’t believe I voted for that one. Ebola made it only to Tier 3, as did political unrest in China and possible succession problems in Thailand. I had Ebola higher than that.
Not surprisingly, the top slot (high likelihood and high impact) goes to ISIS. Military confrontation in the South China Sea moved up to Tier 1. Internal instability in Pakistan moved down, as did political instability in Jordan. Six issues fell off the list: conflict in Somalia, a China/India clash, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo Bangladesh and conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.
Remaining in Tier 1 are a mass casualty attack on the US homeland (hard to remove that one), a serious cyberattack (that’s likely to be perennial too), a North Korea crisis, and an Israeli attack on Iran. Syria and Afghanistan remain in Tier 2 (I think I had Syria higher than that).
The Greater Middle East looms large in this list. Tier 2 is all Greater Middle East, including Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and Yemen (in addition to Tier 1 priorities Israel/Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine). That makes 11 out of 30, all in the top two tiers. Saudi monarchy succession is not even mentioned. Nor is Bahrain.
Sub-Saharan Africa makes it only into Tier 3. Latin America and much of Southeast Asia escape mention.
There is a question in my mind whether the exclusively country-by-country approach of this survey makes sense. It is true of course that problems in the Middle East vary from country to country, but there are also some common threads: Islamic extremism, weak and fragile states, exclusionary governance, demographic challenges and economic failure. From a policy response perspective, it may make more sense to focus on those than to try to define “contingencies” country by country. If you really wanted to prevent some of these things from happening, you would surely have to broaden the focus beyond national borders. Russian expansionism into Russian-speaking territories on its periphery might be another more thematic way of defining contingencies.
One of the key factors in foreign policy is entirely missing from this list: domestic American politics and the difficulties it creates for a concerted posture in international affairs. Just to offer a couple of examples: failure to continue to pay Afghanistan’s security sector bills, Congressional passage of new Iran sanctions before the P5+1 negotiations are completed, or a decision by President Obama to abandon entirely support for the Syrian opposition. The survey ignores American “agency” in determining whether contingencies happen, or not. That isn’t the world I live in.
For my Balkans readers: no, you are not on the list, and you haven’t been for a long time so far as I can tell. In fact, it is hard to picture how any contingency today in the Balkans could make it even to Tier 3. That’s the good news. But it also means you should not be looking to Washington for solutions to your problems. Brussels and your own capitals are the places to start.
Anyone still under the impression that the Obama Administration has laid out an adequate strategy to defeat what it prefers to call the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) need only read Secretary Kerry’s op/ed in this morning’s Boston Globe to be convinced otherwise. His formula for success is this:
- air attacks, no US boots in combat;
- reduce the flow of foreign fighters;
- cut off funding, initially by preventing oil sales and eventually by taking back the territory ISIL controls (thus preventing extortion and tax collection).
Missing here is any clear sense of how territory retaken from ISIL will be governed. It won’t matter how many countries join the coalition of the willing Secretary Kerry is building if that gap is not filled.
In Iraq, there is at least an implicit concept of post-conflict governance: a more inclusive government in Baghdad should allow the Sunni-populated areas now in ISIL control to govern themselves. That is the implication in particular of Prime Minister Abadi’s effort to organize National Guard forces on a provincial basis. But success will require far greater generosity in revenue and power sharing with the Sunnis than Abadi has so far shown.
Iraq’s Sunnis will not be easy to satisfy. Many continue to believe themselves more than 50% of the population (there is no evidence of this, and lots of evidence to the contrary) and prefer to rule in Baghdad rather than in the provinces. While arguing for democratic ideals, many Sunnis in Iraq are really dreaming of a restored but more benevolent dictatorship. Their Shia brethren are going to allow that.
In Syria, the Secretary’s concept is far more tenuous:
By degrading the Islamic State and providing training and arms to the moderates, we will promote conditions that can lead to a negotiated settlement that ends this conflict.
The problem is that the moderates are so weak after three years of battering by both Bashar al Assad’s regime and Islamic extremists that they are in no position to take much advantage of American air strikes. It will be months if not years of training and equipping before the Syrian Free Army and its allies can redress the imbalance and begin to govern in liberated areas. A negotiated outcome in Syria that meets the American goal of beginning a democratic transition is impossible without also beefing up the civilian Syrian Opposition Coalition, which will take time and money.
Without a serious answer to the question of how areas liberated from ISIL control will be governed, the air attacks risk creating a vacuum that extremists of one stripe or another will inhabit as a safe haven. They also risk spreading the cancer they are intended to cure. American military victories over the past decade did not end the threat but spread it: from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Yemen, from Iraq into Syria and back into Iraq, from Libya into Mali. Metastasis is the usual course for malignancy, not the exception.
The Obama administration wants to avoid what it regards as the Bush Administration’s mistake of using ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that was not the big mistake. We won both of those wars. What we lost was the peace that followed, by being unprepared for the vital statebuilding tasks that are required when defeating an insurgency.
ISIL is not just a small group of terrorists, as President Obama claims. A counter-terrorism strategy will not suffice. It is an insurgency that aims to collapse the state structures in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond. This insurgency cannot be defeated without replacing the governance it is now providing. That was where the Bush administration failed. It looks as if the Obama administration will repeat the mistake.