Rethinking The “War On Terror” (While Staying True To American Values)


In October 2001, the United States launched a global “War on Terror” to counter an attack by a group — al-Qaeda — that then had approximately 170 core members. Nearly 15 year in, the “War on Terror” has cost the United States over $1.7 trillion — over $12,780 per household. And, the human toll has been far greater. Over 6,500 American soldiers have been killed and over 50,000 wounded, while countless others suffer from PTSD, depression, substance abuse, or other war-related psychological issues. Civilian casualties (i.e. non-terrorists who are often victims of the terrorists themselves) number in the hundreds of thousands, if not higher.

Generally, these grave costs would be weighed against the benefits achieved. But, here that is difficult. As shown on the chart above, 2015 was the deadliest year for terrorism on record and 2016 threatens to be even worse. While al-Qaeda has been largely neutralized in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its affiliates including Al-Shabaab in Somalia, al-Nusra is Syria, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (among others) have significantly strengthened. And, break-off group ISIS and Boko Haram have now surpassed al-Qaeda in both reach and brutality. In all, there are far more jihadist groups and fighters today than when the “War on Terror” began:

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While there have been some battles won, it would be difficult for anyone to argue that we are winning this “war.” It is troubling, therefore, that President Obama insists that our strategy will remain unchanged, while the Republican solutions are largely to double-down on the failed policies with more troops, more aggression, and more “security measures” targeting Muslim individuals. It is equally troubling that while everyone recognizes that the “War on Terror” will be a long-term effort, there seems to be no comprehensive long-term strategy. Politicians will discuss their (often vague) strategies for defeating ISIS, but when is the last time anyone discussed a post-ISIS strategy for stabilizing the ISIS-controlled territory to avoid a revival of jihadism — you know, the kind of post-“victory” strategy that somebody maybe should have considered before we invaded Iraq … or invaded Afghanistan … or bombed Libya.

If we are to turn the tide, we need to reexamine a strategy (or lack thereof) that is failing to achieve its objectives. We must understand who (or what) we are fighting, why our strategy is failing, and what should we do now.

Who (Or What) Is The Enemy?

We cannot win a “war” without first identifying our enemy. Unfortunately, this seem too much to ask from our leading political figures. On the left, there is an awkward reluctance to acknowledge that terrorism has any association with Islam, whether its the Obama Administration insisting that the Fort Hood shooting was “workplace violence” or Hillary Clinton tweeting that “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” On the right, there is talk of a “clash of cultures,” a war against Islam, or claims that “Islam hates America.” Both extremes are dangerous. We cannot pretend that terrorism has no connection to Islam, but we also cannot play into the jihadist mythology that there is a clash between Islam and the West.

The “enemy” is accurately described as the religious-political ideology of Salafi jihadism (often just called “jihadism”) and its followers. Salafi jihadists make up a small minority of the Salafi movement, an ultra-conservative reform movement within Sunni Islam. For perspective, it is estimated that jihadist groups count approximately 100,000 members. That means that Salafi jihadists account for about .006% of the over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. While a disturbingly larger number of Muslims express a favorable view of jihadist groups like ISIS, these groups are still rejected by the vast majority of the religion (as shown in this poll taken of Muslims in different countries):


Notably, we should not confuse jihadism with the more widely supported Islamism, a political ideology that favors reordering of government and society in accordance with Shari’a law. Polls representing Muslim views in favor of Shari’a or its various edicts are often cited to evidence the extent of “extremism” in Islam. Yet, while Islamism and government imposition of Shari’a law are inconsistent with Western values (and often basic human rights), Islamists do not necessarily support terrorism or pose a security threat to the United States. While we should encourage Islamist countries like Saudi Arabia to liberalize, we should recognize that the terrorist threat does not stem from Islamism or even Islamic extremism (as most “extremists” do not support violence), but jihadism.

Why Are We Failing?

There is an understandable reticence, particularly among conservatives, to contemplate that American policy may be causing an increase in jihadism and related terrorist activity. To many, this seems like “blaming” America, or excusing jihadist violence. But, we must distinguish between assigning moral responsibility for individual acts and recognizing a causal relationship between government policy and unintended negative consequences. For instance, many would argue that the “war on drugs” has caused an increase in violent crime. Few would contend, however, that the government is morally responsible for a drug-related homicide, or that the murderer was morally justified because of bad government policy.  Likewise, jihadist terrorism has no justification, and the jihadists alone bear responsibility for their evil acts. But, in order address the problem of jihadist terrorism, we must be willing to honestly examine whether there is a causal relationship between U.S. government policy and an increase in jihadist activity.

When the war on terror began, there were an estimated 20,000 jihadist fighters. Since then, it is estimated that approximately 66,000-88,000 jihadists have been killed by American or allied forces. This would seem like a great success. Yet, there are now an estimated 100,000 jihadists worldwide. It is fairly evident that a strategy focused on killing terrorists will not work if two new jihadists are radicalized for every one that is killed.

Our strategy has failed because we misperceived that “war” could defeat “terrorism.” From the beginning, we have viewed the “War on Terror” as a military exercise, relying on old-school military strategy. But, jihadism is not like any “enemy” we have fought before. You cannot win this “war” by occupying territory; there is no government to negotiate with, and no peace treaty will ever be signed; and, the “war” itself is the enemies’ primary tool for recruiting new fighters — particularly in the territories that perceive the United States and its allies as an invading army. It is no coincidence that jihadist recruitment has been most successful in the territories previously occupied by U.S. forces, and it should be no surprise that having U.S ground forces fighting in Muslim countries strengthens the jihadist narrative that there is a war between Islam and the West.

We are losing this “war” because we are fighting the jihadists, but we are not fighting their ideology. We focus almost all of our efforts on arresting or killing Muslims that have become radicalized, but have done little to address the conditions and mythology that foster radicalization in the first place. This becomes increasingly ineffective as jihadists are encouraged to stay at home and execute lone-wolf or locally planned attacks, which are far less likely to be detected by intelligence agencies.

That is not to say that the military has no role — just that the role must be reconsidered. We must learn from our experience: the war in Iraq is now widely considered a mistake, and so too was the war in Afghanistan. While we should have gone after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, rushing into a full-scale ground invasion that at peak had over 100,000 ground troops was not an effective way to attack a group that had 170 core members at the time of the invasion. A traditional “war” simply does not work against a non-traditional enemy. Indeed, many of the greatest successes in the “War on Terror” — including the killing of Osama bin Laden — were the result of covert operations in Pakistan. Thus, the idea of using ground troops as an occupying force, as some now seek to do against ISIS, must be rejected — it simply does not work, and spurs far more terrorism. And, when we use military force of any kind, is should be part of a comprehensive strategy that weighs the likely unintended consequence of fueling more jihadist recruitment.

What Should We Do Now?

Regardless of how we got here, the “War on Terror” is not going away. Even if we wanted to, we are far past the point at which America could simply withdraw itself from the fight and avoid further harm. The jihadist threat will remain unless and until it is defeated. To this end, we must stop playing Whack-a-Mole with individual terrorist groups and develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing this worldwide ideology.

In Muslim countries, we should support the principles of liberty, democracy, and self-determination. Even if it were desirable, the time when a ruthless dictator could suppress a radical opposition has likely passed. Instead, oppression and attacks on Sunnis by pro-government forces in Iraq and Syria have been the primary fuel for the rise of ISIS and al-Nusra. Many Sunnis accept or even support these jihadist groups despite opposing their objectives and tactics because they have greater fear of the pro-government Shiite militias in Iraq and pro-Assad forces in Syria.

The recent retaking of Ramadi from ISIS, however, was accomplished largely by convincing local Sunni leaders to turn against ISIS, and Sunni militias to support the effort, by promising that Shiite militias would not be allowed in the city and that the Sunnis would be given more autonomy to run their own affairs. There should be this same promise of self-determination throughout Iraq and Syria. The Kurds should be given control over an autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq and Syria, Sunni governments should control Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria, the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government should maintain control over eastern Iraq, and the Assad government should maintain control over the currently occupied Alawite-majority areas in Syria. Now fighting for their own territory, which they would occupy, these groups far outnumber ISIS and would easily prevail over ISIS with American air and tactical support.

A transition toward self-determination and democracy will not be immediate or easy — stable political institutions and legitimate governments cannot arise overnight — but it is necessary. As long as political oppression is allowed to exist, and Shiites (or Alawites) are allowed to govern over Sunnis (or vise versa), there will be the fuel for radicalization and terrorism. In contract, over time, democracies that have the support of their citizens tend to stabilize and liberalize. We need more Tunisias.

In Europe, we must encourage our allies to better assimilate Muslims into society. Radicalization is primarily concentrated in countries like France and Belgium, where Muslims live mainly in ghettos with high crime, high unemployment, and poverty. With little hope or opportunity, and feeling marginalized by society, many young people are drawn to the jihadist narrative that they see as giving their life a greater purpose and meaning, even if they are not particularly religious. A primary source of this marginalization is highly rigid and restricted labor markets that make it difficult for Muslim immigrants to obtain employment; indeed, employment is widespread among all young and lower-skill workers. Particularly with the inflow of new refugees, European countries must take steps to open their labor markets to younger workers and new immigrants and to assimilate Muslims into greater society.

In the United States, we must be the shining example of religious liberty. Through our words and actions, we need to confound the jihadist narrative that there is a war between Islam and the West and that a conflict exists between Islam and secular democracy. We must loudly reject reactionary calls to ban Muslims from this country, to target Muslim neighborhoods, or to shut down mosques. Many Christians feel persecuted and decry a “War on Christianity” when the cashier at Macy’s greets them with a “happy holidays” instead of a “merry Christmas” — imagine how you would view a country that would talk of shutting down churches or banning your Christian relatives from visiting. When we talk about religious liberty being at the essence of American values, that does not apply only to Christians and does not protect only the right not to sell pastries for gay weddings. We cannot and should not be willing to sacrifice the founding principle of religious liberty for fear of the .006% of Muslims that may seek to do us harm.

Indeed, we must not allow fear to overcome rationality. We must recognize that the greatest threat to the Unites States comes not from Muslims abroad, but from the radicalization of Muslims at home. 70 of 81 jihadist terror plots in the United States since 9/11 have involved “homegrown” terrorists. Government policy and rhetoric that targets Muslims only fuels this radicalization. We need Muslims to reject the jihadist narrative because it does not comport with their own experience of America. And, we need the vast majority of Muslims who reject jihadism to feel an allegiance to America that compels them to alert, and cooperate with, authorities if they see radicalization in their communities. This will not happen if we demonize Islam and treat the 99.994% of Muslims who aren’t jihadists as if they were.

None of these are simple or short term solutions — but here there are no magic bullets. No matter what, this will be a long-term battle, requiring a long-term strategy that will move things in the right direction. Our greatest weapon is the universal human principle of liberty — which many in the Muslim world have never had the opportunity to truly experience; but human history tells us will flourish once they get a taste.