Ten years have slipped by since Osama bin Laden’s jihadists massacred thousands of men, women and children in the northeastern United States, prompting the start of what Americans came to know as the War on Terror. The current administration, however, insists on more benign terminology, choosing for political reasons to describe the conflict as an “overseas contingency operation,” and a “war against al Qaeda.” But are we making progress in this conflict, whatever the name? Gaining an objective assessment begins with asking the right questions.
Has the decade-long global confrontation with al-Qaeda been an actual war, or a series of U.S.-led military operations against a single terrorist organization? Has al-Qaeda been acting alone against the U.S., or is it merely one among many in an expansive network of jihadists? Is it U.S. policy that incites jihadists, or a sui generis ideology with a centuries-old agenda? How does the broad-based U.S.-led coalition to defeat al-Qaeda measure up to the jihadist alliance to destroy the U.S.? Have U.S.-led military efforts defeated al-Qaeda globally and within nation-states, or have the jihadists increased their penetration of democracies around the globe? These are the “right questions” that need to be asked.
Traditionally, the Muslim Brotherhood and adherents of the Wahhabi creed have focused on seizing power in their immediate region, the Middle East, through a power struggle with regional regimes, and expanding their presence in the West through “influence operations.” The violent jihadists born out of the Soviet-Afghan conflict preferred a more direct route; they were convinced that war with the United States would allow them to build support for small emirates across the region, as a prelude to a Caliphate. From the end of World War II into the 1990s, the first mode predominated—with militant efforts led by political Islamists who preferred to expand their ambit by influence and indoctrination.
In the 1990s, however, al-Qaeda assumed the lead role in the jihad against the West. Lamentably, the U.S. national security apparatus has consistently failed to recognize the terror campaign against it—or to acknowledge that the efforts of jihadists form a single, intertwined global movement that is at war with the Western world.
A strategic deficiency of this magnitude (especially over the past four years) has led the U.S. and its allies to spend and sacrifice lavishly on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and other places, and on homeland security, while reaping comparatively meagre results. The American failure to grasp the big picture of a coordinated global campaign against it has hobbled Washington bureaucrats in the confrontation with global jihadists and al-Qaeda, political Islamist networks, and the regional Iranian efforts to spread radicalization.
Indeed, today we are witnessing what is in effect a unilateral withdrawal from the field of competition against the forces of Islamism. This new direction in U.S. policy is based on two flawed assumptions: The first, which I refer to as the “jihad as yoga” view, assumes no ideological root to the conflict. Instead of waging a global integrated strategy, it posits, the U.S. is fighting “local wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq—wars in which the only possible objective was not to win, but to quit. Instead of acknowledging a struggle against a jihadi web of influence and operations, it minimizes the current U.S. effort to a limited war against a single organization: al-Qaeda. In this view, the killing of the organization’s head, Osama bin Laden, provides the predicate for declaring success, and a basis for withdrawal from the battlefield.
The second, and related, assumption identifies Islamist political forces as partners in the governance of many Middle East and Arab countries. Since 2009, for example, the dministration has steadily drifted toward engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, as well as with the ostensibly “moderate” wings of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban. In doing so, it has gambled that cutting a deal with one segment of the Islamist network would help to isolate al-Qaeda. But the Arab Spring of 2011 demonstrated that regional unrest, at least initially, was ignited by secular democratic yearnings, rather than Islamist fervour. Washington, by failing to adequately back the former while engaging the latter, has found itself on the sidelines of the pro-freedom struggle taking place in the Middle East and as a promoter of Islamist orthodoxy.
Today, in the tenth year of the conflict launched following 9/11, it is the overall strategic direction of Washington—rather than the state of the military struggle— that is the true issue to reflect upon. Whereas the first six years of the War on Terror took the U.S. in what was generally the right direction, flawed implementation eventually led to stalemate; more recently, ideological drift has led to strategic retreat. And now, the thing that prolongs our war with the jihadists is our inability to identify the threat—and therefore to act decisively against it.
Spero columnist Walid Phares is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad and The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East. He is the advisor of the anti-Terrorism Caucus of the US House of Representatives and the Co-Secretary General of the Transatlantic Legislative Group on Counter Terrorism.