Al Qaeda and the Islamic State could reconcile their differences to present a different but persistent security challenge to the United States for the foreseeable future, experts in counterterrorism told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday (below).
One goal of both groups, said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, is locking the United States in an enervating “war of attrition.”
“We’re going to have to do [counter jihadist terrorism] for the next 15 years, at least,” he said.
“While ISIS poses the most serious, imminent terrorist threat today, al-Qa`ida has been quietly rebuilding and marshaling its resources to reinvigorate the war against the United States declared 20 years ago by its founder and leader, Osama bin Laden,” said Hoffman. “The result is that both groups have enmeshed the U.S. and the West in a debilitating war of attrition, with all its deleterious consequences.”
“The non-traditional challenges to U.S. national security and foreign policy imperatives posed by elusive and deadly irregular adversaries emphasizes the need to anchor changes that will more effectively close the gap between detecting irregular adversarial activity and rapidly defeating it. The effectiveness of this strategy will be based on our capacity to think like a networked enemy, in anticipation of how they may act in a variety of situations, aided by different resources.”
“If terrorism is indeed rooted in the political pathologies of many Muslim societies, then military victories may not stay won unless those pathologies are cured,” say analysts Peter D. Feaver and Hal Brands.
But any efforts to “transform the underlying sociopolitical dynamics that drive jihadist ideology. … would require catalyzing political liberalization in the Islamic world, so the United States would have to engage in nation building and democracy promotion in all countries where it had intervened to root out terrorism,” they write for Foreign Affairs:
Transforming the politics of the greater Middle East in the ways the United States would want would be a huge challenge under any circumstances. And without a shock the size of 9/11, even a determined U.S. administration would probably lack the political will to sustain the necessary level of spending and deployments—and suffer the resulting casualties—over the long term. The result might be the worst of all worlds: the United States would invest vast resources up-front without the commitment necessary to see the project through.
A strategy that requires the U.S. to “aim not only to destroy the most dangerous terrorist organizations wherever they emerged but also to remake the political complexion of the greater Middle East…..rests on the theory that Middle Eastern terrorism flows from political illiberalism in the Muslim world,” they add.
“But it assumes that the United States must cure the disease, not merely treat its symptoms. Failing to do so, the argument goes, would ensure that new terrorist groups would arise as old ones were defeated.”
The best strategic option is “a beefed-up version of the current strategy….counter-ISIS plus,” they contend:
It would involve a larger U.S. military commitment than the first two but substantially less than a surge approach. ….Under this approach, the United States would still not attempt to transform Middle Eastern societies, although it would encourage local partners to make political and economic reforms to defang jihadist ideology, and it would use diplomacy and modest economic investments to incentivize those reforms. In the meantime, Washington would seek to militarily defeat, rather than merely contain, extremist organizations. RTWT