A Setback in the Long War

A Setback in the Long War

The rapid advance of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has momentarily reminded foreign-policy pundits that Iraq exists. It has also reminded the Obama administration that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq did not usher in a just and lasting peace there. But while critics’ attention has focused on the daily headlines — in some cases with no small degree of schadenfreude — they have underemphasized a deeper trend that ISIS illustrates: The Middle East is now a more favorable operating environment for jihadist groups than ever before.

Violent jihadism is not new. It arose at least as early as the formation of the Egyptian Brotherhood in the early 20th century. But jihadist terrorism was sporadic and typically met with swift, brutal, and effective reprisals by the local governments against which it was targeted, such as the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Brotherhood in the 1940s and 1950s. Marxism and Arab nationalism were far more popular ideologies across the Middle East up through the 1960s and 1970s.

Today there is no serious ideological rival left to Islamist politics in most Middle Eastern countries. Nationalist and Marxist politicians discredited themselves with decades of corruption, mismanagement, and autocracy that left the region nearly worst in the world for human development. The groups gaining ground in the political ferment of the last few years tend to espouse variations of Islamism — of the peaceful sort, where possible, as in Tunisia (the Ennahda Party) and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood has publicly foresworn violence since the 1960s), but of the violent sort elsewhere. 

At the same time, the breakdown of state institutions and the spread of state failure have left states increasingly unable to meet challenges to law and order from criminal gangs, terrorist groups, and insurgents. On the Fund for Peace’s color-coded map of state fragility, the Middle East is a sea of orange and red.

These trends have come to the fore with special vigor in Iraq and Syria, states that have neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to resist the march of violent jihadist groups that feel they have the force of history on their side. The civil war in Syria has severely damaged whatever ability the Baathist government had to sustain even the malign order of dictatorship there, while the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq deprived the nascent government of crucial support it needed to keep itself together in the face of continuing sectarian tensions.

As a result, there is now a wide swath of territory across Iraq and Syria that is essentially safe haven for jihadist militants. This is probably the greatest strategic setback to the United States in its long war against jihadists since al Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996. That a menagerie of like-minded jihadist militant groups are alive and well and capturing territory suggests the irrelevance of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s claim in 2011 that al Qaeda was nearing "strategic defeat." The fate of al Qaeda is simply one small piece of a much larger problem. 

The situation is all the worse today because jihadist groups can now exploit the international border between Iraq and Syria to their advantage. In a move familiar to anyone watching the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, terrorists plan, train, and hide on one side of the border, unmolested by the local government because they only carry out operations on the other side.

The solution is a coordinated and simultaneous counterinsurgency strategy and counterterrorism strikes by both states against their common enemies. It is nearly impossible to imagine this happening. The United States attempted to foster such a strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan when both states were receiving massive U.S. security assistance and when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were in the region to actually conduct half of the coordinated campaign. The United States did not succeed in ending the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan.

The United States has no such leverage in Syria or Iraq. Having called for Assad’s resignation while also passing up opportunities to build a more robust relationship with non-jihadist rebel groups, the United States has managed to cut itself off from any potential local partners there. In Iraq, there was no agreement in 2011 to provide immunities for a residual force of military trainers. U.S. troops would not have solved Iraq’s political problems, but could have blunted the current security challenge. Instead, the U.S. government has now responded to Iraqi requests for help with a deployment of 300 advisors.  

There is virtually no imaginable scenario in which Iraq and Syria will develop the capacity to root out the insurgents and terrorists in their respective territories with the current meager level of U.S. involvement, much less on their own.

With Iraq and Syria incapable of defeating ISIS and affiliated militants, the jihadist groups are on their way to becoming the FARC of the Middle East in the depth of their roots and in the difficulty of any campaign against them. The FARC have plagued Colombia for 50 years and become an endemic, integral part of that country’s political and economic fabric. It may finally be petering out, after a decade and a half of massive U.S. help to the Colombian government.

Regardless of whether al Qaeda or ISIS or any other particular group rises or falls, jihadist militants across the region are enjoying a perfect storm of political upheaval and American retrenchment. The U.S. failure to secure a lasting presence in Iraq or to intervene effectively in Syria’s civil war has contributed to one of the worst imaginable outcomes for the region and for U.S. security: al Qaeda copycats blighting the Middle East and beyond for decades to come.