Stephen M. Walt

‘They’re Baaack…’: The Rebirth of al Qaeda?

Last Friday I posted an entry on America’s "one-sided" war on terrorism, arguing that the country has focused enormous efforts on deterring, thwarting, or killing suspected terrorists and hardly any effort on removing the incentives or grievances that might make someone join a terrorist organization. The very same day, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday I posted an entry on America’s "one-sided" war on terrorism, arguing that the country has focused enormous efforts on deterring, thwarting, or killing suspected terrorists and hardly any effort on removing the incentives or grievances that might make someone join a terrorist organization. The very same day, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution posted an article on the Daily Beast, arguing that various al Qaeda affiliates are making a significant comeback in places like Iraq and Syria.

Precisely my point. Undoubtedly, some pundits will interpret Riedel’s article as evidence that the United States should have been even more aggressive and should have stayed in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever for as long as it took. This argument overlooks the tremendous costs of these operations — including their degrading effects on Army performance and morale — as well as their inherently self-defeating character. Given that opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activity — especially suicide bombings — maintaining an extensive military footprint in the Arab and Islamic world is a recipe for endless war. Even more limited operations like drone strikes have been tactically effective but are strategically questionable, precisely because they give jihadi recruiters a constant pool of angry locals from which to draw and vindicate their claims that the United States is unalterably addicted to violent interference in their societies.

Indeed, the real lesson of Riedel’s article is that much of the so-called "war on terror" has been misguided to the point of foolishness. It was both smart and necessary to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but letting Osama bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora was a massive command failure. It was dumb to take on the task of nation-building in Afghanistan, and even dumber to invade Iraq in 2003. It was both immoral and counterproductive to torture captured terrorists (it tarnished America’s image and didn’t yield better intelligence) and obtuse not to rethink other aspects of the United States’ Middle East policy. The post-9/11 TSA regime has been a colossal waste of resources that has added little to Americans’ overall level of security. And vacuuming up gazillions of bytes of email and phone records merely proved that government agencies operating in secret will invariably grow like Topsy, without making Americans significantly safer. As Riedel suggests, none of these activities has prevented al Qaeda and its copycats from making a comeback.

What is needed is a much more fundamental rethinking of the entire anti-terrorism campaign. As I suggested last week, part of that rethink means asking whether the United States needs to do a lot more to discredit jihadi narratives, instead of persisting with policies that make the extremists’ charges sound plausible to their audiences. A second part is to keep the jihadi threat in better perspective: They are a challenge, but not a mortal threat to Americans’ way of life unless the country reacts to them in ways that cause more damage to its well-being and its values than they do. Sadly, a rational ranking of costs, benefits, and threats seems to be something that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is largely incapable of these days.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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