By WALTER RUSSELL MEAD –
As France announces plans to stand down in Mali and the United States builds a new drone base in neighboring Niger, the conflict formerly known as the global war on terror is spreading and intensifying. Many in Washington would like to talk about other things, but while the West might be tired of the war on terror, the war on terror isn’t tired of the West. America and its allies face an “existential threat,” as British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said, and the conflict may last for decades. So it is worth stepping back to see where matters stand.
On 9/11, it became clear that all was not well in the post-Cold War, post-historical world. The war on terror has since gone through several phases.
The first was Osama bin Laden‘s attempt to launch a true “clash of civilizations” between the West and the world of Islam. His strategy for achieving this goal was a series of spectacular blows against the citadels of Western power that would weaken the West and vest his movement with the prestige to draw Muslims world-wide to his banner.
Bin Laden failed. In phase two of the war, effective counterterrorism blocked his efforts to mount repeated attacks on the scale of 9/11. The war in Iraq (however misguided some consider it) forced al Qaeda in Iraq into a contest that it lost politically as much as militarily. When the chips were down, Iraq’s Sunni Muslims chose the Americans over al Qaeda.
The awakening in Iraq was part of a much larger tide of opinion among Muslims around the world: The more they saw of al Qaeda, the less they liked it, and the less they thought it had anything to do with the Islam they learned from the Quran. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, the effort to launch a grand war against the West under the flag of al Qaeda had decisively failed.
The Obama administration hoped to complete the marginalization and destruction of al Qaeda, extending Mr. Bush’s military strategy and developing a more effective political counterstrategy that would further sideline radicalism by building deeper ties between the U.S. and the moderate Muslim majority. The military strategy worked reasonably well. The campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan that included the death of bin Laden continues to degrade the capabilities and prestige of the original al Qaeda network, even if the American exit strategy from this difficult conflict remains unclear.
The question that confronts the U.S. and its allies now is twofold. How to counter the explosive growth of radical jihadist organizations and networks in Libya’s post-Gadhafi vacuum and in surrounding states? And what to do about the integration of terrorist groups into the sectarian Sunni-Shiite war that spans the region and to some degree overlaps with America’s own struggle to stop the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon?
At this stage, the terrain favors America’s enemies. In places like the wide swath of Africa’s Sahel region, and in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, it is difficult to establish strong states that can keep the extremists in check. The free-floating nature of the new jihadist movement also poses problems: At any given moment, from Afghanistan to Mauritania, dozens of groups are competing for funds and followers, moving swiftly in response to perceived opportunities.
Yet this is war: One side makes a move, the other counters it, and so it goes until one side finds a strategy that the other cannot overcome—or until the exhausted combatants accept a compromise peace. In the first phase of the war, al Qaeda tried to lead the world’s Muslims on a grand jihad. In the second phase the U.S. and its allies (including Muslim religious and civic leaders around the world) dealt effectively with that threat. Now al Qaeda has developed a way to remain relevant even without the broad support it once hoped for.
The fourth stage of war, one hopes, will see the U.S. and its allies once again push al Qaeda and its allies to the margins, relegating them permanently to the nuisance fringe. At present al Qaeda appears to have only a limited capacity to attack the U.S. and its principal European allies. But that could change quickly if the terrorists succeed in establishing havens in North Africa. This war isn’t over, and the danger isn’t past.