A Hands-Off War on Violent Extremism

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In May 2013, President Barack Obama tried to end the war on terror by limiting its scope. In a high-profile speech at the National Defense University, he said, “we must define our effort … as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” These groups, he said, were the core al-Qaida leadership and its regional affiliate organizations. Recent events in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have demonstrated just how short-sighted the Obama administration’s vision was.

Nearly two years later, the violent Islamist threat to the United States is much wider in scope. Not only do al-Qaida and its affiliates threaten the United States and the West, but they are also struggling for territory and power with other extremists from Africa to Afghanistan. These not only include the Islamic State group – a one-time al-Qaida affiliate that has since splintered off, grown and now rivals its parent organization – but also Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Tehran’s local proxy militias. This three-way competition is not weakening them, but is instead rejuvenating jihadi networks across the world.

Today’s Islamist extremist threat emanates from four major theaters:

Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation in South Asia remains perilous. Although Obama has slowed the planned drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he still plans to end the U.S. mission there before he leaves office. While the United States is drawing down, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned that the Taliban and the Islamic State group are ramping up. As he told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday, the Islamic State group “is already sending advanced guards to southwestern Afghanistan.”

In response, the Institute for the Study of War noted in a recent study that it is vital that the Afghan National Security Forces receive “robust, long-term assistance from the United States.” Moreover, Obama should maintain the current level of troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016 and even reconsider his decision to withdraw all forces by the end of his term, thereby allowing his successor to determine the future U.S. role there.

Meanwhile, while the Taliban’s senior leadership is still located in Pakistan, it is unclear that they have safe haven there. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, reported that in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre by the Taliban, senior Pakistani military leaders are re-examining their long policy of supporting some terrorist groups that act as proxies for their own interests. “Senior Pakistani military officers have said that they can no longer discriminate between ‘good and bad’ terrorists,” he said. Again, however, a continued U.S. presence in the region is necessary because, as former National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter told lawmakers, the “deep engagement and strategic patience” that these troops provide is critical to pressure Pakistan to maintain its offensive against all Islamist groups.

Iraq and Syria. With as much as one-third of Syria now controlled by the Islamic State group, and the Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State group stronghold of Tikrit stalled, the group retains nearly all of its key territory across both countries. Even now, while the United States is conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group, it is unclear whether these efforts are having much effect. Although thousands of fighters have been killed in the U.S.-led campaign, military and intelligence officials told Eli Lake and Josh Rogin of Bloomberg View earlier this month that the group’s senior leadership has been "largely untouched."

The effort to defeat this enemy will likely take several years, and it will certainly require closer cooperation with the Iraqi government, Kurdish and Sunni militias, and the moderate Syrian opposition. The United States should deploy additional trainers and support personnel to bolster their forces, as well as special operations personnel to help identify Islamic State group forces and direct airstrikes against them.

Iran’s exploitation of this conflict to expand its influence in the region is equally troubling. Qasem Soleimani is the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force and has directly overseen military operations led by Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran’s behavior in Iraq reflects its conduct in Syria, where it has long conducted “an extensive, expensive, and integrated effort to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power as long as possible” by supplying the regime with arms, training and fighters.

Yemen. America’s counterterrorism strategy in Yemen has suffered a severe blow in recent months. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have overthrown the country’s government and forced U.S. personnel to withdraw. The Los Angeles Times also reported on Thursday that “Secret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes.”

Other Islamist organizations are also making their presence felt in Yemen. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has embedded its fighters alongside local forces that are opposed to the Shiite rebels. In so doing, the terrorist group is expanding its influence throughout the country – just as al-Qaida’s organization in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has done in that country’s conflict. What’s more, recent bombings that killed over 130 people indicate that the Islamic State group is attempting to ignite a full-blown sectarian war in Yemen. The current Saudi-led intervention may exacerbate these tensions.

In response, Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute has recommended that the United States should work to build “coalitions of locals willing to fight against AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] while also seeking to mediate the disputes that are tearing Yemeni society apart and creating openings for AQAP to expand.” Without a legitimate and viable partner that reflects and responds to the will of the Yemeni people, America’s efforts to combat terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula will likely be fruitless.

North Africa. Even before the recent terror attack against Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned Congress, “Extremists and terrorists from al-Qaida-affiliated and allied groups are using Libya’s permissive security environment as a safe haven to plot attacks, including against Western interests in Libya and the region.”

Tunisia faces daunting challenges in establishing security due to its recent transition to democracy. However, Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution reported that “there is genuine revulsion with the violent jihadist ideology that apparently propelled the attackers, and broad concern that such terrorism could endanger the unprecedented scope of freedom Tunisians have fought so hard to achieve.” Diamond recommended “an immediate response to specific Tunisian security needs for equipment, intelligence, and special-forces training to combat the threat,” conditional upon continued economic and political reform from Tunis.

The situation in Libya, however, is far worse. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that the country “needs a new military, one that is apolitical and professional, capable of defeating all of the partisan forces and then serving as the kind of strong, institution around which a new political system could be organized and enforced.” Without Western countries providing the military, economic and political resources needed to stabilize Libya, the country will continue to spawn instability throughout the region, and provide terrorists the safe haven they need to train and plan future attacks.

Clapper has also warned that the rest of the region is under threat. Al-Qaida’s North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, “and affiliated groups are committed to continuing their terrorist activity in the Sahel, including against Western interests. They will probably seek to increase the frequency and scale of attacks in northern Mali.”

Conclusion. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Iran-backed Shiite forces are contending with the Sunni terrorist groups al-Qaida and the Islamic State group for territory and influence. Dangerously, this conflict is strengthening each of these actors by inspiring a new generation of jihadi recruits.

The Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial last week that “The temptation in some American circles, including in parts of the right, will be to let the Sunnis and Shiites kill each other until they get tired of it. But that’s what the same sages said about Syria’s civil war, which proceeded to spill into Iraq and midwife Islamic State, which is now gaining adherents around the world.” Across these conflicts, the United States must work instead to establish and support legitimate governments that are not beholden to extremism, and that reflect and respond to the will of their people. This effort will require attention, planning and resources that the Obama administration has neglected to provide. It is time for the president to recognize that a largely hands-off approach to the war on terror has failed, and his successor will be left with a vastly more dangerous world if he doesn’t change course now.

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