Over the weekend I read an article by former Obama administration official Andrew Exum stating that “President Trump will defeat ISIS” but that “it will mostly be due to the work of his predecessor.”
My two cents: defeating the geographic entity in Syria and Iraq is great yet hardly the end of the problem.
As I noted in an article I wrote for Arabist.net in Fall 2015:
Defeating ISIS the geographic entity is the easy part:
Let’s use a historical analogy, ISIS in Syria faces the same predicament as the Germans in the Second World War. Sure, they won some major early strategic victories against individual countries because of the Blitzkrieg tactics which nobody was used to. Once the coalition against them was put in place, however, it turned into a war of attrition with an inevitable outcome.
Like the Wermacht in 1943 and onwards, ISIS can not win a war of attrition, when literally the entire world is blasting away at them, every day, over and over.
Reflecting standard conventional wisdom, The Atlantic article overlooks that the primary objective is stoping the terrorism problem. Whether it emanates from some master genuine terrorist operating out of the central ISIS headquarters in Raqqa or from some guy in Florida watching Youtube videos of Anwar Awlaki that inspired him to go and shoot up a night club, it’s all the same.
The Greater Problem: anti-establishment Jihadist ideology
The problem is that taking out the ISIS state has no clear effect whatsoever in decreasing the “demand” for Local Jihadism that exists to varying degrees in virtually every Middle Eastern state. Even if we assumed that every single one of the remaining Jihadists in Syria was killed, it doesn’t change the fact that there are millions of sympathizers around the region waiting to fill their spot, especially in the coming years as the Youth Bulge generation really moves into Adult hood and the (largely non-existent) job market.
And every single one of the original factors fueling the appeal of anti-Establishment Jihadism still exists in say, Egypt, Tunisia etc, and is if anything only stronger than it was in 2011.
Equally important, thousands of these Syria alumni didn’t get killed. They have or are returning home with new “skills” (President Trump was right to call Syria the Harvard of terrorism), and with the likely goal of instigating new, local campaigns.
That’s the logical next step. A local campaign in say Tunisia, against the Tunisian government in the next few years is a strong possibility.
Another Reason for Pessimism? History
Too many commentators approach the study of Jihadism from the perspective of Political Science theory which tends to miss the “change over time” patterns of history.
But if history is any indicator, the spread of anti-establishment Jihadism is still in it’s early stages in the Middle East, if we look at the march to extremism that took place in Europe and elsewhere a century ago.
Key point: significant popular acceptance of the brutal Communist, Anarchist and National Socialist approaches to “reform” was graduate and incremental over the course of many decades. It only happened because of the accumulated effect of the failure of the “moderate” approaches. Each time these failed, the number of people who thought the violent way was necessary kept increasing.
Nobody knows what the future holds, but it seems that the Jihadism only has massive room to grow. It is hard to see how in 2030, support for ISIS-style extremism will be less than it is today. It is easy to envision it being more.
By contrast, all things considered, it is virtually impossible to see how the support for “moderation” could be more in 2030 than it is today in the Middle East.
What to Do About It from a US CT perspective?
I am under no illusions that the problem* can be eliminated.
But in the Arabist article I propose 5 areas where some impact can be made at convincing fence-sitters and Jihadist sympathizers to not become active participants. I go into detail looking at 5 specific areas (promotion of blue collar jobs, increased vocational training, find new value adding industrial niches, labor reform, and the promotion of low(er) tech entrepreneurship).
On this note – the general paradigm of a 21st century Middle East Marshall Plan advocated by senior advisor to President Trump, Mr. Tom Barrack Jr is exactly where the US needs to be headed to deal with this long-term greater challenge.
*This is definitely NOT the “poverty creates terrorism” argument.