I had the uncomfortable feeling this week that we may be at the start of a replay of that period in 2001-2003 when the United States launched a “global war on terror,” or GWOT, to defeat Al-Qaeda and its brand of terrorism.
A decade later, the U.S. and the United Kingdom led an attack on Iraq with a “coalition of the willing.” And now, another decade on, we hear the same language and see the same military movements from the U.S. as it responds to the threat to all of us posed by ISIS.
And what did Al-Qaeda do this week, more than two decades after being at the receiving end of the global war on terror, one of the greatest and most expensive global military adventures of its time? Its leader Ayman Zawahri announced the establishment of a new branch of his organization in India, aiming to purify that land from non-Muslims in line with Al-Qaeda’s philosophy of fighting a defensive jihad to protect and preserve Islamic societies.
So as the U.S. and the U.K. were rekindling GWOT in Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS, thus returning to the military tactics of two decades ago that failed to defeat Al-Qaeda-type militancy, Al-Qaeda itself and its many localized copycats, franchises and spinoffs have continued to expand.
If U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is serious about chasing ISIS “to the gates of hell” – a worthy goal – and U.S. President Barack Obama is serious about committing to years of combat to defeat ISIS and its derivatives, someone should tell both these well-meaning men that this is a good moment to pause this rerun of the old GWOT film and ask a simple question: Can we assess with some honesty the balance sheet of the last three decades or so during which the U.S. and allies relentlessly attacked Al-Qaeda and sister organizations around the world, only to reach this point now where this brand of extremist Islamist militancy and terror is spreading around the world almost as fast as American fast food chains?
The balance sheet is very clear for anyone honest enough to face reality. Salafist, takfiri and jihadist militant groups that all connect somehow to the Al-Qaeda worldview have rooted themselves organizationally in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Syria, Libya, Kenya, Tunisia and Iraq, along with dozens of smaller operations or pockets of like-minded militants in other countries.
Dear Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom: before you launch a new global war on terror and another coalition of countries to fight ISIS, please note that the last three decades of your global war on terror have sparked the greatest expansion of Islamist militancy and terrorism in modern history. This is partly, maybe largely, because your military actions in Islamic lands usually destabilize those lands, allowing your enemies to organize and take root, and also provide the greatest magnet that attracts mostly fringe and lost young men to give meaning to their lives by joining what they see as a defensive jihad to save Islamic societies from your aggression.
Military action certainly has some role in a wider political, economic and social assault on freak extremists and terrorists like Al-Qaeda and their derivatives such as ISIS. Yet if military strikes after three decades have only expanded the reach and territorial control of these movements, isn’t it about time that we all resort to rational analysis to address the root causes of this threat that haunts us, instead of falling back on the failed legacy of George W. Bush – vintage sophomoric emotional jingoism and flag-waving militarism that only demean the otherwise fine values of the American flag? When does logic play a role in this process? When does adult intellectual and analytical maturity trump the destructive consequences of the childlike impulsiveness of perplexed politicians who need to show their manhood on the global stage?
Al-Qaeda, ISIS and many other such groups emerged from a modern historical process that combined the brutality and developmental failures of Arab-Asian dictatorships with nonstop American-Western-Israeli-Russian aggression in Islamic-majority lands. GWOT, with its armed invasions, regime changes, drone fleets and other means, has only sustained and even expanded the Al-Qaeda-ISIS phenomenon, because the twin drivers of Arab-Asian autocracy and foreign aggression remain virtually untouched.
A “coalition of the willing” that mainly comprises Anglo-American militaries that shatter Arab lands, along with Arab and Asian autocrats in whose jails the seeds of Al-Qaeda were incubated in the 1980s, is not a serious venture to fight Islamist military and extremism. Such a combination of states is the very force that has given birth and sustenance to them.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly byTHE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.