It is too early to say that the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State is imploding, but it is scarcely too soon to question whether this is possible. In fact, it is far from clear that the original U.S. strategy ever planned to deal with the complications that have arisen since President Obama officially announced a portion of what that strategy really had to be.
The Non-Strategy for Dealing with the Islamic State
To begin with, the basic goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State always bordered on the ridiculous. It was always clear that some form of violent Islamic extremism would survive any combination of U.S. air attacks, Iraqi efforts to clear Iraq on the ground, and the limited capabilities of the Free Syrian Army. In fact, senior U.S. defense officials and military officers have repeatedly made this clear by limiting the objective to “degrade” and noting that the struggle against violent religious extremism would go on for years if not more than a decade.
U.S. counterterrorism data make the broader nature of this struggle all too clear even if the fact the United States is working with its regional allies to deal with other extremism movements in virtually every country with a large Muslim population did not. Like the worst moments in the Christian Reformation and Counterreformation, this is a struggle that goes far beyond one country or one movement.
The database for the most recent U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism shows an increase from less than 300 major terrorist incidents a year in the Middle East and North Africa during 1998 to 2004 to 1,600 in 2008, then from 1,500 in 2010 to 1,700 in 2011, 2,500 in 2012, and 4,650 in 2013 – a fifteen fold increase since 2002, and threefold increase since 2010. Yet, bad as these figures were, the worst cases of terrorism were outside the region and in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
A recent RAND study found a 58-percent increase in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups from 2010 to 2013, and that the number of Salafi jihadists more than doubled from 2010 to 2013, according to both its low and high estimates. Moreover, for all the U.S. and other Western fears of terrorism, RAND found that, “Approximately 99 percent of the attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates in 2013 were against “near enemy:” largely other Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa.
No one should ignore the fact that the Islamic State is a key threat. RAND did find a significant increase in attacks by al Qaeda-affiliated groups between 2007 and 2013, although the most the violence in 2013 was perpetrated by the Islamic State (43 percent), which eventually left al Qaeda. But, the other leading groups were affiliated with al-Qaeda and were al Shabaab (25 percent); Jabhat al-Nusrah (21 percent); and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (10 percent).
It is also critical to point out that even if the Islamic state does not survive as an entity in both Syria and Iraq, intelligence estimates by one Arab ally count some thirty rebel factions in Syria and the largest and most powerful are violent Islamic extremist. Some U.S. expert counts list more than 70 rebel factions and subgroups, although both sources seem to agree that the most likely group to emerge if the Islamic State ever does break up is Jabhat al-Nusrah – an affiliate of al-Qaeda.
What this means in simple terms is that even if the Islamic State could be “destroyed,” rather than “degraded,” a strategy based on that objective rather than forging a comprehensive strategy and set of partnerships to fight violent religious extremism make no sense even in Syria, much less for a world power – particularly one already fighting other military battles against such movements in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. At present we have a partial if not a non-strategy even against our declared enemy and no clear strategy for what we once called a “war on terrorism” and one where every metric shows we are not winning.