How Does Jihadism End? Choosing Between Forever War and Nation Building

September 11, 2016

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The United States spent trillions of dollars on counterterrorism, homeland security, security partnerships, and counterinsurgency campaigns over the past decade and a half. Yet jihadists still control large swaths of Iraq and Syria, regained the initiative in Afghanistan, opened new franchises in Libya and India, and launched successful attacks in Paris, Brussels, Orlando and Nice. Relatively successful homeland security measures in the United States have made it easy for Americans to overlook that there are more jihadist groups launching more attacks over a larger portion of the world than ever before. Fifteen years after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, we do not have an answer to the question: How will jihadism end?

As early as 2005, Steve Biddle identified the basic options available to the United States in its fight against jihadist violence: containment or rollback. Containment is a less risky, less ambitious strategy to manage the problem by defending the homeland and preventing the spread of terrorism while forgoing any attempt to redress its underlying conditions. Rollback is the more ambitious and costlier effort not only to attack jihadist groups, but also to eliminate the social, political, and cultural conditions that give rise to them in the first place. These options have been well-known and understood for over a decade. In Afghanistan, for example, the Obama administration debated whether to pursue a leaner “counterterrorism-only” strategy narrowly targeted against al-Qaeda, or a more ambitious counterinsurgency effort to defeat the Taliban, as well.

For 15 years, U.S. policymakers have not implemented either strategy with consistency or coherence — rightly so, because neither option is fitting as a uniform global strategy. Both strategies carry unacceptable costs and risks, if applied worldwide irrespective of local and regional conditions. Containment is too cynical: It consigns entire regions to instability and violence, policed from the air by American drones, while raising walls around Fortress America at home. Rollback is too optimistic, naively pouring vast amounts of treasure into a crusade to keep America safe by converting the world to its civic religion of freedom.

However, instead of tailoring their approach to different regions as conditions dictate, the Bush and Obama administrations instead both gravitated to an ineffective amalgamation of the two options. Richard Betts, another scholar, argued that politicians have a tendency to compromise, which can undermine strategic logic:

Compromise between opposing preferences is the key to success in politics but to failure in military strategy. Political leaders…tend to resolve political debates about whether to use force massively or not at all by choosing military half-measures, which serve no strategic objectives at all.

A compromise between containment and rollback achieves neither the economy of the first option nor the ambition of the second; it instead creates an expensive and inefficient version of containment. Again, in Afghanistan, the Obama administration ended up deploying far more troops than required for a lean counterterrorism mission, but stopped short of committing to a fully resourced counterinsurgency and state-building mission.

The solution is not to apply half-measures everywhere, but to fully commit to one strategy or the other where conditions call for it. During the Cold War, the United States contained the Soviet Union in Eurasia, but rolled back Soviet influence in Latin America and Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, the United States should pursue rollback in Africa and South Asia, but containment where the risks and investment needed are both high, as in the Middle East.

Containment and the Obama Record

Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama fully committed to a strategy of rollback or containment, but each administration leaned toward one or the other enough to throw into relief the costs and benefits of each strategic choice. The Obama administration’s record, for example, illustrates the risks of containment. Obama wound down the costly U.S. military mission in Iraq, calculating that U.S. military assistance to the Iraqi army would be sufficient to contain any residual threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq. He ramped up alleged U.S. drone operations dramatically and broadened their scope starting in 2011, as jihadist groups grew elsewhere. As chaos engulfed Syria and the Islamic State arose, Obama steadfastly refused to redeploy a large U.S. ground force. Instead, he again opted for more measured responses, including highly selective airstrikes, a largely unsuccessful effort to find and train “moderate” Syrian rebels, and a small deployment of U.S. Special Forces to train Iraqi security forces. Even in Afghanistan, where Obama deployed over 100,000 U.S. troops, he nonetheless insisted the “mission is not fully resourced counterinsurgency or nation building,” cut civilian aid to the country every year after 2010, and imposed a withdrawal deadline to limit U.S. exposure there. The legacy of Obama’s war in Afghanistan is a strong Afghan army and a weak Afghan state, the result of the administration’s unwillingness to give its strategy adequate time and resources to succeed.

In every theater, Obama consistently emphasized kinetic operations to kill or capture terrorist leaders and eschewed broader civilian reconstruction and stabilization efforts — the essence of the containment approach to jihadism. The results reflect the modest ambitions of the administration’s strategy. While the administration has prevented another 9/11-scale attack and scored some tactical victories, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, those operations have had no strategic effect on jihadism worldwide. Jihadist groups have not shrunk. In fact, the reverse has happened.

According to a RAND Corporation report: The number of jihadist groups increased by 58 percent since 2010, the number of fighters more than doubled in the same time frame, and attacks increased nearly tenfold since 2008. In 2009, 52 percent of Egyptians said suicide bombing was never justified. In 2014, the number had dropped to 38 percent. The number of countries most at risk from terrorism more than doubled from 2007 to 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index. The same index shows marked deteriorations in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, and elsewhere. New jihadist groups have appeared, and older jihadist groups have rebounded. The Taliban have recouped since 2011 and in late 2015 briefly took control of Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city. And, of course, the Islamic State in Iraq thrived in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, taking control of large swaths of territory as civil war spread across Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State opened franchises as far abroad as Libya and Afghanistan, bombed a Russian airliner, murdered 130 Parisians and dozens of Belgians, and inspired self-radicalized attackers from Orlando to Nice.

By every measure, jihadist groups are more popular, more widespread, and more powerful now than in 2009. The Obama administration’s attempt at a global containment strategy has achieved none of the advantages of containment: its cost-effectiveness, strategic simplicity, or even — most importantly — the containment of the enemy.

Containment as Forever War

The Obama administration’s containment strategy has clearly failed. A sympathetic critic might claim that the problem is in execution, that containment is the right strategy, but the administration has wrongly implemented it. But there are reasons to believe that containment is flawed in principle, even if it were effectively executed. Containment is a strategy of endless war. Under a containment strategy, the United States abandons efforts to foster stable political or economic order in the blighted regions that have given rise to jihadism. Instead, the United States sustains a worldwide assassination campaign against anyone it unilaterally deems to be a terrorist, anywhere in the world, indefinitely. It couples global drone strikes and special operations forces raids with ever-increasing investments in homeland security, border controls, and domestic surveillance. This is a fundamentally defensive strategy that makes no pretense of even trying to address what fuels jihadism. An assassination campaign against jihadists often keeps the immediate threat at bay, but enables the groups to reform and even grow in popularity elsewhere in the world, as they quickly did in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.

Political order is the essential condition for military victory. As Nadia Schadlow argues, “Central to strategic victory in all wars fought by the United States has been the creation of a favorable political order,” which requires a strategy for the use of non-military tools of power. Schadlow continues: “The Iraq situation” — and, clearly, the Afghan one as well — “is only the most recent example of the reluctance of civilian and military leaders, as well as most outside experts, to consider the establishment of political and economic order as a part of war itself.” In other words, per Schadlow, “Combat operations and governance operations are both integral to war and occur in tandem.” Foreign aid, stability operations, and democratization are weapons of war to be used against enemies who breed on state failure, tyranny, and chaos.

This is a straightforward gloss on Clausewitz: “War springs from some political purpose… [therefore] the political aim remains the first consideration. Policy, then, will permeate all military operations.” Military operations that do not achieve their overriding policy goal — such as counterterrorism operations that do not create an alternative political order — are ineffective, little different from random violence. “War is not merely an act of policy, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means,” wrote Clausewitz.

A containment strategy appears far more economical than its alternative. Yet as a strategy of “forever war,” it carries hidden costs and unacceptable moral consequences. The apparent economy of lean counterterrorism operations is undone when they continue into their third or fourth decade. In accounting terms, the net present value of all future expenditures on counterterrorism operations is infinite because they will never end. Additionally, the United States is unlikely to burnish its reputation abroad when drone strikes are the most visible aspect of its foreign policy. Globalization, which depends on open borders, stable markets, and mobile labor, is the unintended casualty of endemic political violence and a global climate of fear. Endless conflict abroad and the risk of terrorist attacks at home have already fueled rising xenophobia and nativism in both Europe and the United States.

More troublingly, endless war has poisonous effects at home. War suspends normalcy in the name of emergency. The state has assumed ever-greater powers, as under the Patriot Act of 2001, the Freedom Act of 2015, and the NSA’s purported Terrorist Surveillance Program. These are necessary programs, but all carry unintended side effects. “Any long war always entails great hazards to liberty in a democracy … [War] must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government,” Alexis de Tocqueville argued. “All those who seek to destroy the freedom of the democratic nations must know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish this.” A strategy of forever war is one that threatens to unwind the ties of globalization abroad and slowly erode the culture of liberal values at home.

Nation Building and the Bush Record

The alternative to containment is a strategy of rollback or nation-building, the strategy that the George W. Bush administration initially leaned toward. A nation-building strategy couples military action against jihadist groups with a massive increase in foreign aid, security assistance, political warfare, covert action, and economic investment in service of the overriding aim of fostering a culture of accountable self-government and civil liberties.

Critics will be quick to claim that this is what Bush tried and failed to do, proving the futility of a nation-building strategy — and, indeed, the Bush record illustrates some of the perils of the nation-building strategy. A nation-building strategy is awesomely ambitious, expensive, and time-consuming, and it can easily slide into a utopian and messianic crusade. Yet, in its defense and in contrast to containment, it holds out the promise of ending jihadism: It actually tries to win the war rather than play for a perpetual stalemate. For that reason, it is also more morally defensible.

In 2002 Bush compared U.S. efforts in Afghanistan to the Marshall Plan, and in 2005, he told the National Endowment for Democracy:

If the peoples of [the Middle East] are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end.

The United States appropriated some $62 billion for reconstruction in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. By the end of this administration, the United States will have spent approximately $115 billion in Afghanistan on reconstruction since 2001. The two missions saw U.S. soldiers, civilians, and contractors rebuilding roads, school, and hospitals; training political parties, policemen, and soldiers; overseeing elections; advising the creation of a new legal code; and more. They were the largest U.S.-led reconstruction efforts in the world since Vietnam.

But they were not enough. While Bush used the rhetoric of a nation-building strategy, he did not implement one with the budgets, personnel, and attention required to make one work. In its first five years, the intervention in Afghanistan was in fact one of the most under-resourced reconstruction and stabilization operations in history, according to a RAND study of nation building operations. While the intervention there later grew, it was hampered by Obama’s hesitance to give his strategy adequate time to succeed and by his insistence on withdrawing security forces prematurely. In both administrations, for different reasons, Afghanistan is a poor test-case for the strategy of nation building.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration famously bungled the planning for post-conflict operations in Iraq. Most of the reconstruction money in both wars went to training the new Iraqi and Afghan security forces, leaving civilian institutions to atrophy, hardly a model for nation building operations. Hal Brands, a scholar at Johns Hopkins, argues that “The administration never devised a coherent course of action that squared the resource levels it was willing to commit with the strategic ends it sought to achieve.” Brands concludes, “After 9/11, the president and his advisors overestimated how much American power could achieve, and they underestimated the costs, risks, and uncertainties that inhered in their endeavors.”

Some criticisms of the Bush strategy are unfounded. Contrary to some later criticisms, the Bush administration did not indiscriminately launch countless nation-building operations willy-nilly, with scant regard for their strategic importance on a moralistic crusade to force democracy on unwilling peoples. One would hardly know from the administration’s later critics, but Bush initiated only two interventions — fewer than President Clinton, who oversaw interventions in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Bush arguably did a better job than Clinton in aligning his interventions with U.S. strategic interests, hoping they would directly undermine the appeal of jihadism in the Middle East and South Asia. And most Iraqis and Afghans (if not their leaders) vindicated Bush’s hope, welcoming the opportunity to participate in round after round of elections in the years since.

Nonetheless, the Bush-era nation-building operations illustrate how difficult such operations are to get right. After the United States spent over a trillion dollars and suffered over six thousand American dead, Iraq and Afghanistan are still plagued by endemic political violence, sectarianism, and corruption. The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were the top foreign policy priorities for Bush’s entire presidency, yet few observers would describe them as good templates to follow. That alone casts serious doubt on the reliability of nation-building as a global tool against jihadism.

A Regionally Tailored Strategy

Neither containment nor rollback is a viable global strategy. U.S. policymakers have responded to the dilemma with compromise, mixing elements of both strategies. The inclination to compromise is understandable, but it led to strategic incoherence and failure. Neither Bush nor Obama pursued their own strategies in toto, followed their premises to the logical conclusion, or backed their initiatives with every resource available to the federal government.

For example, both Bush in Iraq after 2006 and Obama in Afghanistan after 2009 devoted far more time, energy, and resources than would have been required for a leaner counterterrorism operation — yet far less than was needed for a successful rollback campaign. It is striking, in fact, how similarly both wars ended up: The military claimed tactical victories and substantial progress against militants in both, yet civilian reconstruction lagged far behind and left both countries with weak institutions and major political problems. The similar results suggest a common root in poor strategic thinking stemming from the politician’s habit of splitting the difference. Iraq and Afghanistan ended up as needlessly expensive and ultimately failed efforts at containment that unfairly tarnished the idea of rollback by borrowing its language and rhetoric without committing its required budgetary resources and personnel deployments.

The bipartisan failures of the last decade and a half should not obscure the advantages of both containment and rollback, if implemented effectively and without compromise. The goal should not be to develop a hybrid option that somehow combines both options — precisely the kind of “magical thinking” that bureaucrats and elected officials are prone to — but rather to implement one or the other option, whole and complete, where appropriate. The United States should pursue containment in some regions and rollback in others, as it eventually did in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

How should policymakers decide which strategy to apply to which region? One school of thought is to apply what the military calls the main effort — rollback — against the enemy’s center of gravity. That suggests Bush was essentially right: The United States should mount a massive nation-building campaign in the Middle East, while holding the line with less expensive containment operations in Africa and South Asia. This is almost certainly a mistaken approach. Bush’s failures do not provide the only reasons to doubt this approach. The question hinges not just upon one’s evaluation of the Bush presidency and the Iraq War, but one’s approach to strategy itself. Is it a wise and effective strategy for the United States tackle jihadism head-on in its heartland, the Arab Middle East? The answer to that question, in turn, depends on one’s estimation of U.S. power. If American power is overwhelming, it can afford a frontal assault and count on simple attrition to work. That is likely why the Bush administration, which believed U.S. power was beyond compare, felt confident in its strategy.

The answer is surprisingly counterintuitive: The United States is not powerful in the ways that count for a campaign of nation-building in the heart of the Middle East. While America’s material power — its wealth and military might — remain unrivaled, the United States has underinvested in its tools of reconstruction and stabilization for decades. More importantly, the United States does not have the recognized moral authority to rebuild countries in the Middle East — in part because of past U.S. support for dictators, but also because of the region’s own internal pathologies. Regardless of the reasons, few in Washington, Baghdad, or Damascus would argue that another U.S.-led nation-building campaign in the heart of the Middle East would be welcomed and supported by Americans, Syrians, or Iraqis.

Instead, the United States should adopt an indirect approach. Instead of attacking jihadism head-on in the Arab Middle East, the United States should attack it most aggressively in Africa and South Asia, while adopting a policy of containment toward the Middle East. Pursuing rollback in Africa and South Asia makes sense: Broadly speaking, the United States has better standing in those regions than in the Middle East, U.S. reconstruction and stabilization assistance would be more readily welcomed, and such assistance need only be a fraction of the size devoted to Iraq. The United States faces fewer risks and less opposition and consequently enjoys greater chances of success in both regions.

Rolling Back the Jihadist Tide in Africa and South Asia

A number of jihadist groups have arisen since the 1990s in north and east Africa, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Libya. They are not as well established or deeply rooted as jihadist groups elsewhere in the world, and they tend not to be the main driver of insecurity in the region. In response, the United States has slowly escalated its military activity in Africa, including through airstrikes, alleged drone strikes, special operations forces raids, and aid to African security forces. For example, the United States allegedly helped Ethiopia oust the Islamic Courts Union (the predecessor to al-Shabaab) from power in Somalia in 2006-7. In 2014, U.S. Special Forces operating in Libya helped capture one of the suspects of the 2012 terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi. Last year, 300 U.S. troops deployed to Cameroon to operate reconnaissance drones to aid the multilateral effort against Boko Haram, and the United States has allegedly launched strikes in Africa in recent years, according to press accounts.

But this piecemeal approach, picking off individual targets, is missing an enormous opportunity. With a modestly larger investment, the United States could help eradicate jihadism from Africa. Jihadism is not popular in Africa. In the Pew Forum’s incomparable 2013 survey of Muslims around the globe, 74 percent of Muslims in Nigeria believed that adherents of other religions were very free to practice their religion and that this was a good thing, compared to just 34 percent who said the same in Iraq. Just 9 percent of Muslims in Morocco believed suicide bombing was often or sometimes justified, compared to nearly 30 percent in Egypt and 40 percent in the Palestinian Territories. Eighteen percent of Muslims in Tunisia favor the death penalty for apostates, which sounds alarmingly high to westerners, but is among the lowest in the Muslim world and compares to 88 percent in Egypt and 83 percent in Jordan.

By almost every measure, Muslims in Africa show more openness, more tolerance for religious diversity, and less support for Islamist supremacy. At the same time, Africa is more democratic than at any time in its modern history, and the prospects for democratic consolidation and expansion are far better there than in the Middle East. In the regions afflicted by jihadist groups, Niger, Tunisia, and Kenya have taken the greatest strides toward accountable self-government, with Nigeria, Algeria, and Djibouti making more fitful progress.

The situation is similar in South Asia, where jihadism is stronger than in Africa, but weaker than in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda, despite its long history in the region, was essentially an Arab import into Pashtun regions. The Taliban has remarkably low levels of support for a movement that is almost a quarter-century old and styled itself the champion of law and order in a violent and chaotic region. The Pakistani Taliban is at least as much a movement for tribal autonomy as it is a jihadist group.  At the same time, Afghanistan and Pakistan, like much of Africa, are enjoying a democratic moment, or at least a democratic opportunity. Afghans continue to register strong support for elections, self-government, and majority rule despite fierce challenges from terrorists and corrupt officials. In 2013, Pakistan saw its first-ever peaceful transition of power from one elected civilian government to another. If civilian rule sinks roots in Pakistan and civilian policymakers wrest control of foreign and defense policy from the military—a big if, and one that is likely to take decades—democratic pressures could eventually weaken the state’s use of jihadist proxies. The Afghan government has agreed to a continued U.S. military presence, a key strategic asset for regional counterterrorism operations.

The United States should ramp up every aspect of its engagement in Africa and South Asia. Foreign aid to Africa has been flat in recent years, dropping slightly from $8.9 billion in 2008 in total assistance to $8.7 billion in 2013, even as security has deteriorated and jihadist groups gained ground. The next administration could build on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other successful development projects to launch a new era of aid to Africa, specifically targeting security forces and the infrastructure of democracy. At the same time, the United States could work to bring a regional coherence to its various military endeavors on the continent. Djibouti has proven exceptionally useful to the United States as the location of its largest military facility on the continent and the headquarters for counterpiracy operations, with access to both the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. The Djiboutian autocracy has slightly moderated since the peaceful 1999 resignation of a longtime strongman president. The United States should look at deepening ties with Djibouti, including by naming it a Major Non-NATO Ally, if Djiboutian policymakers show any willingness to continue liberalization. If so, the United States may have the opportunity to relocate the headquarters of Africa Command from Europe to Djibouti.

In South Asia, the next administration should reverse course and reinvest in a region from which the Obama administration has tried to extricate itself.  While the Obama administration increased aid to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar Act since 2009, it simultaneously — and inexplicably — cut civilian aid to Afghanistan every year since 2010. U.S.-Pakistani security cooperation bottomed out after the 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and the relationship continues to suffer setbacks and tensions, while the withdraw of nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan has left the United States with its smallest military presence in South Asia since 2001. The next administration should seek to restart ties with Pakistan, including by renewing military cooperation and sustaining a high level of civilian assistance to help consolidate Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. At the same time, it should increase the size of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan — perhaps up to a total of 25,000 — to train the Afghan army, conduct counterterrorism operations and, crucially, support the Afghans’ rural counterinsurgency and local security initiatives. Reinvesting in Afghanistan with no withdrawal deadline and sustaining Congressional support for the aid necessary to keep the Afghan army in the field will halt the Taliban’s momentum, signal to the Afghans an enduring U.S. commitment to their security, and force the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Containing Chaos in the Middle East

In contrast to Africa and South Asia, the Middle East presents no realistic opportunities for democratic consolidation or economic development. Indeed, simply preventing jihadist groups’ expansion and containing Iran are such daunting tasks that the ability of the United States and the international community to achieve them remains an open question.

Some policymakers urged the United States to intervene early in the Syrian Civil War in the hopes of ending Bashar al-Assad’s regime — which the Obama administration publicly called for — and depriving Iran of its only significant ally. However, the Obama administration demonstrated in Libya that it was unwilling to devote the energy and resources required for stabilization and reconstruction operations, and that country descended into anarchy. A similar strategy in Syria — intervening to overthrow Assad but leaving the “post-conflict” operations for others to manage — would have been utterly disastrous. By staying aloof, the United States at least avoided that outcome.

The situation changed and became more urgent with the rise of the Islamic State. Americans have been justly horrified by the Islamic State’s barbarity, but the group is not more brutal than other jihadists — it is simply more media-savvy. It understands the benefits it gains in recruiting, fundraising, and reputation by advertising its crimes. Additionally, some perspective is in order: Between the Islamic State and Iran, the latter is the greater threat to the United States. Iran pursues its interests with greater restraint and patience than does the Islamic State, which is part of what makes it more dangerous over the long run. Iran also has the resources of a sovereign state and the ability to tax more than 60 million citizens — resources it has used to build a near-nuclear capability. Iran has a permanence the Islamic State lacks. The Islamic State has made enemies of every other major actor in the region. Iran, by contrast, has played its cards more effectively, has allies among Shi’a factions across the region, and enjoys Russian support for its Syrian client.

The Obama administration seems to have tacitly adopted a strategy of détente with Iran, implicitly enabling Iran and Assad to defeat the Islamic State with backing from U.S. and Russian airpower. This approach fails to achieve the double containment of both Iran and Sunni jihadists necessary to protect U.S. security interests. Détente with Iran — of which the 2015 nuclear deal was a major part — allows Tehran to solidify and expand its regional influence by recognizing its de facto nuclear capabilities. More importantly, détente with Iran has thus far failed to aid U.S. and allied efforts to contain the Islamic State. Advocates of the nuclear deal with Iran often spoke of entering a new era of cooperation with Tehran, citing this as a major benefit of a nuclear agreement. Yet here, even when Washington and Tehran share an enemy in the Islamic State, the countries remain at cross-purposes, with Iran backing a Syrian regime that generally prefers to fight far less extreme rebel opponents than the Islamic State.

The ideal outcome — the defeat of the Islamic State and Iran’s proxies, the reestablishment of American influence, and the establishment of two stable, moderate democracies— will not happen, and it would be utopian and unrealistic for the United States to try to bring it about. The alternative is a strategy of containment against both Iran and the Sunni jihadist groups, preventing either from expanding their influence or areas of operations. However, even a containment strategy requires more engagement from the United States than the Obama administration has been willing to give thus far. At a minimum, it requires redeploying ground forces to Iraq to resume training and combat support with the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces, picking up the fight where they left off in 2011, possibly in conjunction with a Saudi- or Jordanian-led coalition to fight both ISIS and Iranian proxies elsewhere in the region. It is unclear how many U.S. troops might be needed because the military’s willingness to ask is limited by their belief that such troop requests would be unwelcome in Washington.

A major difference between a new deployment and the 2003 invasion is a narrower mission: U.S. forces cannot occupy, administer, or democratize Iraq or Syria, but only seek to train, equip, and support the Iraqis and Kurds to defend themselves from further Islamic State advances. Obama rightly, if belatedly, redeployed some 3,000 U.S. troops to Iraq, though they are almost certainly too few compared to how many would be needed to make a serious difference on the ground. More ground troops in the region will also recover some of the lost U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Iran. The United States should enforce the Iran nuclear deal stringently, looking for opportunities to re-impose sanctions and haul Iran before the court of world opinion at the slightest sign of cheating. And the U.S. should look to states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan as counterweights to Iranian influence who also have a stake in the fight against Sunni jihadists.

Only in the longer term can the United States begin thinking about fostering conditions for a more lasting peace by working with the United Nations and the Arab League (and Russia, if possible) to convene an international conference to consider broader regional issues, such as the government of postwar Syria and the Iraq-Syria border. In that context — and not before — U.S. diplomats could look for opportunities for targeted reconstruction and democracy assistance for Iraq and Syria at a level consistent with the region’s relative importance.


The jihadist ideology is not new, jihadist groups have not been contained, and, contrary to Obama’s assertion in 2011, the tide of war is not receding. The United States plainly needs a new approach for its fight against the menagerie of apocalyptic, totalitarian, theocratic movements that make up jihadism. This is not a “War on Terror,” as Bush claimed, nor an effort to combat “violent extremism,” as the Obama administration insisted — both formulations that imply the solution lies in getting counterterrorism right. That conceptual distortion overlooks the reality that jihadists can also be found in the ranks of insurgents, drug traffickers, preachers, professors, day-laborers, and government officials. Jihadism is a cultural and political phenomenon as much as a military one.

The United States needs a grand strategy against jihadism as a whole, in all its guises, throughout the world; that means a strategy tailored to the different battlefields on which it must be fought. Fighting only the military aspects of jihadism throughout the world, as the strategy of containment counsels, is a recipe for endless tactical success with no strategic victory. But fighting everywhere simultaneously with the full range of tools of national power, as the strategy of rollback would entail, is unsustainable and foolish, as is a strategy of rollback in the heart of the Middle East, where the costs and risks are highest. A tailored strategy is the only approach feasible within fiscal and military limitations, yet still holds out the hope of victory — the hope of ending jihadism as a meaningful force in world politics.


Dr. Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin. He served as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His most recent book, American Power and Liberal Order, was published by Georgetown University Press this year. Follow him on Twitter.

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14 thoughts on “How Does Jihadism End? Choosing Between Forever War and Nation Building

  1. BS
    “When you kill enough of them, they quit fighting.” General LeMay

    Islam needs to come out of the early medieval age and it’s followers need to be civilized.

  2. There is no one-size-fit’s-all solution. I hope we get the hell out and quit creating blow-back. If troops are committed, let them kill people and break stuff. No more lives and limbs sacrificed for politics, PC BS, and the contractor companies.

  3. it doesn’t end, that’s the problem

    Label them Jihadists, terrorists, insurgents, or whatever at the end of the day they’re murdering criminals, that need to be locked up or better yet removed from the face of the earth.

    You got about the same chance as ending this as we do ending the war on drugs, which is to say none at all.

    The U.S. cannot fix the Middle East, because everyone is ignoring the real cause of the problems there and that’s the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As long as those two are funding terrorists and playing both sides, nothing is going to change, certainly not in Iraq.

    Let Russia worry about the Civil War in Syria and let Afghanistan’s neighbors help them out or continue to look the other way.

    Wasting more trillions of dollars on using our military there or on reconstruction isn’t going to fix a D!#$ thing

  4. “Rollback is the more ambitious and costlier effort not only to attack jihadist groups, but also to eliminate the social, political, and cultural conditions that give rise to them in the first place.”

    That would mean eliminating the teachings of Mohammed.

  5. “Containment is too cynical: It consigns entire regions to instability and violence, policed from the air by American drones, while raising walls around Fortress America at home. ”

    What is wrong with cynicism in the face of reality?

  6. “The Obama administration’s record, for example, illustrates the risks of containment.”

    The overthrow of Qaddafi, political intervention in Egypt and threatening Assad was all containment?

  7. “Under a containment strategy, the United States abandons efforts to foster stable political or economic order in the blighted regions that have given rise to jihadism.”

    This article assumes that it is political and economic factors that are the root of jihadism. They are not. The root is the teachings of Mohammed.

  8. A belief that there is a deity who wants to see some of his creatures slaughtered because they have offended him is totally incompatible with the reality that the species has evolved from more earlier forms of life. It will simply eviscerate in the face of overwhelming factual evidence.

  9. It is interesting to read the author’s scholarship/opinion and he has served in gov’t specializing in these regions, so his words/ideas have significant merit. So my opinion will obviously seem simplistic. But I think I will have to agree with comments that believe the problem is analogous to the war on drugs ie wasteful & ineffective.
    Additionally, how are we going to convince an entire people/region/religion that their fundamental philosophy is wrong? If they cannot see for themselves by now that the people that live with liberal democratic and/or republican/federalism and most importantly secular systems of gov’t/institutions that at least aim to include everyone are better off, they are not going to see no matter what USA does for them or to them. The problem is w/Islam within itself as well as in relation to the rest of the world. Whether it is being used as a tool of control or a general philosophy is irrelevant. It would take a war w/slaughter on a massive scale.
    They’ll have to sort it out as best they can which will probably be very little, while we limit engagement to people within these countries/regions who promote democracy/liberalism. If none exist, so be it. We simply cannot instruct if they are unwilling to accept the instruction. We may have to endure terrorist actions and retaliate accordingly, but it is IMHO the best strategy. None of the strategies mentioned in article could prevent an apocalyptic war, which seems to be the idea of even every day Muslims, not just extremists. You cannot fix, teach, help, change, roll back, contain etc their kind of murderous philosophy w/o significant annihilation such as the methods used to end WWII. Sorry as it is to say, but I think this is the sad sad reality.

  10. The basic premise for this article is so poorly thought through that it make my teeth ache. Nation build i.e. change a culture, give people a new world view, bring them to see that they are stake holders in the world and whatever further blatherskite you can come up with.

    Look at the south side of Chicago. We have absolute monopoly of power, have always controlled the schools and all media, have a common history and language and yet… Further, read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, it’ll break your heart.

    When you can show me successful “nation building” within the borders of the US where we wield overwhelming cultural and police power then you will have some listen, otherwise… go climb a rope.

  11. Very good article. As a former finance professor, I need to critique your idea that an infinite cash flow stream has an infinite NPV. Not so. A simple model for a set yearly amount has its NPV as the payment per year divided by your interest (or discount) rate. If there is inflation, you simply subtract the inflation rate from the discount rate.

    As per the take that jihadism is a direct consequence of Muhammad’s teaching, that seems to be more a matter of how to apply it to today. Sadly, there are quite a few folks (rising as of late) that like a forever-war hermeneutic, so a roll-back strategy would encourage less violent hermemeutics in the Muslim world.

  12. Dr. Miller argues that we have been treating problems in the Islamic world in ways that have been consistent across administrations. His proposed policy is to contain ISIS to Iraq and Syria and other places in the Middle East where it may have manifestations, and to roll it back in Afghanistan and other places outside the realm of core ISIS penetration. His approach is based on methods that have already been tried with no great success in tHe Islamic world.

    The administration of George W. Bush attempted to deal with Iraq by imposing regime change and giving people the vote. Neither the Bush administration nor the democratically elected government they helped set up could provide good governance. Ironically, the Kurds managed their own affairs extremely well with little interference. The best way forward at present seems to be to use US power lightly to keep Iraq’s government in power and hope that it can muddle through to finally be able to provide good governance and secure the allegiance of a substantial majority of Iraqi citizens. For Iran the approach advocated is intense monitoring of their treaty obligations. For Syria the approach advocated seems to me to be to let it burn itself out because the presence of Iran as a nearby ally and Russia (a nuclear power) as a more remote ally with a significant military base in Syria.

    This plan leaves the USA doing some measure, perhaps the only appropriate measure, of nation building in Iraq, and abandoning Syria except for the laudible deiplomatic efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

    Despite mention of some of the underlying problems common to the entire area, “the social, political, and cultural conditions,” “the region’s own internal pathologies,” etc. He indicates that the USA can only afford to address this class of conditions in the remote areas where rollback is to be attempted. However, it is clear from past experience that the USA has not yet learned how to create the desired changes.

    All of Dr. Miller’s proposals seem to me to be taken from the same viewpoint as that of the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and the current proposals of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Their joint viewpoint is that of one government looking down at the region from outside and asking in what ways the USA can interact with the various government and militia leaders (including the ISIS machine). Clearly, these questions must be asked. Do the answers suggest any cures for “the region’s own internal pathologies?” Viewed in top-down perspective, the real and fundamental problems are virtually invisible and also impossible to act on with any efficacy.

    Rotate the viewpoint 90° in the Z plane and another way of understanding this problem exhibits itself. We see on the bottom layer prejudices, preconceptions, unexamined causal narratives that almost everybody in the “blighted regions that have given rise to jihadism” accepts. A layer above that we find narratives that have achieved the status of proverbs that also spread throughout the masses. A layer above that we find some of the same kinds of ideas enshrined in religious texts, and where some of these ideas do not appear in, e.g., the Koran they may still gain religious luster by being used in commentaries on that text. The religious conscienciousness of many people must necessarily be based on the Koran as read in that particular social context. Governments cannot directly intrude on any of these several strata without producing counterproductive results, and yet the causes of “blight” found therein need to be changed as a condition for improving “the social, political, and cultural conditions” that lie under turmoil, conflict, and even warfare. (I may add a URL as a comment to this message.)