Is the global war on terror (GWOT) that the United States launched in 2011 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks succeeding or failing? This would seem to be a compelling question for the United States and the world – but it receives surprisingly little attention. After 13 years of GWOT, events this year emphasize the significant development of militant and terror groups who now carry out dramatic and gruesome attacks that kill or kidnap hundreds of victims at a time. This is combined with the fact that some of these groups, such as ISIS, the Nusra Front, Boko Haram and others, have taken control of territories in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen and elsewhere.
The attack that killed over 130 schoolchildren in Pakistan earlier this week shows that this kind of danger lurks across a very wide region of the world. Some of these takfiri militant groups control territory, allowing them to train, mobilize, propagandize and launch operations across many continents, should they wish to do so.
The fight against them is now led primarily by the United States military, through aerial attacks and associated ground operations in northern Iraq and Syria primarily, alongside drone-launched missile strikes to assassinate presumed terrorists in other countries. In the past five months, the balance sheet of success in containing, rolling back and defeating ISIS has been mixed. ISIS has been pushed back from some lands in northern Iraq that it grabbed in the late summer, but it continues to gain control of small bits of land in other parts of Iraq and Syria – and a very small number of new adherents in neighboring countries.
Earlier this week, some 8,000 Kurdish combatants combined with continuous American airstrikes to successfully liberate lands controlled by ISIS in Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria. The largest such joint air-land operation of its kind, it indicated that if the military efforts of local ground troops from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran or other countries were combined with devastating air power deployed by America, Arab states and others, ISIS and other such threats could be quickly rolled back.
That is not happening very quickly or in very many places, however, as militant groups continue to expand their operations. The most troubling aspect of such dynamics is that the underlying condition that has allowed violent groups to materialize and spread in recent decades – corrupt, violent, unjust, elitist and inept governance systems in most Arab countries – remains almost totally untouched and unchanged. The forces that give birth to ISIS or to local Al-Qaeda affiliates will continue to generate the sentiments of anger, alienation, humiliation and desperation among millions of Arab citizens. Such forces ultimately midwifed extremist movements in increasingly violent forms over the last half-century.
The more GWOT continues, the greater seems to be the expansion and impact of the very terror groups it seeks to defeat, with ISIS and the Nusra Front being the most recent examples. During the last few months that I have spent in the U.S. I have followed with growing perplexity why there is so little discussion of why the GWOT seems only to have sparked the continued birth and expansion of international militant and terror groups across the Arab-African-Asian region.
The only conclusion I can draw comprises two elements: These groups may be a menace to their local populations, but they do not seem to directly threaten the U.S. or strategic American interests; and Washington seems to feel that it can handle the existing threat through its current approach of providing air power and technical assistance to local forces on the ground.
The important lesson would seem to be that populations and government in the Arab world, Asia and Africa had better start taking the threats from these militant groups much more seriously, because the American-led international parties fighting ISIS and Al-Qaeda seem perfectly willing to keep attacking from the air and containing these groups without providing the ground troops needed to remove the threat completely.
The puzzling question that poses itself at the end of this frightening year is simply, why have local Arab countries themselves been so hesitant or unable to confront and fight ISIS and other such takfiri groups? The answer would seem to be equally simple: The same government systems and power structures that allowed ISIS and Al-Qaeda to come into being cannot easily muster the legitimacy and technical capabilities needed to defeat them, or to prevent other such violent groups from rising from their ashes.
With the U.S. and other foreign powers apparently willing for now just to shoot from the air and essentially freeze conditions on the ground, this augurs badly for some Arab countries that can expect semi-permanent constant warfare, huge refugee flows, and some national disintegration for years to come.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.