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When the Obama administration looks at the Middle East, it does so through the lens of counterterrorism. A systematic emphasis on the subject has underscored not just the administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda and its new focus on the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS) but also a wider swath of its foreign policy, from its drone campaign in northwestern Pakistan to its maintenance of the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Building on the post-9/11 efforts of the Bush administration, U.S. President Barack Obama has established a national security machine adept at identifying and disrupting terrorist networks. Much of the U.S. strategy is based on an intelligence campaign that involves partnering with countries around the world to gather information on suspected top terrorists. In cases in which the U.S. government cannot arrest terrorists, it kills them in drone strikes or through other direct actions.
The U.S. counterterrorist effort has been particularly successful against the so-called al Qaeda core. Relying on intelligence reports, the United States has targeted al Qaeda cells and networks around the globe, arresting or killing key leaders and making it difficult for the group to coordinate its far-flung followers. Confounding doomsayers, there has been no repeat of 9/11—or anything close to it.
Despite some notable successes, an overwhelming focus on counterterrorism has led the United States to miss the broader regional trends undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Counterterrorism not only explains where Obama has been aggressive; it also explains the limits of where he acts. Obama withdrew forces from Iraq in 2011, for example, and initially resisted intervening in Syria. In his second term, he has not significantly increased the U.S. role in Libya or Yemen, even as the violence has mounted and allies, such as Saudi Arabia, have begun to doubt the United States’ commitment to the region. In 2014, when the United States bombed Iraq and Syria, it did so to fight ISIS, not the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Counterterrorism is not the only U.S. priority in the Middle East, but it ranks as the most important, explaining most interventions and noninterventions. Even when Washington deprioritizes terrorism in order to pursue something else, terrorism is invoked; the Iran nuclear deal, for example, controversially set aside Iran’s support for terrorism yet was defended in part as a way to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
The administration’s strategy has a political logic. The American people, generally skeptical of intervention abroad and particularly skeptical of intervention in the Middle East, consistently make exceptions for efforts to fight terrorists, whom they see as existential threats to the United States. By limiting the U.S. role in the region to counterterrorism, U.S. leaders can avoid costly occupations and wars and concentrate on other critical regions, such as Asia. By keeping the U.S. footprint light, officials hope terrorist groups will turn their guns on one another and on local regimes, reducing the threat to the U.S. homeland. Counterterrorism is therefore likely to drive U.S. policy in the Middle East even after Obama leaves office.
But despite some notable successes, an overwhelming focus on counterterrorism has led the United States to miss the broader regional trends undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East. Terrorist networks are dangerous not just because they might attack the United States but also because they destabilize already fragile states and create the breeding ground for ever more radical groups. By fixating on counterterrorism, the United States overlooks opportunities to prevent or mitigate civil wars and regional conflicts—steps that would address the problem at its core. And it antagonizes allies and distorts the public perception of U.S. strengths and vulnerabilities.
The United States should move beyond its standard counterterrorist repertoire and embrace a broader set of strategies. Energetic diplomacy could lessen the tensions that lead states to support violent groups. Investment in conflict-resolution programs could reduce the scale and scope of the civil wars on which jihadist groups feed. Building up the defense and governance capabilities of states such as Iraq and Yemen could help them fight jihadists, either alone or with U.S. assistance. And even when the United States is unable to solve deeper problems, it can at least reduce or contain violence in the region.
YOU SAY "TERRORIST," I SAY . . .
The “terrorist” label came into vogue in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the term was used to refer to groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that hijacked airplanes, took hostages, and otherwise used terror as the primary instrument for achieving their goals. Today, however, the label is insufficient to describe most of the jihadist groups in the Middle East, which rely on tactics that go beyond terrorism. Hamas and Hezbollah have long battled Israel in more conventional ways, launching rockets and ordering commando-style raids, with Hezbollah fighting the Israeli military with something approaching a modern army. Al Qaeda affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), are embroiled in bitter civil wars in which they employ a mix of guerrilla tactics and conventional military operations. And ISIS even uses tanks and massed formations.
Many of these groups also govern, running hospitals and schools, fighting crime, and picking up trash. Hamas is the de facto government of Gaza; Hezbollah controls much of Lebanon. The territorial control of al Qaeda’s regional affiliates varies: AQAP’s power is growing as Yemen’s government collapses, and the political influence of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has waxed and waned with the strength of governments in the Sahel. ISIS, for its part, has carved out parts of Iraq and Syria where it enforces its twisted vision of law and order, issues its own currency, and provides its own social services.
By fixating on the anti-American aspects of groups such as Hamas and the Islamic State, policymakers miss that the biggest threat these organizations pose is not to the United States itself but to broader U.S. interests in the Middle East.
These groups tend to view terrorism not as an end in itself but as part of a broader strategy of war. Rebel groups consistently rely on tactics associated with terrorism: they attack civilians, force humanitarian workers to flee, provoke ethnic or sectarian backlash, and destroy confidence in governance. Some groups, ISIS in particular, also use terrorism to spread their war into neighboring countries and attract new recruits.
Of the groups of most concern to the United States, al Qaeda, in its use of terrorism, is the most stereotypical. The organization, now led by Ayman al- Zawahiri, prioritizes terrorism as a way to attack the so-called far enemy—the United States and the West—and to undermine what it considers apostate governments in the Middle East. It has urged its affiliates to carry on this war abroad, but only one, AQAP, has aggressively done so, albeit with limited success. In contrast to the other leading groups, al Qaeda does not directly control territory or govern, instead establishing itself in places where local allies provide sanctuary, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. Yet even al Qaeda is not just a terrorist organization; in fact, it spends much of its limited budget attempting to support its affiliates and other groups engaged in guerrilla wars in the region.
The “terrorist” label thus ignores how terrorist groups operate. It is not terrorism on its own that is most dangerous; the real threat comes from terrorist groups that transition into insurgencies or quasi states. Even if such groups fail to achieve their ultimate goals, they can still plunge already weak states into chaos. Consider Libya and Yemen, where Ansar al-Sharia and AQAP, among others, helped undermine confidence in the government and fomented domestic strife that eventually became full-on wars.
The U.S. approach to counterterrorism also suffers from several logical fallacies. Crudely put, it assumes that because all terrorists are bad guys, all bad guys must be terrorists—never mind that even though Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed tens of millions of people, calling them terrorists doesn’t offer much insight. The U.S. approach also assumes that because al Qaeda embraces terrorism, all the groups linked to al Qaeda are best labeled terrorists, too, even when some affiliates behave more like insurgents than jihadists. And it assumes that if a group employs terrorist tactics, everything the group does should be labeled terrorism, even if the other actions include more traditional military operations or even governance.
Such fallacies are particularly pronounced in analyses of ISIS, which, owing to its stomach-churning tactics and historical ties to al Qaeda, automatically gets classified as a terrorist organization. As the scholar Audrey Kurth Cronin wrote in these pages this past spring, the “terrorist” label is dangerously misleading, making it more difficult to understand the group and determine the best ways to defeat it. “The counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies that greatly diminished the threat from al Qaeda will not work against ISIS,” she writes, and yet Washington has not adapted its response to reflect “the true nature of the threat.”
SAME BUT DIFFERENT
The United States has a range of interests in the Middle East. They include securing the free flow of oil to global markets, protecting Israel, and preventing nuclear proliferation. In addition, the United States seeks to prevent anti-American terrorism, particularly as it threatens U.S. territory. In practice, many of these interests depend on the security and stability of U.S. allies. If allies become unstable, whether as a result of internal strife or some other conflict, oil production will be disrupted and terrorist groups can more easily proliferate. If hostile regimes seize power, they might seek nuclear weapons, hijack oil supplies, threaten Israel, or otherwise undermine core U.S. interests.
In formulating policy in the Middle East, Washington needs to recognize that not all terrorist groups threaten the United States and that those that do threaten it pose threats of varying degrees and kinds. Some groups, such as al Qaeda and, to a lesser degree, AQAP, seek to attack the United States directly, and if their capabilities grow, they will do so. Other groups are plausibly anti-American but are more immediately concerned with securing regional dominance. ISIS and most al Qaeda affiliates detest everything American, yet they are more focused on the day-to-day demands of civil war. Although these groups often call for “lone wolf” attacks against the West, so far their leaders have devoted little effort and few resources to carrying out more sustained or direct attacks.
It is not terrorism on its own that is most dangerous; the real threat comes from terrorist groups that transition into insurgencies or quasi states.
Hamas and Hezbollah act much in the same way. Neither has any love for the United States, and both should be seen as U.S. enemies. But Hamas has never deliberately turned its guns on an American, although it has killed Americans when conducting terrorist attacks in Israel. And Hezbollah has not tried to conduct international terrorism against the United States for many years. The primary threat Hezbollah poses is as a guerrilla force should Iran and the United States clash in places such as Iraq or Syria.
A focus on counterterrorism thus inflates the terrorist threat, skewing U.S. public debate on matters of national security. Since 9/11, there have been fewer terrorist attacks on U.S. soil than there were in the 1970s, a period now considered one of relative quiet. The 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans, also has many pre-9/11 precedents, several of which were far bloodier. But neither of these facts appears to have registered with the American public. The Benghazi attack has received more attention than U.S. policy in Syria, where the current conflict has killed well over 200,000 people and destabilized whole swaths of the Middle East. In the public eye, both events were obscured by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people in the blast. And to look at polls of U.S. public opinion, one would think ISIS had waged a massive and successful terrorist campaign on U.S. soil. It has not even tried.
By fixating on the anti-American aspects of groups such as Hamas and ISIS, policymakers miss that the biggest threat these organizations pose is not to the United States itself but to broader U.S. interests in the Middle East. Libya’s oil production has plunged as a result of its civil war. Hamas’ on-again, off-again rocket attacks on Israel have sparked three wars since 2008. ISIS has brought the smoldering civil war in Iraq back to a full blaze, and the violence in Syria has worsened sectarian tension in countries as far away as Pakistan and Yemen. The strongest terrorist groups threaten U.S. allies such as Israel and Jordan. Their attacks undermine governance, foster instability, and incite civil war. At times, their actions catalyze conflicts between key regional players, as has happened in Syria.
In the long term, democracy might reduce the appeal and capabilities of terrorists. But in the short term, in its effort to fight terrorists, the United States may be strengthening the least democratic parts of undemocratic regimes: their security services. The same services that disrupt terrorist plots are often also involved in repressing legitimate political dissent. No surprise, then, that after 9/11, nearly every state in the region—and others, including China and Russia—began referring to their enemies as terrorists to gain U.S. support.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
Too often, U.S. counterterrorist efforts are counterproductive, pitting the United States against its allies in the Middle East. Regional allies tend to interpret U.S. actions through the lens of their own regional rivalries and domestic politics rather than through the lens of anti-U.S. terrorism. Thus, U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria, meant to weaken ISIS, alarms Turkey, which fears that its Kurds might renew their separatist push.
U.S. allies are particularly concerned about how Washington treats the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, Washington accepted that the group had rejected violence and was taking part in the democratic process. Yet regional allies saw the group as subversive. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed an anti-Brotherhood counterrevolution in Egypt and have declared the group a terrorist organization. They see U.S. calls for Egypt to ease its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as naive and hostile. Meanwhile, as the new Egyptian government has pursued its crackdown, some Brotherhood members have threatened violence—making Egypt’s decision to treat the group as a terrorist organization a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The focus on counterterrorism also ignores that some U.S. allies are as much a part of the problem as the key to the solution. Pakistan, for example, cooperates with the United States on counterterrorist efforts yet also aids terrorist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. And without deeper reforms, counterterrorist measures cannot address one cause of terrorism: public discontent with poor governance and authoritarianism. As Obama has observed, the United States’ Sunni allies face an internal threat from “dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” Middle Eastern governments, with the exceptions of Israel and (more shakily) Tunisia, are typically undemocratic. Terrorism grows out of public discontent, yet U.S. allies resent pressure from Washington for them to reform.
Sometimes, U.S. counterterrorist efforts end up exacerbating tensions within unstable states. This is particularly true in countries where the ostensible government is really just a faction in a civil war, and where U.S. support for the government necessarily involves taking a side. Libya, for instance, is split between one faction controlling its east and another controlling its west, and each is itself divided into separate groups. When the United States aids the Libyan “government” against terrorism, it is really taking sides in a civil war.
The United States could avoid this problem by intervening before civil wars break out. Jihadist groups, such as those in Syria and Yemen, emerge from protracted civil strife and exploit weak governance. Over time, they embrace al Qaeda or ISIS or otherwise put themselves on the counterterrorist radar. Only at that point does the United States think to intervene, but by then the challenge is far greater: a civil war is already under way and the group already strong.
U.S. counterterrorist efforts work well against a group such as the al Qaeda core, which controls no territory and limits its involvement in the politics of its host country. Its small size means that the United States can have a devastating impact by arresting or killing key leaders and employing targeted strikes. But these methods do not work so well against larger groups engaged in civil wars, where the numbers are larger and the dynamics more difficult to shape with precise tools. The approach is particularly problematic for Hamas and Hezbollah, which have de facto diplomatic representation, run schools and hospitals, and have conventional military forces and capabilities that go well beyond what U.S. counterterrorist strategy is designed to handle. And because these two groups govern territory, destroying or weakening them might create a vacuum that even more radical groups might fill. Today, for example, Hezbollah is helping prevent ISIS from expanding into Lebanon, and Hamas is fighting jihadist groups in Gaza. And conflict resolution is not typically part of the counterterrorist tool kit, even though such programs might reduce the probability of civil wars in the first place.
A BIGGER TOOL KIT
The Middle East is too complex for any single paradigm. Fighting terrorism requires not just preventing the next 9/11 but also navigating civil wars, stopping conflicts before they break out, containing the ones that do, and building state capacity. Widening the policy aperture will be difficult, but it will advance a broader set of U.S. objectives beyond counterterrorism.
Even if one rejects U.S. involvement in the Middle East beyond preventing attacks on the U.S. homeland, properly fighting terrorism requires methods that transcend the current U.S. counterterrorist strategy. Drone strikes and arresting key leaders can work for smaller and more traditional groups, but for most of the jihadist groups plaguing the Middle East, they are insufficient.
Aggressive diplomacy will be necessary to mitigate conflict in the region. Pakistan supports jihadist groups in part because they aid its objectives in Afghanistan and against India. AQAP expanded its territorial base in Yemen in part because Saudi Arabia has intervened in the country to fight AQAP’s Houthi foes. Resolving conflicts between states makes it more likely that governments will turn on radicals in their own countries—a far more effective approach than drone strikes in the long term.
It will be vital for the United States to identify countries that might be vulnerable to domestic conflict but that are relatively stable for now, a category that includes Jordan and Tunisia, for example. After a civil war breaks out, supplying aid becomes tremendously expensive and difficult; it is far easier and more cost effective to provide aid in advance of crises. Preventive action could stop jihadist groups from feasting on civil wars between Muslims and non-Muslims and on sectarian struggles within Islam.
Building the long-term security capacity of states in the Middle East will be vital to preventing terrorism. Yet U.S. programs devoted to that task are poorly resourced and unfocused, often designed more to reassure allies than to encourage real reform. The U.S. State Department and other civilian agencies have never embraced state building as a core mission, and the political will for state-building measures usually arrives too late. In places such as Nigeria and Yemen, poor governance and state weakness were evident before the emergence of jihadist-linked conflict, but the programs that might have stopped their descent into massive civil wars were not well funded and never received high-level attention.
The goal of state building should be not democracy promotion but conflict resolution.
State building goes beyond helping a country improve the technical proficiency of its security forces. It requires helping it reform its political institutions. Functioning political institutions help countries moderate predatory elites, bolster legitimacy, and weather shocks that might otherwise produce violence. In the absence of substantive political reform, state-building efforts will likely fail. Consider Iraq, where years of massive U.S. technical assistance went to waste because a polarized political system quickly corrupted the senior military leadership and then the military as a whole.
The goal of state building should be not democracy promotion but conflict resolution. Before institutions are fully developed, efforts to hold elections may backfire, polarizing the public. Even successful elections may simply yield power to a government too weak to contain violence. The United States and its allies should seek to cut deals between moderates within warring parties to isolate radicals and otherwise subdue the threat of terrorism. In Egypt today, for example, the United States should encourage the government to work with moderate Islamists rather than treat them as extremists, driving them underground and into the arms of radicals.
State building should be seen as a long-term enterprise that may take years to work. The United States cannot hope to completely change the local dynamics, and it will likely be blamed if its efforts fail. But the costs are justified if the United States is able to make states less vulnerable to civil war and terrorism.
If the United States wants to stop ISIS, it must realize that the drone strikes and other tools that have effectively repressed al Qaeda will not work; instead, more traditional military means will be necessary. In most cases, intervening directly will be too costly. At times, the United States will want to work with local forces, providing air strikes and other support. Most of the effort, however, will involve training and advising. The United States should develop a set of general principles and procedures for vetting local allies and maintaining relationships with regional allies, reducing the need for ad hoc interventions.
Sometimes, terrorism cannot be stopped, only managed. In these cases, a containment policy is necessary. The Middle East suffers from a “bad neighborhood” problem, with national dynamics often spilling over borders. Syria’s neighbors, for example, need help accommodating refugees and should be provided with security assistance so that they can manage any spillover from the Syrian civil war.
Although the United States’ record on solving broader problems in the Middle East leaves little room for optimism, its record elsewhere is encouraging: in places as diverse as Colombia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the United States has successfully built up the capacity of its allies, enabling them to regain power, negotiate from a position of strength, and, of course, fight terrorism. Taking these tactics to the Middle East offers the best chance for lasting progress.