The United States will soon reach a crossroads in its struggle against terrorism. The international coalition fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has driven the group out of much of the territory it once held and, sooner or later, will militarily defeat it by destroying its core in Iraq and Syria. But military victory over ISIS will not end the global war on terrorism that the United States has waged since 9/11. Some of ISIS’ provinces may outlive its core. Remnants of the caliphate may morph into an insurgency. Al Qaeda and its affiliates will still pose a threat. Moreover, the conditions that breed jihadist organizations will likely persist across the greater Middle East. So the United States must decide what strategy to pursue in the next stage of the war on terrorism.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump called for sweeping changes in U.S. counterterrorism strategy, promising to “defeat the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism.” As president, he faces a broad range of choices. At one extreme, Washington could abandon its military commitments in the greater Middle East on the assumption that it is U.S. interference that provokes terrorism in the first place. At the other, it could adopt a heavy-footprint surge strategy that would involve using overwhelming military force to destroy globally capable terrorist organizations and attempt to politically transform the societies that produce them. In between lie two options: one, a light-footprint approach akin to that taken by the Obama administration before ISIS’ rise; the other, a more robust approach closer to Washington’s response to ISIS since late 2014.
None of these four strategies is ideal. The extreme options—disengagement and surge—promise to dramatically reduce the threat. But both would likely fail in costly ways, and both are politically untenable today. The middle choices pose less risk and are more politically palatable. But they also promise far less and would likely leave the United States stuck in a protracted conflict.
Trump must therefore of a bad lot. Despite his campaign rhetoric, the least worst choice would be an approach close to the medium-footprint strategy being used to defeat ISIS today: an aggressive campaign encompassing air strikes, drone attacks, special operations raids, and small deployments of regular ground troops in response to specific threats, all in support of efforts by regional U.S. partners. This approach is imperfect, and it will not achieve decisive victory in a conflict that shows few signs of ending soon. But it is the most likely way of delivering an acceptable degree of security at an acceptable price.
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