Russian airstrike in Syria.

Credit: Detail from Russian Defense footage.

The 14-Year-Old 'War On Terror', And The Muddled Prospects Ahead

November 15, 2015

Two days after the Islamic State attacks on Paris, which killed at least 129 and injured hundreds more, the talk is all of war.

A French aircraft carrier is now en route to the Middle East, where France will likely intensify its contribution to the US-led air campaign in Syria and Iraq. Pressure on the United States toincrease its military efforts against the Islamic State is also growing. For the first time, the United States conducted airstrikes against an Islamic State leader in Libya over the weekend.

The war on terror that started in the mountains of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and quickly broadened to Iraq and elsewhere is now more than 14 years old. And it’s only expanding.

“The killing of innocent people based on a twisted ideology is not just an attack on France, not just an attack on Turkey, it is an attack on the civilized world,” US President Barack Obama said in a speech from Turkey on Sunday.

The Islamic State appears to be taking the fight outside of the portions of Syria and Iraq that it seeks to establish a state, or caliphate as they call it. In the last couple weeks the group has taken down a Russian passenger jet over Egypt,killed more than 40 people in Beirut in coordinated bombings and struck Paris in a way that is likely to change the course of this conflict.

On the front lines, however, the Islamic State is hurting. American airstrikes are believed to havekilled Mohammed Emwazi, the celebrity Islamic State executioner, in the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa. Kurdish forces also pushed the terrorist organization out of Sinjar in Iraq. And Syrian rebels backed by the United States — now called the Democratic Forces of Syria — took back the Syrian town of al-Houl near the Iraqi border. Those two victories have shut down key supply lines for the Islamic State.

The military solution appears to be working.

WANT TO KNOW: 

Or is it? After so many years of fighting this war on terror, terrorism is still an every day event.

It was the chaos of the US-led military campaignin Iraq — and the handling of that war’s aftermath — that created the space for the Islamic State to exist and thrive in the first place. Al Qaeda, which over the years wandered from the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Middle East, is quietly building state institutions in the parts of Syria and Yemen that it controls.

Back in Afghanistan things aren’t faring much better. The Taliban there is resurgent and the US troops that were supposed to be home by nowcontinue to linger in the hopes of keeping it all together. An American airstrike on an Afghan hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, meanwhile, did little to win over hearts and minds.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab was supposed to be almost entirely defeated. A US missile killed its leader in 2008 and a coalition of African troops took back control of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab though easily replaced their leader. And since then Al Shabaab has morphed from a local terrorist group into a multinational one, launching devastating attacks on neighboring Kenya — including the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that killed 67 people and the Garissa University College shootings earlier this year thatkilled almost 150 people.

Yemen is perhaps one of the clearest examples of the war on terror’s failure. The United States supported an authoritarian but friendly government in Yemen because it wanted the freedom to bomb Al Qaeda there. Meanwhile, Yemenis were losing their lives in public calls for a new leader and democratic reform. Yemen didn’t get an election; it got a deal brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia that essentially replaced the president with his vice president.

Today, Yemen is not only wracked by poverty and hunger — it is consumed by conflict. And Al Qaeda has taken advantage. It now enjoys full control over the country's fifth-largest city.

Is it maybe possible that war really isn’t the answer?

The roots of terrorism — corruption, inequality, state oppression, war, colonialism (France and Britain both bear some responsibility for the current state of terrorism around the world) — have little presence in the current conversation. The talk is of more war, closing borders, and turning away refugees fleeing the same terror. A disturbing number of people in the West are focusing their anger on Muslims, all 1.5 billion of them.

Obama acknowledged the need to address the roots of terror in a powerful speech earlier this year at a huge counterterrorism conference in Washington, DC. He called on the world to do more to solve the core problems that inspire terrorism and allow terrorist leaders to recruit so easily: like poverty, hunger, displacement, to name a few more examples.

There was no mention of all that in his speech in Turkey on Sunday.

STRANGE BUT TRUE: 

It is not easy to find good news in any of this. But overshadowed by, and in part inspired by, the attacks in Paris, world leaders gathering in Vienna may have agreed on a diplomatic path forward.

With all the focus on the Islamic State, it's easy to forget that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shares much of the responsibility for its existence. The Syrian president crushed a peaceful pro-democracy movement so harshly it gave rise to an armed rebellion and a civil war. Assad’s indiscriminate war against the rebels has killed some 250,000 Syrians and forced millions more to flee. Half of Syria’s 23 million people are now displaced or killed. And Assad’s bombs are still falling on crowded neighborhoods.

Among this devastation arrived the Islamic State and Jahbat al-Nusra, the somehow now moderate-seeming affiliate of Al Qaeda.

The 17 nations meeting in Vienna, including Assad’s allies Iran and Russia, have now agreed on an 18-month timeline during which there would be a cease-fire, the removal of Assad, and the holding of free elections administered by the United Nations. The United Nations will convene the Syrian government and the opposition in talks on Jan. 1, 2016.

While that is progress, the agreement — which no representative from Syria, either from the government or the opposition, participated in — is tenuous at best. The agreement also stipulates that the US-led coalition can still bomb the Islamic State and Al Nusra during the ceasefire.

So there’s that.


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