My hypothesis is that the war on terror has not decreased the number of “terrorists”. I use the term “terrorist” but one might substitute others such as jihadist or anti-western Muslims or pro-Islamic State Muslims. We are talking about people whose agendas vary, often greatly, but who want to get U.S. forces out of the Middle East and Central Asia or who want states to become fundamental Islamic states or who favor one brand of Islam over another; and these people use terror bombings as one of their military means. At present the largest contingent wants an Islamic State, controls territory in Syria and Iraq, and calls itself IS or Islamic State. It’s also called ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
The CIA says that ISIS has 20,000-31,500 fighters. Iraqi sources say 100,000. Other estimates are 20,000-50,000. We do not know the number very precisely. Sources may be biased. We do not know how permanent the members are, but this is the best we can do in order to test the hypothesis that terrorist numbers have not decreased with the advent of the war on terror. We know that the potential membership is large. We know that new recruits are coming from 80 countries, including western countries. The UN source says that the scale of recruiting is unprecedented and outdoes the cumulative total from 1990 to 2010. The UN source says there have been 15,000 recruits of late.
Going back a decade or so to when Bush launched the war on terror, which I see as a consequence of or at least highly congruent with the Cheney-Powell-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz (CPRW) defense strategy, the terrorist numbers are also iffy. The Wikipedia article on al-Qaeda says that in 2002 there was a core membership of 170. But how many trained fighters were there in its camp?
In the mid-80s, there were “thousands” of mujahideen in Afghanistan who might be considered as possible terrorist members when that war wound down. One source says tens of thousands. In Iraq, al-Zarqari’s contingent was estimated at 1,000-3,000 fighters.
It appears to me that when the war on terror began, there were possibly 1,000-5,000 terrorists who remained from the 1980s and/or who had been trained in al-Qaeda camps. There were then and still are many potential recruits. Even if we say that there were 10,000 such people in 2001, the numbers today in IS are greater than that figure. The estimates cited above range from 15,000 to 100,000.
I think it is safe to say that the number of terrorists has not declined since the war on terror began. If anything, there is evidence of a substantial increase in terrorist numbers.
Has the war on terror caused this increase? Would this increase have occurred even if the war on terror had not been launched in Iraq and elsewhere? Has the war on terror reduced the terrorist numbers below what they might otherwise have been in the absence of the war on terror? These questions cannot be answered by looking at numbers alone before and after.
I think that the U.S. attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan have stimulated terrorist recruitment. The war in Syria has also done this. There are other reasons why IS is gaining recruits that have to do with its appeal and its program of calling for a new caliphate, but the war on terror in Iraq created the open territory, the power vacuum and exacerbated or kindled the tribal and religious divisions that gave IS a home base.
If we look at a map of where the U.S. forces encountered the greatest resistance in Iraq and where IS now controls territory, there is a big overlap. The U.S. war on terror, of which attacking Iraq was a signal endeavor, is directly responsible for providing the ground upon which IS could grow. Beyond that it is highly probable that the motivations of recruits are influenced by their rejection of the American attacks of all kinds on or near their homelands, including drone attacks that have taken thousands of civilian lives.
Libya is a country in disarray. There are many reports of its remote regions being used to train fighters, terrorists, and/or jihadists. One such report has them taking over a former U.S. base. The former U.S. embassy has been taken over by jihadists. The dismantling of Gaddafi’s regime is another aggression or front in the war on terror that has produced a recruiting ground for terrorists or whatever term better describes this movement.
I do not think it is at all unreasonable to conclude that the U.S. side has failed in its war on terror and that it has made the problem far worse than it would otherwise have been. What exactly is that problem? The problem was that continental America was increasingly subject to attacks like 9/11. But why? The roots of that go back to American alliances and interventions in the Middle East dating from decades earlier. The CPRW doctrines restated and strengthened these already existing imperial designs and tendencies that were manifested in the Cold War.
What is to be done? Bombing and fighting IS will cause recruiting of jihadist fighters to increase, even if or even because it kills a certain number of them who become martyrs. The U.S. cannot control or control by bombing a host of regions such as Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc. It doesn’t have the manpower to control these territories either. The U.S. is fighting a lost cause. The sooner it recognizes this the better.
It’s not only a lost cause but an unnecessary lost cause. There are no national interests or national security interests that demand a war on terror over these lands. There is no inherent or fundamental national security interest that demands that the U.S. be involved with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel. The U.S. doesn’t have to be set against Iran either.
The U.S. can do no better than adopting a policy of non-intervention and withdrawing from these troubled lands. It can do no better than letting the local and regional political forces emerge and run their course without U.S. attempts to control the social and political dynamics, which attempts are bound to fail anyway. It will be very unpleasant to see some of the results, which may involve strict religious states or women being oppressed or religious art treasures being destroyed. The result may be regional wars that involve Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. The fallout is unpredictable. But a degree of stability may surprisingly emerge if the U.S. withdraws. The states in the region will have to deal with one another, and will deal with an IS in Iraq in ways that we cannot now foresee. There is at least as good a chance of stable solutions emerging as there is of a long period of instability, which is what faces the region now as long as the U.S. attempts to control the outcomes.
The alternatives to non-intervention are worse for Americans. They involve constant warring, killing and injuring of civilians by Americans, increased jihadist recruitment, and the radicalization of the jihadists. The jihadists will learn more and more destructive ways to fight back and they will take the battle more and more into western countries or into attacks on civilian populations in the countries they wish to control. Blowback will increase and intensify.
Intervention by the U.S. will not be able to resolve the regional issues. To date, American intervention has made the terrorist problem much worse. That was the hypothesis that I examined at the outset and what’s consistent with the evidence.
Just as the U.S. got out of Vietnam (was made to get out) without losing any national security whatsoever, it can get out of the Middle East and lose nothing. The U.S. gained by exiting Vietnam. It gained by stopping a constant and large drain on its resources, its young men and women, and its spirit. The divisions and frictions domestically settled down. Americans turned back to peaceful activities. Business and the economy improved as resources went back into them and out of war.
Americans will gain if its government gets out of the Middle East. Getting out of the Middle East means winding down the war on terror. The whole country is being turned into a national security state and a police state because of the terrorism focus. This is unnecessary even with the war on terror but it is doubly or triply unnecessary if the U.S. stopped trying to fight jihadists in all these foreign countries and stopped intervening in them in other ways. The risk of serious terrorist attacks on America will gradually diminish as the U.S. government accepts a reduced role in foreign lands and as its credibility for staying out of their conflicts rises.