We need to try something different. America has waged a full scale war in South Asia for thirty years. We've waged a sort of Cold War against Islam for decades longer, going all the way back to Mossadegh and Iran.
All we've managed to do is inflame the situation. Europe has struggled with Islamic extremists for centuries, and while things were quiet for a long time, the beginning of the twentieth century saw Europe interfere yet again in Middle Eastern affairs, igniting old passions and angers.
Thirty years of war (going back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) has done nothing but make more rabid dogs. That's a failed policy. This is not a war against people, it's a war against an ideology -- the ideology of jihad -- and every time we've bombed a country, we created more enemies as we've attempted to wipe out that ideology.
One reason President Obama has been correctly circumspect about mentioning Islam in discussing terrorism isn't that he's afraid to call it that, but that by linking it to the religion and not to the morons committing these crimes, he gives our enemy comfort.
The comfort of having his words slipped into a recruiting video to prove that "America is at war with Islam". A fine recruiting tool, to be sure. ISIS and Al Qaeda appeal to people who are looking for a scapegoat for their problems, and by isolating Islam as a cause of terror (it's not), we give the poor and tormented in South Asia something to vent their frustrations on.
(It's the same schematic that the Tea Party uses here, I should point out, just not to such an extreme degree. That's a post for a different, more political day.)
All we've done with our "war on terror" is give potential members reasons to hate us, to join their organizations. We in the west have consistently installed dictators and tyrants over them and while those installations have helped tamp down the some of the international violence, it hasn't stopped the anger, only inflamed it. It's like clamping down a lid on a pressure cooker: you'll stop the steam from parboiling your hand over the pot, but eventually, the pressure will release in an explosion and destroy your hand.
When we've decided to take out one of those tyrants we've installed, it's the people we claim to want to protect that have suffered the most. A hundred thousand Iraqis died in our wars against Saddam, and that's ignoring the collateral damage of the Iran-Iraq war that we probably ignited by weakening Saddam in the Nineties, too. Or the Kurds we abandoned back then.
I want to be clear, the West is not the main problem here, but we exacerbate the very real problems of starvation and poverty and joblessness and the concomitant hopelessness all that implies.
It's no coincidence that since President Obama's "apology tour" early on in his administration that there have been no organized terror attacks in the United States. That's not to say that terrorists aren't licking their chops thinking about killing Americans, to be sure, but I'm betting it's been really hard to recruit suicidal terrorists to attack us, Obama is just that popular even in the Middle East and South Asia.
The takeaway, in my view, is that America and the west must disengage from the region and let things settle themselves down, or we're going to end up in a world war, if accidentally. Already we've had frightening incidents that could easily have triggered nuclear annihilation.
So how to defeat terrorism? Better minds than mine...yes, there are some...have tossed this problem around and come up with nothing. I'm afraid I've done little better. I can imagine a framework that solution might take, however.
1) Economics -- This facet is the easiest one: stop buying crude oil from the Middle East. We've had thirty years of warnings to prepare for this, from skyrocketing gas prices to global warming's effects. It's about time we made a commitment to stop using fossil fuels, but particularly oil.
This might seem counterintuitive: if people are poor, buying oil can only help them. Well, no. That enriches the status quo, which means it enriches those who are at the top of the economic chain in the Middle East, like the emirs and kings, at the expense of the people. To give the people freedom, we have to defund those who would take that freedom. Note that this would also directly hurt ISIS, who have taken crude oil fields across Iraq.
But notice something: global warming also directly impacts the people in the region in another way: the troubles in Syria began with a drought in Syria, which forced farmers to abandon their farms and migrate to the cities where they might try to find gainful employment.
But those jobs were non-existent as the economic meltdown of the late Bush administration worked its way through the global economy.
We need to establish economies across the region that don't rely on the resources of the rich, but on the labor of the poor. Trade with the governments of the region is counterproductive. Trade with the people of South Asia is imperative.
Trade what? What can replace oil?
Frankly, anything can. Remember, facet one of this discussion is to stop using oil: no oil, no oil economy, no reinforcing the status quo.
2) The Marshall Plan -- After World War II, and despite the war's far heavier toll on the West, the United States in its capacity as the last man standing extended an olive branch not only to our allies, but to our enemies. We would commit to help them rebuild.
Why? We learned the lessons of the interregnum of the two world wars: letting problems fester only made them worse, not go away.
We do owe it to the people of South Asia, we in the West. We created artificial borders that ignored tribes, rivalries, nationalities and ethnicities in an attempt to be expedient. Literally. The divisions were drawn with a ruler on a map. We reinforced those arbitrary borders with force and armaments, and interfered in internal matters when those matters threatened our interests.
Imagine if the cops taped off your house and prevented you from using the bathroom, then stormed your part of the house if you took a piss in a flower pot. That's what we're doing in the Middle East.
Some would call this appeasement. Some would call this a waste of resources. I would argue that the trillions the United States alone has spent in the last fifteen years to "defeat terrorism" was a waste of resources and that we have to find a better way. A few billion versus tens of trillions sounds like a bargain to me, even if the outcome might end up being the same (it won't.)
To me, this Marshall Plan redux would involve helping the Middle East and South Asia rebuild their infrastructure. It would bring permanent water to drought-stricken areas. It would rebuild roads that we've bombed to hell and back. It would build better schools and hospitals and it would all be done by paying the local residents to do the work and administer the projects. We'd provide resources. They'd get the credit for the accomplishments.
And yes, we'd rebuild mosques, too. We have to.
3) Diplomacy -- To sum this up, we need to get the fuck out of the way. The West has spent the last decade dictating policy to the Middle East and South Asia: you will do this, you won't do that, you'll take this and like it, we'll take that and you'll be quiet.
What I see happening is a Middle East summit comprised of everyone: the nation-states, the sects of Islam (including the radical Islamists in some capacity), the South Asian states like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Turks, the Russians, the Chinese and the West.
Obviously, we won't just hold one meeting and be done with it. This will take time and energy and focus. It will require reaching out even as we kill terrorists, or finding intermediaries to understand the problems that we can solve with diplomacy and those we'll just have to let them sort out on their own. We can't settle the Shi'a/Sunni divide, for one thing, but if we can persuade the Muslim people that we'll accept any settlement between them that keeps everyone in the region safer, they'll sort it out.
After all, Northern Ireland seems to be working its Troubles out, and surely they've been more peaceful now than twenty years ago.
Eventually, these disparate talks can be built upon, bringing factions together in the same room, then bringing the agreements made in those rooms to bigger rooms and higher levels.
If the West gets out of the way and makes the Middle Eastern nations enforce these agreements -- and frankly, without oil and the commitment to rebuilding, why the hell would we even be there anymore? -- they'll eventually work things out. We may not agree with their solutions, but the point is, we won't have to, as we do now.
4) Stealth -- Let's face facts: we're going to have to cripple ISIS and Al Qaeda (again). We don't have to commit to waging a regional war to do so. We have the tools and ability to decapitate the leadership. As we saw with Al Qaeda last decade, that at the very least buys us time. Time can buy us the space to implement the rest of this plan. It lowers the heat under the pressure cooker of recruitment. It buys us the eyeballs and attention span of the people we want to stop from joining these organizations.
Clearly, this means an unconventional war fought under the radar. We have national policies that prevent us from interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, but those were state matters, and this is a criminal enterprise. And besides, since when has the United States paid anything but lip service to any international agreement? If we're going to break one, let's at least break the right ones, and not the Geneva Convention.
5) A Thicker Skin -- This applies to the West more than to the Middle East and South Asia.
Americans and Europeans are going to die. There is no way to prevent that. Whether we declare all out war and our soldiers die by the thousands or we fight this fight the way I outline above, and citizens and soldiers die by the dozens, we're going to have deaths. My argument is that there will be far fewer casualties for a far shorter period of time.
We're going to have to mature a bit and shrug them off. A little. We're going to have to put aside the bloodthirst for revenge and retribution and work to understand that these deaths are martyrs for a greater cause: the safety and security of all citizens of our nations.
We can rattle sabres, to be sure, just as we did after 9/11 (and failed to defeat even the enemy that attacked us, much less protect ourselves from future threats), but remember that on 9/11, we even had the "Arab Street" on our side. And lost it in our monumental hubris. We had the opportunity to exhibit dignity and grace and would have prevented hundreds of thousands of enlistments against us.
Today, the day after the Paris attacks, even Iran has expressed condolences and condemned the attacks, as they too are in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. It's a glimmer of hope. We can take them up on that gesture.
The other facet of that "thicker skin" is the more troubling one: we have to present a unified front on this project. In America, that will be next to impossible and we may have to cede leadership here to China and Russia. The old dictum that politics ends at the border was thrown out the window by the yahoos of the Tea Party and any attempt to implement this program will have to shut them up somehow. They'll need to develop a thicker skin and stop betraying our national interests. That's the only way we can be effective in this construct.
I think this five step program may be the only way to defeat an ideology. A good parallel in American history is the Mob. We didn't beat the Mob on the battlefield, we beat them by starving them of them of members, by giving immigrants better jobs, and better education, by assimilating them into our culture and providing the opportunities to attain the benefits of that culture to them, and finding ways of tying up the resources of the Mob so they could no longer wage an asymmetric war.
After all, it took an accountant to put Capone in jail and effectively end his reign of terror. We won't defeat ISIS or Al Qaeda in the desert, we'll finally defeat them when we get the people in the region to stop joining them. Suicide bombers and jihadists have a very short shelf life, so the organizations are always desperate for new members.
It took decades, and even today, we still have mobs and gangs and violence, but only to the extent that we can now treat them as criminal organizations and not an armed resistance. We'll always have ISIS and Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and Hamas or something like them because there will always be underinformed people who are easily manipulated by charismatic leaders and simplistic solutions. This project will make it harder for them to be effective.