By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
U.S. military strategy to combat the terrorism of radical Islam, or Islamism, in the Middle East and Africa is sorely in need of clarification. Critics have long complained that the U.S. lacks a clear and coherent strategy in the region, and since Russia intervened in Syria to support the Assad regime the lack of a U.S. strategy to confront radical Islamism in Syria and Iraq has become painfully obvious. Plans to train and equip indigenous forces to fight Assad’s regime and ISIS have failed, and there is a real danger of an unintended confrontation between U.S. and Russian military forces in the region.
Things are little better in Afghanistan, where there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and ISIS has asserted itself. A U.S. AC-130U gunship supporting Afghan forces destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders leaving 22 civilian casualties; and U.S. Special Forces have continued to ignore flagrant human rights abuses by the Afghan forces they advise. By sacrificing its legal and moral standards to political and military expediency the U.S. has undermined its legitimacy in Islamic cultures, where apostasy and blasphemy laws, honor killings and traditional practices that abuse children and women are sanctified by Islamic law (shari’a), and political corruption remains endemic.
The U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were based on the premise that regime change would enable those nations to embrace the principles of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law. That has not happened. A clear and coherent U.S. national security strategy is now needed to address Islamist terrorism in the Middle East and Africa, and that strategy should be based on containment rather than confrontation.
Containment was the U.S. strategy that addressed the threat of communism during the Cold War. Direct confrontation with the USSR as a nuclear power was ruled out by the danger of mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Low intensity proxy conflicts became the norm for the Cold War, and the Vietnam War was the exception that proved the rule.
A strategy of containment rather than military confrontation is necessary to avoid extended U.S. combat operations in Islamic cultures. The U.S. has expended billions of dollars and spilled precious blood to little effect in Afghanistan and Iraq, recalling the painful U.S. experience in Vietnam. But unlike Vietnam, Islamist terrorism continues to be a very real threat to the U.S. and its allies, and that necessitates a long-term containment strategy like that of the Cold War that can minimize U.S. military confrontations in hostile Islamic cultures.
Conservative politicians continue to urge the deployment of more U.S. combat troops to the Middle East to defeat radical Islamist terrorism there before it can get to the U.S. But experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught that large deployments of U.S. forces in Islamic cultures do more harm than good, with U.S. forces seen as infidels who exacerbate the religious polarization sought by al-Qaeda and ISIS. No matter how effective they are militarily, U.S. military forces in Islamic cultures undermine strategic U.S. political objectives. They not only jeopardize the legitimacy of the supported government, but they also make the U.S. the common enemy of sectarian Islamic factions that would otherwise be fighting each other.
Sectarian conflict reflects an Islam in transition, and it will take time to determine whether mainstream Islam is compatible with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law or becomes what al-Qaeda and ISIS claim it to be—a religion that uses violence to dominate Islam and oppress the rest of the world. The defeat of radical Islamism depends upon moderate Muslims undermining the legitimacy of radical Islamism with libertarian values that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech. That would convince the world that Islam is a religion of peace and justice rather than one of violence and oppression.
Islamist terrorism will not be defeated by U.S. military forces in Islamic cultures, but only when it is denied legitimacy among Muslims. A U.S. strategy of containment can allow that to happen in Islamic cultures, but it must be complemented by a strategy of confrontation in the U.S. to identify and eliminate terrorist threats. Domestic U.S. counterterrorism capabilities coupled with limited special operations capabilities overseas can contain the threat of Islamist terrorism to Islamic cultures and allow Muslims to deny its legitimacy, so long as the U.S. does not provide it with undeserved legitimacy with a large deployment of combat forces.
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Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy, December 29, 2014; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict, August 23, 2015; What Is Truth? August 23, 2015; The European Refugee Crisis and Radical Islam, September 6, 2015; and Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015.
President Obama revised his commitment to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 following the recent surge by the Taliban in Kunduz that resulted in the destruction of the Doctors Without Borders hospital. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-expected-to-announce-new-plan-to-keep-5500-troops-in-afghanistan/2015/10/14/d98f06fa-71d3-11e5-8d93-0af317ed58c9_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_evening.
U.S. Special Forces soldiers have been advised to ignore the sexual abuse of boys by Afghan allies. See http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/world/asia/us-soldiers-told-to-ignore-afghan-allies-abuse-of-boys.html?_r=0. On the need for U.S. Special Operations trainers and advisors to promote compliance with fundamental human rights, see Barnes, Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, Special Warfare, January-March 2013, posted at http://media.wix.com/ugd/a8edf7_3ceb977e13df46129e7fe22b9dae6789.pdf.
The failure of U.S. policy to train, arm and equip a rebel force in Syria resulted in a shift of policy that initially appeared to be more compatible with a strategy of containment than confrontation. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-plans-sharp-scaledown-in-efforts-to-train-syrian-rebels/2015/10/09/78a2553c-6e80-11e5-9bfe-e59f5e244f92_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines. But the announcement that the U.S. will be sending Special Forces to Syria has raised new questions about U.S. military strategy in the region. See http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-send-special-forces-to-syria-1446216062.
Michael Gerson has criticized President Obama’s celebration of counterfeit war victories in the Middle East. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-united-states-counterfeit-victories-abroad/2015/10/29/fde592b2-7e76-11e5-b575-d8dcfedb4ea1_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines.
Thomas L. Friedman sees only two ways for coherent self-government to emerge in the Arab world: Through the total occupation of an outside power (the ultimate intervention and confrontation policy used by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq), or by allowing the sectarian fires to burn themselves out without U.S. military intervention—and Friedman considers the latter more likely than the former. See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/27/opinion/thomas-friedman-contain-and-amplify.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.
Walter Pincus favors containment over confrontation citing the painful lessons of Vietnam. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-iraq-lessons-of-vietnam-still-resonate/2015/05/25/86a20a82-00bd-11e5-805c-c3f407e5a9e9_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
Andrew Bacevich suggested a containment strategy for Islamic extremism in The Limits of Power (2008, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co.) at pp 176.177.