We’ve had a tough time coming up with a name for our fight against terrorism. Leaving aside the ill-considered “crusade” that was used right after 9/11 (who the hell thought that was a good idea?), we have cycled through the Global war on Terror (GWOT) to the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE) – what about GSTRING (the Global Struggle To Reduce International No Goodniks (OK, I just made that one up)? – to the Long War. And we have a winner, going by a recent op-ed piece by David Ignatius in the Washington Post (see it here). The Oscar goes to….the Long War!
According to the veteran journalist, “The next president is going to inherit an expanding war against a global terrorist adversary. The debate about how best to fight this enemy hasn’t even begun.” Ignatius cites Islamic State’s adaptability and the paltry success to date in establishing and training local partners to do the lion’s share of the fighting. He believes that victory will take a generation.
I have to say that for the most part I agree with Mr. Ignatius, although there is one small quibble (more on that later). You see the problem is that we are simultaneously overestimating and underestimating the terrorist threat from groups like IS. Let me explain.
We need to convince ourselves that IS or AQ or any other current terrorist group does not pose an existential threat to any of us and it is really hard to imagine a scenario where they would. These guys are not the Nazi war machine of WWII or the Soviet Union with their thousands of nukes. They are a motley crew of terrorists. Their chances of overthrowing anything of significance is next to zero. The sky is not falling folks.
On the other hand, IS is clearly not the “JV team” as US President Obama called them a few years ago. They obviously have the wherewithal to do some serious damage in Iraq and Syria and, increasingly, in Libya, Egypt (well, at least the Sinai part) and maybe Afghanistan and Yemen. They are a force to be reckoned with and we will have to put in place effective programmes – military and otherwise – to ensure that they do not expand beyond their current zone of influence and become more lethal.
Here’s where Mr. Ignatius’ column comes in. We need to devote serious resources to deal with this. These resources will come from a variety of sectors and we will have to do this for the better part of a generation, or more. Now for the quibble: I do not agree with Mr. Ignatius that for the President to say that his priority is to protect the American people while at the same time insisting that IS does not pose an existential threat is a mixed message. Both are true and this is not a contradiction in terms,
So buckle up people. The terrorist menace is not going away and we will have to get used to reading more and more about attacks here and there. There will be successes and failures – more of the former than the latter I predict.
While I was still an intelligence analyst and used to present on terrorism I would say that we have 20-50 years left of this fight. That was 10 years ago. Look on the bright side – we’re down to 10-40 years. Ever the optimist I say.