America is in the 18th year of the War on Terror. After Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 we created a ‘coalition of the willing’ determined to defeat terrorism itself. The United States had already been fighting Al Qaeda and its new brand of international terrorism since 1988 when Osama bin Laden founded the group. With their attacks on American embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole in 1998 Al Qaeda had established itself as the biggest threat to US security. And with the attacks on 9/11 it became the symbol of terrorism and religious extremism in the new digital age, a threat not just the United States but the entire world.
Like the Vietnam War, the War on Terror had more than a decade of smoldering conflict and involvement before the real horrors of war began. Like the Vietnam War, the War on Terror has seen the United States become mired in endless combat where we seem to win every battle but are no closer to winning the war. And just like the Vietnam War, the United States must accept the fact that we have never and will never defeat enemies motivated by ideological rather than material interests.
The first reason why the United States is unable to completely defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda is because terrorist organizations are non-state actors. They are not tied to a territory, do not develop extensive and vulnerable lines of supply, and do not include large groups of civilians that must be protected. At the same time the ability of these organizations to attack unpredictably has expanded tenfold since the 1970s due to increased access to recruiting and information through the internet. Add to this the ease of movement and financing in a global society, as well as a constantly increasing availability of advanced weapons on black markets, and the contemporary terrorist organization has become just as resistant to American military might as the Vietcong were.
But the thing that makes groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda the proverbial immovable object to America’s irresistible force is their motivating ideology. America was unable to defeat the Vietcong because they created an ideological combination of ‘freedom from oppression’ and ‘political extremism’ that continually motivated new recruits regardless of losses. Without the ability to engage in a total war against North Vietnam and its allies China and Russia, the United States was doomed to fight against a constantly renewing enemy that would never give up. The only difference between the Vietcong and the Islamic State in this instance is ISIS has elevated its target from the reunification of North and South Vietnam to the reorganization of the international system. The result however is the same for the United States: an enemy whose motivating psychology and material capabilities ensure a conflict where neither them or us will ever be truly defeated.
But in fact, the uniqueness of modern terrorist ideologies goes even further. Whether it is the organization’s structure and principles, or its stated goals of reestablishing a global caliphate, ISIS’ reliance on pre-modern ideological perspectives make it an enigma for the modern world. The Islamic State is fighting a war of annihilation utilizing the same ideologies that fueled the Crusades. Anyone not adhering to their radical and propagandized interpretations of Muslim philosophies and history is an enemy to be annihilated. It is a motivating ideology that with some changes to the narrative was used by civilizations throughout history including Nazi Germany.
What is important to understand for the War on Terror is that it is an ideology with no room for compromise or negotiation. It’s simplicity and radical components have always appealed to the most violent fringe elements of society as it provides a sense of righteousness to those who feel that they are being oppressed and must fight back. As a result, the Islamic State will always be able to draw new recruits in the same way that neo-Nazism has been able to exist and evolve despite the defeat of Hitler’s Germany almost 65 years ago.
There are very real signs that the United States is beginning to grow weary of the War on Terror in much the same way as the country sought exit from Vietnam in the early 1970s. Present Trump has very recently tried to withdraw the United States from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the claim that ISIS has been all but defeated. This in many ways is the predictable evolution of an increasing reluctance to commit US force, especially in the form of soldiers and vulnerable personal, that began with the Obama administration. The US War on Terror has centered on an unspoken strategy of containment for close to a decade. As long as there are no major attacks on US personnel or interests outside of the Middle East and Africa, the US will only engage international terrorism from a distance.
If the primary goal of the War on Terror was to eliminate the ability of terrorist organizations to threaten the United States directly than we won the war years ago. But the United States military, intelligence community, and the international system as a whole, have all been reshaped to focus almost exclusively on international terrorism, religious extremism, and the groups that rely on both. We have fallen into the same feedback loop that caused the United States to stagger from operation to operation in the mid-1960s and early 1970s desperately seeking a way to defeat the endless enemy in Vietnam.
The quagmire in South Vietnam has been replaced by our 18-year deployment in Afghanistan. The questionable expansion of the Vietnamese conflict to Cambodia and Laos is mirrored by US involvement in Yemen and Syria. And unfortunately, parts of Africa today seem just as vulnerable to the contagions of conflict driven by radical ideology as they were in the Vietnam era. The United States must continue to lead the fight against the scourge of extremist violence and international terrorism. But we must do so with a new understanding of our enemy and our goals.
The United States needs to more critically engage the connections between underdeveloped societies and the ability of terrorist groups motivated by religious extremism to find safe havens. We need to decide whether we are truly dedicated to eliminating international terrorism as much as possible regardless of the economic and political hurdles. Or, is it in fact time to declare “Mission Accomplished” and withdraw from areas in which terrorist or extremist activity do not pose direct threats to US interests? We can recommit and strengthen our resolve to the War on Terror as an eternal struggle in much the same way as we’ve come to see the War on Drugs of the 1980s. Or we can declare some sort of victory and begin to develop strategies and alliances aimed at containing groups like the Islamic State in areas away from US interests. But what we cannot do is continue to talk in terms of the War on Terror while increasingly withdrawing and disconnecting from the most important battlefields. The result will be another 18 years of war with steadily increasing questions about who we’re fighting, why we’re fighting, and when will we win?
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.