Grading the War on Terrorism

By Lee Hamilton for the Huffington Post
Jul 24 2015

It's sometimes hard to believe that we are already 15 years into the current century, a century that dawned with the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil and the launching of two costly and drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Much has changed for Americans since the start of the 21st century, but one constant has been the "War on Terrorism." This conflict continues to evolve every day, even as the obvious -- and most perplexing -- question persists: Are we winning or losing the battle?

The threat is hard to define and to gauge. A large part of the challenge we have in grading our performance in this war can be tied to the complex nature of the struggle itself, our difficulty in trying to precisely define the enemy and our ongoing struggle to deliver and implement a comprehensive and effective counter-terrorism strategy.

Clearly, we face a serious threat, one that is currently not existential, but nevertheless is urgent. The terrorist threat has grown in numbers, reach, influence and lethality, and it spans a vast amount of territory in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, including, most notably, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as well as Libya and Yemen.

We face many enemies, even if we're not entirely sure who they are, or what their objectives are. We acknowledge Al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as the Taliban and, of course, ISIS, often lumping together these and other groups even though they all have their marked differences. ISIS, the chief threat at the moment, while not supermen by any means, has proven to be highly disciplined, intolerant of corruption, decentralized, effective at propaganda and recruitment, and terrifyingly brutal.

We should ask ourselves: What's our overall strategy? President Obama has expressly stated that our objective should be to "degrade and destroy" ISIS. We've had a hard time over the years getting our strategy right. We have had an avalanche of rhetoric, some success, but insufficient overall progress.

But even if degrading ISIS is doable, it's not clear to me that we have anything approaching a strategy to destroy ISIS.

To date, most of the explanations for how we plan to deal with ISIS and other terrorist organizations have centered squarely on America's military capabilities. We'll launch airstrikes. We'll deploy drones. We'll support and train other troops. We'll establish local security forces. We'll target and go after terrorist safe havens. But even the president compares the current strategy to a game of "whack-a-mole" and warns that we not get caught up in chasing the terrorists around.

The president vows that we will stand with our 60 or so allies to combat the "scourge" of terrorism, which raises the obvious question: Where are all those allies? The idea of a wall of allied support is solid, of course, and suggests a major point of difference with ISIS, which clearly doesn't have many friends around the world. That said, I don't see many of our allies making major contributions toward the overall fight.

Several of the president's critics say we should withdraw from dangerous regions of the world where American forces remain in harm's way. They claim that we have little to gain and much to lose by further engagement in this devilishly complex region. However, most of the president's critics have adopted a hawkish position, arguing for more forceful U.S. intervention, while stopping short of suggesting a massive troop invasion. Instead of advocating for more American boots on the ground, they propose taking modest steps, such as providing more intelligence and logistical help, adding air traffic controllers to detect and deter attacks, and providing more arms to Sunni tribes and other groups who have fought to quell the advances of Al Qaeda and ISIS. Some of these actions have been effective in negating attacks and reducing the terrorist footprint. But it remains problematic whether modest steps can fundamentally change the war's direction.

I am persuaded that a counterterrorism strategy dominated by largely military means, without an extensive political and diplomatic element, is not sufficient to defeat ISIS. Military force is necessary, but it must be supplemented with a political strategy. Terrorism reflects underlying political and economic problems. As Muslim societies become more prosperous and free, terrorism will decrease. The political strategy must help put countries like Libya and Yemen back together again and encourage a political negotiation, even if it means talking to our adversaries.

What we can be certain about is this: The U.S. will not define the future of this region of the world where terrorism abounds. We have important interests in the region, but we do not control the events. Our objective of destroying ISIS is a formidable challenge, at least at a price that we're willing to pay. The American people appear reluctant to accept the costs and risks that are needed to destroy ISIS and our policy reflects that view. We certainly are not willing to resource our maximum goals of nation and democracy building. I'm increasingly worried about the sustainability of our current counterterrorism policy. For example, if you ask me today whether the Taliban will be in Afghanistan 20 years from now, I'd offer an unequivocal yes. If you ask me whether the U.S. will be there in force that same number of years later, I'd say it's not likely.

Still, even if I grade our overall effort in the war on terrorism as "incomplete," our fundamental national interests in the region can be met. For one, it's hard to envision ISIS winning the war without improving its performance on the issues of jobs, education and economic development. It has plenty of problems, defections, setbacks on the battlefield and failure of governance. But we cannot sit back and simply wait for ISIS and other terrorist groups to fail.

I support the degrading of ISIS forces and favor policies that would prevent the extremists from further expanding their influence. We certainly have to use robust force to eliminate extremist leaders and go after safe havens. I favor the notion of "aggressive containment," which is drawn from our Cold War strategy to fight the spread of communism and could well be applied to our approach to deterring terrorism in places where, even if it's not fundamentally our fight, we can and should be helpful.

Now 15 years into our current century, it's frustrating to think of how much the war on terrorism has dominated our national discourse, to count up the billions of dollars already spent, and distracted us from even bigger global challenges, including China, which continues to flex its growing political and economic muscle, and an increasingly assertive Russia. We've made our miscues as we've struggled to develop a winning strategy for some time now in this ever-evolving war. But the war is far too important not to get our strategy right. Our task is to develop a more comprehensive strategy, to degrade and contain our adversaries and robustly defend our core interests in the region.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.