What will beat al Qaeda

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The trade of five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay for American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has again underlined the fraught question of how to end the war on terror. Afghanistan was a main theater for that war, but American troops will be drawn down to fewer than 10,000 by the end of this year and completely withdrawn by the end of 2016. Al Qaeda, the organization that attacked the Unite States on Sept. 11, 2001, is mostly gone from there already.

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The terrorist threat has spread, even as it has declined. Once localized mainly in Sudan or the frontier area of Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorism has now infected Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, the Sahel and northern Nigeria. Drawing on local grievances, al Qaeda franchisees are holding territory and governing populations. While none of these al Qaeda affiliates and wannabes for the moment has managed to strike a major target in the U.S., they pose serious threats to governments across the region. If the extremists can establish safe havens, they will grow in both numbers and capacity. It will only be a matter of time before they manage again to strike the U.S.

Drones and cooperation with local militaries have become the main U.S. weapons used against terrorists. Both are problematic. Neither is adequate to the task.

Drones kill lots of militants. The Americans are assuming that decimating the al Qaeda leadership with drone strikes will damage the whole organization and limit its capabilities. But al Qaeda has bureaucratized and is no longer as dependent on charismatic leadership as once it was. Collateral damage angers local populations. Recruitment quickly replaces cadres killed in drone strikes.

Lower echelons move up to replace leadership cadres. And American drone attacks undermine the legitimacy of the governments they are intended to assist.

The effectiveness of local militaries in fighting al Qaeda varies, but none have proven sufficient, even with U.S. assistance. In Yemen, the armed forces are good at displacing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but they have not been effective at suppressing them. They have also displaced large numbers of civilian non-combatants. Libya lacks a viable military force and is relying on a militia leader to attack extremists, further delegitimizing its government institutions. Egypt has chosen to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, which the military authorities regard as a terrorist organization, but the overall level of terrorist violence is up, not down.

The African Union/United Nations forces in Somalia have been more successful against al Shabaab, but the capital is still not secure. Afghanistan's security forces have been reasonably effective against the Taliban, but they will be hamstrung with the departure of the Americans by the end of this year and have not yet faced a concerted al Qaeda campaign on their own. In Mali, government forces are losing the grip on the north that French intervention gave them. Nigeria is bumbling in its efforts against the Boko Haram group that kidnapped hundreds of girls.

The limits of current efforts against al Qaeda are most evident in Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad has been more a magnet for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) than threat to it. Though denied official al Qaeda branding, ISIS remains a leading advocate of restoring an Islamic caliphate, al Qaeda's strategic objective. The group has taken control of the eastern town of al-Raqaa and its oil production. More moderate Syrian revolutionaries as well as the official al Qaeda franchise Jabhat al Nusra are struggling with ISIS, but so far with little success. American drone strikes inside Syria could be coming soon.

In Iraq, the Americans are supplying the security forces with ample military means to attack ISIS, which has a strong presence — some would say a dominant one — in Fallujah and other parts of the majority Sunni Anbar province. But rather than reaching out to ally with more moderate Sunnis against ISIS, Maliki ran a vigorously sectarian and successful campaign in last month's parliamentary election. He will now try to form a "majoritarian" government with only limited Sunni representation.

Military means are proving less than adequate in the fight against Islamic extremism. They cannot succeed where governments, whether friendly to the U.S. or not, lack legitimacy with large segments of the population. Nor do they work well where resources are used to support elites that exclude important social or political groups from sharing in power.

The war on terror may end, but extremism will continue to threaten American interests. The U.S. needs to broaden the weapons it is using in fighting extremism, which is a political and criminal threat to peace and stability as much as a military one. State-building, a much derided activity because of the protracted effort and shaky results in Iraq and Afghanistan, is still necessary.

Throughout the greater Middle East, states have been designed to protect their rulers, not their populations. 

Defeating extremism requires that we be prepared to engage with far more than drones and local security forces. We need to support local institutions that not only ensure a safe and secure environment but also provide rule of law, stable governance, sustainable economies and social well-being. Exclusively military means have failed repeatedly and will continue to do so. We need also to support institutions like parliaments, finance ministries and courts as well as armies. Civilian institutions are essential to beating al Qaeda.

Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is the author of Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America and also blogs at peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.

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