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There’s no walking away from Islamic jihad

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President Trump announced in December that we are pulling out of Syria, and cutting our forces in Afghanistan by half.  The statements took everyone by surprise, including at the Pentagon, and generated a tsunami of commentary. Lost in most of the rhetoric was any context about the nature of the war that the U.S. is actually fighting in those countries.  

There are all kinds of wars — conventional and irregular wars, direct and proxy wars, ethnic, political, economic and religious wars. The differences between them are crucial; they drive — or should drive — how we fight them. How we engage with China over Brazil, for example, or Russia over Venezuela, is very different from how we fight Islamic jihadists in Syria, Afghanistan and the Philippines. 

{mosads}The United States is now engaged in two very different kinds of war. The first is an evolving cold war with Russia and China over economic and political power. It is part of the ebb and flow of great power competition, and it will endure as long as great powers vie for influence and resources. This war is playing out in a growing number of proxy countries, driven mostly by China’s new grab for geostrategic dominance.  

The second is a religious war with Salafi jihadists. It is hyper-kinetic, and it also plays out worldwide as the jihadists pursue global Islamic subjugation and rule. The greater Middle East is ground zero, but major regional theaters in Asia and Africa are growing stronger and the number of minor theaters is expanding. Today, about half of all active insurgencies are motivated partly or entirely by Islamists, and most have combat support from outside.  

Religious wars are different. Ideological in nature, they don’t have economic or political or social solutions. They can last for centuries, until the religious ideology that drives them is contained. The war between Islam and Christianity, for example, has raged since the 7th century. These aren’t win-lose kinds of wars, and even the concept of peace is transient at best.  The Islamic jihad is that kind of war. 

Since 9/11, we have largely fought the jihad with counter-terror operations, strengthening of allied military forces, counterinsurgency and stability operations. As demonstrated in the 2017-2018 rout of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, aggressive counterterror operations can prove highly effective in the short term. 

It’s therefore not surprising that the debate over leaving Syria has gone prime time. After all, we never went into Syria for the long term, and we shouldn’t stay there after we finish the job.  There are too many competing theaters demanding the attention of too few special operations forces to do otherwise. In Syria, the job will be done when the last ISIS fighters are hunted down, and the few survivors are turned over to their enemies.  

Afghanistan is different. For the U.S., the war started out as “unconventional warfare” through support for the anti-Soviet resistance. After 9/11 it became a counterterror operation against Al Qaeda.  It then morphed into to a Pashtun ethnic war, fought through full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations. Had it stayed just an ethnic war, it might conceivably have been resolved through power sharing, devolution of authority to local ethnic groups, or even dissolution of the country.  Those scenarios, however, have been overtaken by events. 

Afghanistan is at the center of the Salafists’ historical Khorasan heartland, and in the last few years, it has become the second biggest theater in the global jihad.  The Afghanistan-Pakistan neighborhood hosts the largest concentration of terrorist groups in the world, including 20 of the 61 groups designated by the U.S. as foreign terrorist organizations. The war is now as much religious as it is ethnic. Nation-building, pacification, democracy and stability are all fine pursuits, but they aren’t going to fix an ethnic-religious war — especially this one.  

{mossecondads}What’s required to fight the global jihad is a robust network of counterterror platforms in those regions where the jihad is most active. Afghanistan should be the primary long-term hub for central and southwest Asia, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II and South Korea after 1953.  If we don’t do it now, we’ll have to do it later.   

The U.S. will be fighting this war for generations, and not just “over there.” The jihadists will foment their holy war in the cities and towns of America, just as they do now in London and Paris and Rome.  Until the most virulent elements of Salafist ideology are neutralized, the only way to fight them is to keep unleashed the dogs of war. And forget about any notion that we can simply walk away from the war, in Syria, Afghanistan or any other theater.      

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer. In 29 years with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he worked on the ground in 49 countries worldwide.  He was deployed to Afghanistan three times for a total of 31 months, including as chief of staff at USAID/Afghanistan (2006 to 2007) and director of Development at ISAF Headquarters under General David Petraeus and General John Allen (2010 to 2012).               

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump International ISIS Jeff Goodson Syria White House

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