The world is watching as the United States government grapples with the next steps in Afghanistan. Whatever strategy is finally determined to be appropriate, this will be a decision just for Afghanistan, and perhaps Pakistan. It will not be the development of a global strategy to deal with worldwide violent extremism. The answer in Afghanistan perhaps might be more discernable if viewed in the context of a strategy that dealt with the broader issue of violent extremism.
This lack of a comprehensive global strategy has been a problem since 9/11. Sadly, this broader strategy never gets the attention and hard thought it deserves, as the importance and urgency of the moment always trumps the time needed to develop a more strategic view.
We met hundreds of times in the White House Situation Room on Iraq and Afghanistan, but only a handful of times on how to address the global problem. There are three fundamental elements of such a strategy.
The first is correctly identifying the adversary and its characteristics. We are dealing with disparate groups of violent extremists united for convenience to advance their own agendas. Together they make up a global insurgency. They are not monolithic. Afghanistan is just one of the tactical fights in the larger global insurgency. The conflict is primarily a struggle within Islam to capture the direction of the continuing quest for an Islamic resurgence. The ultimate goal of the extremists is to limit America’s influence so that their extreme view of Islam can be the basis for governance - ideally, a global caliphate. Violent Salafists such as al Qaeda currently lead this effort, but this can morph over time.
This enemy is conducting two campaigns of persuasion: One is inside Islam to assert its vision for the restoration of Islam and win new adherents, and the other is outside Islam. Its objective is to intimidate the West, distract Muslims from their internal struggle, and enhance their global stature. In addition, this enemy has no discrete theory of victory (e.g., unconditional surrender). They benefit from a cumulative strategy where fighting is more important than winning and thus allows any confrontation to be counted as a victory. Victories moreover can be humanitarian or rhetorical, and do not have to be military in nature.
To achieve its objective, the enemy must connect with populations locally and globally to enhance its own legitimacy, while delegitimizing existing governing authorities. The Afghanistan Taliban resurgence and the elevation of the Pakistan Taliban are good examples. These localized movements can be co-opted and integrated into the global strategy by groups such as al Qaeda. This gives global significance and reach to local insurgencies, as well as manpower and strength to global efforts.
The second fundamental point is that this global strategy (and the strategy in places like Afghanistan) must involve all elements of national and international power (military, political-diplomatic, economic and educational-informational). Until now the military instrument of power has been predominant. We have been too reliant on the military instrument often because the Defense Department has had the resources to carry out the mission. That will have to change, and the other departments and agencies of our government will have to be given the necessary resources to carry out this mission. And it will be these other instruments of power that, with the right strategy, will lead to a more permanent peace among the Muslim world, and those violent extremists who live in it, and the West.
Clearly, the use of military force will be required, as will training and equipping other nations’ security forces so they can fulfill their security mandates. But we must realize that any military action the United States government takes may poison the dialogue within the Muslim world, or at a minimum add to the rhetoric that this is a fight between the West and the Muslim world.
The third point is that America cannot do this alone, and it will take much discussion and debate with our friends and allies to convince them about the nature of this threat. This will not be easy. There are large differences between the way that many European countries, for instance, look at the challenge from violent extremists and the way the United States sees the problem. But a common definition of the adversary is absolutely necessary if we are to lead the international community in a strategy for making our world safer.
A thoughtfully crafted and carefully executed strategy will help the insurgency to collapse under its own weight. Success will be a long time coming - probably decades - and hard to discern. If we are successful, this conflict with violent extremists will not so much be won as it will dissipate.
The threat from violent extremism is an existential threat to the United States and our friends and allies. The further away from 9/11 and other major attacks we get, the less America or the rest of the world remembers just how determined and ruthless this adversary is. America’s security is at risk; it’s time to develop this strategy now.
• Richard B. Myers was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 2001 to September 2005. He is currently foundation professor of military history at Kansas State University and holds the Colin Powell chair of character, leadership and ethics at National Defense University.
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