The U.S. should engage in a dramatic revamping of the post-9/11 global war on terror, according to a new study published Monday in Washington that says major gains during recent years by both al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and South Asia indicate the “extremists are no longer on the run and arguably are winning.”
“Al Qaeda, in particular, has expanded its control and influence in the past few years, with affiliates and linked groups present in more than 20 countries,” states the study, authored by a team of nine high-level national security and counterterrorism analysts through the politically center-right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
While last week’s San Bernadino attack is currently dominating the headlines, the study asserts that the Nov. 13 coordinated terrorist assault by Islamic State followers on Paris provided clear “proof that the West is losing the fight against terrorist organizations” bent carrying out international operations against Europe and the United States.
The study slams the Obama administration for misjudging the evolving external operations threat posed by local groups that have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — and asserts that “victory requires recognition that the enemy is a global and interconnected system.”
“The current analytical framework the Obama administration and its surrogates have promulgated insists on understanding al Qaeda as a ‘core’ disconnected from ‘affiliates,’ giving intellectual support to our retreat,” the authors wrote. “Through this framework, the U.S. government has justified ignoring the growing threat from so-called ‘local’ insurgencies by defining the ‘real’ threat to the U.S. as emanating solely from a terrorist core in South Asia and downplaying the command and control exercised by al Qaeda’s leadership over its branches.”
At the same time, however, the study suggests that the core strategic approach that President Obama and his advisers have promoted during recent years — that of trying to work with and build up the capacity of local partners to fight Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates on the ground — is not misguided.
“The United States’ first option cannot be large-scale invasions in places where al Qaeda and its affiliates operate,” the document says. “That approach would allow the enemy to impose high costs on the US and its allies in return for only partial successes in individual theaters. The best military course of action to pursue against the extremists is a counterinsurgency. This strategy depends heavily on supporting efforts from our partners and allies, which will in most cases make the deployment of large numbers of American military forces into combat both unnecessary and inadvisable.”
The catch, according to the study titled “A Global Strategy for Combating al Qaeda and the Islamic State,’ is that the Obama administration’s current management of the strategy lacks much needed interconnectedness and global resolve — and is nowhere near muscular enough to achieve the goal of defeating “al Qaeda and ISIS by degrading the extremist groups to the point where they are unable to recruit followers to replace leaders lost in battle.”
“The nature of the threat calls for specially tailored campaigns for each country, and sometimes by region, within a larger global framework,” the document states. “Success demands a new strategy: a coordinated series of regional counterinsurgency campaigns.”
“Airstrikes and attrition alone will never defeat al Qaeda and ISIS. We need a population-centric and phased approach that combines diplomatic, political, security, and informational tools at a national and subnational level,” the study’s authors wrote. “These campaigns must be nested in a global framework and tailored for each specific fight according to a variety of factors, including the nature and strength of the enemy, the attitudes of the local population, and the capacity of the host government in the particular area of concern.”