ISIS and the Futility of a Military Solution to Terrorism

It’s not often you can point to something written by Dick Cheney and praise it for not only its accuracy, but its insights into American foreign policy. Yet reading the recent Wall Street Journal op-ed written by the former Vice President and his daughter, one has to admit he has a point, if for the wrong reasons.

The Cheneys lambasted President Obama for having claimed at various times that the "tide of war is receding," and that "al Qaeda is on its heels" and "decimated." Such pronouncements were merely a fantasy sold to the American people. Cheney and his daughter pointed instead to the meteoric rise and unexpected triumph of ISIS as evidence that Islamic terrorism, contrary to Obama’s assurances, is resurgent, and in fact has been for some time.

The Cheneys are right, in a narrow way. The seemingly sudden rise of ISIS and its successful surge through Iraq should once and for all expose the inadequacy of America’s strategy so far in neutralizing the threat of Islamic extremism – by fighting an ideology that feeds off anger and resentment with the very methods that create that anger and resentment. For over a decade now, US policymakers (including Cheney) have labored under the belief that the nebulous "War on Terror" could be won with the right amount of firepower. That if they could simply kill all the terrorists, or at least the leading ones, it would spell the end of terrorism – as if terrorism was an elite and exclusive club with a strict list of adherents.

Hence, the US invaded Afghanistan not just to find the perpetrators who planned the September 11 attacks and bring them to justice, but to dismantle al Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime, replacing it with a compliant government. They soon found out that invading a hostile group’s country and removing it from power did not mean the same thing as establishing peace, with the Taliban launching a recruitment drive and a subsequent insurgency in 2003. Since then, the Taliban have been steadily reestablishing their control over Afghanistan, aided by popular anger toward Western forces for war crimes, which has helped them recruit fighters.

At the same time, the Bush administration was capturing or killing al Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, something which the then-President claimed as early as 2003 was "decimating" and "dismantling" the organization.

With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, this mindset arguably became more prominent. The expansion of the drone program under Obama allowed US officials and the CIA to pick and choose from kill lists which suspected terrorists they would target, and zap them into oblivion. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US has drone-bombed Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia anywhere from 456 to 471 times in total since 2002, killing between 2,659 and 4,261 people. A significant, if unclear, percentage of these deaths were civilian, but the Obama administration did also kill a number of high profile militants, including the group’s deputy leader in 2012.

The most high-profile example of the administration’s gotta-kill-‘em-all approach, of course, is the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. The killing – which apart from its symbolic value was essentially meaningless, given that bin Laden had ceased to play virtually any operational role in al Qaeda – was celebrated by Americans on the streets in scenes that resembled the end of World War II. Indeed, some debated whether bin Laden’s death would mark the end of the "War on Terror" launched nearly a decade earlier, despite the fact that both al Qaeda and terrorism had continued unabated since bin Laden’s disappearance down an Abbottobad basement.

With these accomplishments under his belt, Obama and other top officials implicitly and explicitly touted the corpses piling up under their watch as evidence that the threat of al Qaeda was receding. The phrases "Osama bin Laden is dead," "al Qaeda has been decimated," and "al Qaeda is on the path of defeat" became regular parts of Obama’s presidential campaign stump speech. By November 2012, he had used some variation of the latter two at least 32 times. That year’s Democratic National Convention saw leading Democrats use the killing of bin Laden and al Qaeda’s leadership to emphasize Obama’s military bonafides. And while Obama would later point out that he qualified these statements in speeches before and (mostly) after the campaign, no such effort was made for the bulk of 2011.

It hasn’t even been three years since this optimistic outlook that ISIS has swept through Iraq and declared a new caliphate.

For neoconservatives like the Cheneys, the solution to the problem of radical Islam is the "rebuilding [of] America’s military capacity" after its dangerous weakening under Obama. Even without the sheer ludicrousness of that statement – how can America’s military capacity get any bigger when it already beats out the next eight highest spending countries combined? – Cheney’s prescription demonstrates the sheer illogic of the US government’s foreign policy since the start of the ‘War on Terror’ that has continued under Obama.

Since 2001, America has launched two wars, killed hundreds of thousands of people, kidnapped and tortured individuals, opened black sites on different continents, launched paramilitary operations in different countries, assassinated suspects and mercilessly drone bombed at least three different countries. American anti-terror policy, from Bush to Obama, has only ever been the military equivalent of storming a house and blindly shooting at whatever moves. If after all this, terrorism has not only survived, but is stronger than ever, perhaps the approach is not working.

This is a mindset that believes destroying an idea that prevails across national borders is the equivalent of the Allies’ toppling of fascist governments in World War II. It is a mindset that presents the solution to water running through one’s fingers as tightening one’s fist. A mindset that either ignores or outright denies the fact that when you obliterate an innocent wedding party in the course of trying to kill one terrorist, you potentially create many more – combined with the many existing fighters ready to take his place.

A successful anti-terror policy would at long last take into consideration the factors that actually drive Islamic extremism and terrorist actions: resentment and opposition to Western policies toward the Middle East, as well as crippling poverty and a lack of education and prospects that leaves many vulnerable to seduction by extremist ideologies. Until then, the US and the rest of the Western world will continue to be blindsided by a new threat just as they think they’ve vanquished the old one.

Branko Marcetic is a writer who completed his Masters thesis in history in 2014 at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, looking at the formation of early libertarianism in 1950’s America.