To wage the global war on terrorism, the leaders of the United States have settled on one basic strategy. Taking advantage of their extraordinary military power, they have tried to kill their way to victory.
Many in Washington believe the strategy is correct. They argue the terrorists are inherently evil and must be vanquished from the planet. In the case of the Islamic State, both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have insisted that the only way to deal with the group is to forcefully eradicate it from the face of the Earth.
At the same time, many in Washington acknowledge their strategy will never bring an end to terrorism. They cite the various factors that give rise to terrorism, including the hatred that is generated by repressive regimes, the fact that a number of countries support terrorism, and the general sense of desperation that is felt by many people around the world. Unless these factors are addressed, they argue, terrorism will remain a problem.
As the discussion continues, the Trump administration is intensifying the global war on terrorism. With its approach, the administration is perpetuating a strategy of endless war that is doing nothing to address the underlying causes of terrorism.
The Problem of the Iraqi Government
Long before the Trump administration entered office, U.S. officials had already identified many factors that cause people to turn to terrorism. For example, they knew that they faced a special problem with the Iraqi government. Despite the fact that they repeatedly praised the Iraqi government as a strong partner in the global war on terrorism, they understood that they were supporting a sectarian regime that had created deep rifts within Iraqi society, causing many Iraqis to turn to terrorism.
The problem began during the early years of the war in Iraq, when U.S. officials supported the repressive and sectarian Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki. During the height of sectarian fighting in the country from 2006-2008, Maliki oversaw a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s minority Sunni population.
Maliki’s iron-fisted rule had significant consequences for the global war on terrorism. As various officials now acknowledge, many of the Iraqis who had turned to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were largely motivated by their fear and hatred of the Maliki government.
“In Iraq, it was the deeply sectarian, corrupt, and abusive rule of Prime Minister Maliki that drove so many Sunnis to support the ascent of ISIL as the terrorist group methodically expanded its foothold,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power acknowledged in June 2016.
Later in the year, State Department official Tom Malinowski made the same point. The Iraqi government “abused its Sunni population, to the point where some feared their own army and police more than the men with black flags who rolled into their cities in 2014,” Malinowski explained.
To address the situation, the Obama administration orchestrated the removal of Maliki from office in August 2014, replacing him with the British-educated Haider al-Abadi. Still, officials knew that Abadi was no less sectarian than Maliki.
Years earlier, U.S. diplomats in Iraq had described Abadi as a “close Maliki ally and confidante.” In fact, the diplomats noted that Abadi had joked with them that critics were right to charge that the Iraqi government was “full of criminals and gangs.”
In other words, U.S. officials understood that they were not dealing with the core problem in Iraq. Although they had forced Maliki out, they had replaced him with another sectarian leader. “Sunnis in Iraq Often See Their Government as the Bigger Threat,” the New York Times reported.
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who currently oversees military operations against the Islamic State, recently pointed to the same basic problem. Until the Iraqi government becomes more inclusive, Townsend explained, “you’re always going to have a disenfranchised population that’s always looking for the thing that will represent their interests better than whatever’s currently ruling their life.”
In short, U.S. officials recognize that they are supporting a government that many Iraqis still see as the bigger threat. As long as they keep supporting the regime, they know that disenfranchised Iraqis will continue looking for alternatives, such as the Islamic State.
The Problem with U.S. Allies
As U.S. officials knowingly support a government that causes disenfranchised Iraqis to view the Islamic State as the lesser of two evils, they are also facing a bigger challenge. Across the Middle East, a number of their closest allies are supporting terrorists.
Donald Trump, who addressed the issue is his 2011 book Time to Get Tough, singled out one of the closest U.S. allies in the region for its support of terrorism. Just “look at Saudi Arabia,” Trump wrote. “It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.”
Throughout Washington, many officials had similar concerns. In August 2014, for example, Hillary Clinton sent an e-mail to her associate John Podesta that noted that both Qatar and Saudi Arabia “are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Later in 2014, Vice President Joe Biden also confirmed that various U.S. allies had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons” into the hands of terrorists. Only now, Biden added, “everybody is awakened because this outfit called ISIL.”
More recently, additional officials have noted that U.S. allies are still playing a role in supporting terrorism. Tim Roemer, who served on the 9/11 Commission, informed a congressional committee last May that “Saudi society still continues to produce a disturbing number of recruits and supporters for terrorist groups around the world.” In fact, Saudi society continues to “export extremism, fund radical ideology for terrorist groups, and supply a stream of jihadists around the world,” Roemer noted.
Ultimately, U.S. officials largely agree that some of their closest allies in the Middle East are empowering terrorists.
The Problem of Hopelessness
At the same time, the leaders of the United States believe that a more fundamental issue stands behind the problem of terrorism. As many people in the world struggle to find hope and opportunity in increasingly challenging circumstances, U.S. officials recognize that oppressed people will resist their oppression, sometimes by turning to terrorism.
John Kerry, who often spoke about the problem of terrorism during his time as Secretary of State, often raised the point. In May 2016, for example, Kerry noted that “Some people become terrorists because they have trouble finding meaning in life or economic opportunity in their daily lives – because they are deeply frustrated.”
A few months later, Kerry noted that much of the problem also came from corrupt governments. A society “that is run by, managed by, dominated by corruption, is a society that will frustrate people,” Kerry said. “It’s a society where the future of every citizen not given an equal opportunity is stolen from them, and that makes them a potential extremist or terrorist, ripe for the picking of recruiters.”
General Thomas D. Waldhauser, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, argued earlier this year that the same factors applied to terrorist groups in Africa. Certainly, “we could knock off all the ISIL and Boko Haram this afternoon, but by the end week, so to speak, those ranks would be filled,” Waldhauser said. The reason, he explained, was that marginalized people would continue to turn to these groups because there are no alternatives.
“Many people, especially those in uniform, have said we can’t kill our way to victory here,” Waldhauser stated.
In spite of their understanding of these basic issues, U.S. officials have not acted on it. While they recognize that terrorism will remain a problem as long as they fail to address its underlying causes, such as their support of repressive regimes, their alliances with countries that support terrorism, and the problems of hopelessness and desperation, they continue to operate on the principle that they can kill their way to victory.
In the years ahead, the United States will “unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth,” President Trump has promised.
Indeed, going forward, the leaders of the United States are going to stick with their basic strategy, which is to keep killing terrorists. Through their actions, they are perpetuating an endless cycle of violence that will never resolve the problem of terrorism.