The war in Libya facilitated the movement of al Qaeda into Mali, and the Syrian war may be doing the same. Although Iraqi nationalists in the Awakening Councils prevented the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iraq in Anbar, the al Qaeda in Iraq did not acknowledge defeat; it simply melted away from that particular battlefield. It remains a presence and continues to raise its head when it finds an opportune moment.
Al Qaeda presents its adversaries with a sort of “whack a mole” problem – hit it here, it goes underground and pops up somewhere else. Killing its leadership, which has become an American pastime, does reduce its effectiveness, but leadership can regenerate if it has space and time. There is no one to acknowledge defeat and no one to surrender.
Conflicts over Time as well as Space
Al Qaeda’s interests are played out across a region that also has religious, tribal and ethnic conflicts that do, indeed, have a territorial base, and are also conflicts over time. The U.S. generally operates on the principle that when a war is over, it is over. WWI was supposed to be “the war to end all wars,” and Americans were mightily irritated to find out they had to go back again; Europeans much less so. Churchill wanted to punish Germany but considered Roosevelt’s demand for “unconditional surrender” unreasonable. Roosevelt won the argument — and the war — but war returned to Europe before the close of the 20th century, albeit on a smaller scale.
The devolution of Syria in fact resembles the breakup of Yugoslavia, which was founded as a kingdom in 1918 and died in 1992 amid horrific wars. Yugoslavia itself is an example of the maxim that losing is only a temporary setback. Serbs arrived in Kosovo in the 6th Century, pushing the native Albanians to the east. By the 12th Century, Kosovo was the center of the Serbian state. The Serbs lost it to the Ottomans in 1389 – a date that still rankles – and Albanians moved back in greater numbers under Ottoman Turkish rule. The Turks declared sovereignty there in 1489. The Serbs got it back in 1912. The last round of fighting resulted in 140,000 deaths and borders that are still not fully accepted; NATO remains in Kosovo.
Looked at that way, Arab losses to Israel since 1948 happened yesterday, and reversing the establishment of Israel remains a realistic option for them – if not for the Israelis. Kurds constitute large minorities in Turkey (established in 1922), Iraq (independent in 1932) and Syria (independent in 1946). There is an active Kurdish independence movement (terrorist and non-terrorist in different places) that believes the borders should, can and will be changed to accommodate an independent Kurdish State. The American war in Afghanistan is only the latest war in that space, and America’s war in Iraq was only a blip in the larger patchwork of wars and occupations over the centuries.
Iraq and Afghanistan
In 2008, then-Senator Obama called Iraq a drag. “This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize… By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.” Again, as president, he called it a “distraction” from Afghanistan and pledged, “Our overarching goal remains… to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” [This and quotes below are from the President’s West Point address.]
The war was not an effort to “conquer” Afghanistan; the U.S. was sitting in the capital, but declined to “occupy” it. The President left the door open to the Taliban and, speaking of a “civilian surge,” to a broad relationship with the Afghan people; and he placed the burden of Western-style governance on the Afghans:
We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas – such as agriculture – that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
I want the Afghan people to understand – America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect – to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.