There is still a debate over whom the United States is waging war against. Some regard the wave of terrorism undertaken by al-Qaida and the Islamic State as linked significantly to Islam. Others want to distinguish between Islam and these groups in order not to tar an entire religion with the actions of a few.
Clarity, in defining the enemy, is essential to waging a war. If the enemy is terrorism, then the enemy is not a political movement but a method of waging war—no matter who used the method.
We must define who it is we’re fighting
Obama and Bush both refused to define this as a war between the US and Islam. Yet, for 15 years, US troops have waged an ongoing war almost exclusively against Muslims.
Other Muslims are appalled by what al-Qaida, the Taliban, and IS have done. Still, ignoring Islam as a basic and self-defined distinction of these groups leads not only to conceptual confusion, but also to military failure.
The hard truth was that the US was fighting and winning the wrong battles. The groups it was destroying were not the real challengers. The real challenger was the movement underlying the organizations. The US must engage that movement. We must either destroy it or make peace with it. Otherwise, the war will never end.
It was necessary to acknowledge that al-Qaida, IS, and the Taliban are not stand-alone entities. They arose from and were part of a much broader movement. And in thinking about how to deal with that movement, understanding that it was an Islamic movement was vital.
Let them fight each other
Defeating a religious movement is much harder than killing individual men. In many ways, it is not a military operation at all.
No matter how you confront a movement that believes itself to be holy and death to be redemption, success is vague and far away. It is easier to refuse to see the terrorists as part of a more significant social and political movement or that the movement is part of a particular religion. It makes it possible for the US to focus on counting its successful operations while ignoring whether the war is being won.
The key strategic necessity is to split the Islamic world and keep Muslims hostile to the movement that underlays al-Qaida and other jihadist groups from joining it.
The key to winning this war
There are those who say that all Muslims are the same. If this is true, then the war has been hopeless from the beginning. But it is not true. And the grand strategy must be to use the tensions within the Muslim world to contain the underlying jihadist movement.
To do this, the US must first avoid alienating all Muslims. Second, the US must face the obvious fact that the terrorism being fought is Islamic. Without understanding the enemy, it cannot be defeated.
The only hope of some type of victory is that all Muslims do not belong to this movement. Denying that Islamic terrorism exists will cost the war. Arguing that all Muslims are Islamic terrorists means accepting that the war can’t be won at all.
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