BY SAMER MOSIS
WASHINGTON — White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough defined success in the conflict with the Islamic State as “an ISIL that can’t accumulate followers or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq or otherwise.” Objectives this shortsighted, even if accomplished, can do no more than place a Band-Aid on the wider conflict with radical Islamism.
The fight against groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda represents only a single front in the war on terror. The major front of this war is not fought on a traditional battlefield but instead must be taken on, blow for blow, in an ideological boxing ring. Accordingly, this war cannot be accomplished through eradication of guerrilla groups like ISIS, but only by disempowering radical Islamist ideology.
Admittedly, combating an ideology is a complex, complicated affair. It is easy to argue that the task is impossible, yet this leaves only the singular option of militarily-focused intervention. Unfortunately, as history has shown, combating radical Islamism with a purely military-focused strategy inevitably leads to more radicalization. If, starting a decade ago, the time and money invested into combating radicalism militarily was matched by investment on the ideological front, radical Islamism might have been defeated.
Nonetheless, radical Islamist groups should be countered militarily. Unfortunately, this is only a short-term solution. Combating radical Islamism requires that a compelling counter-narrative be presented. This is not easy, nor quick. Instead, it is a long-term investment that has to be made primarily by Arab states and leaders. This requires America and its allies to alter relationships with regional leaders across all sociopolitical levels.
At the lowest levels, this could mean building localized indigenous teams aimed at targeting likely recruits, providing them with positive community roles, and instilling narratives counter to those of radical Islamists. At the mid-level, respected, moderate Arab and Muslim organizations and leaders must develop and adopt a counter-narrative to radical Islamism. At the highest levels, international pressure needs to be placed on regimes throughout MENA that perpetuate marginalization within their domestic populations, either through political, social, or economic inequality to detract from the popular appeal of radical Islamism.
Admittedly, these policy changes are broad, yet they are necessary. If regional and Western military and political practitioners do not start thinking along these terms, the war on terror may extend indefinitely.