Staying the Course for Far Too Long

American counterterrorism strategy has not fundamentally changed since the US attacks against Afghanistan after 9/11. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have focused on militarily defeating groups through a combination of targeted strikes and operations to deprive them of particular terrain they control. Bush and Obama made limited efforts to counter Salafi-jihadi recruiting efforts, but with no effect. All these efforts have focused on attacking narrowly defined groups and the individuals associated with them. Apart from the limited experiments at serious counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, all three presidents have sought to kill their way out of the problem. None has recognized or addressed the global Salafi-jihadi movement as the real threat, and none, therefore, has taken any meaningful steps to confront it.

The use of US military force against select groups generates effects, to be sure. But the effects are temporary, and hard-fought wins evaporate rapidly because the Salafi-jihadi ideology provides strategic doctrine for organizations globally that persists beyond the destruction of any collection of individuals. Shared experiences on the battlefield, in training, in captivity and elsewhere build human networks that transcend organizational relationships. These experiences are also laboratories in which Salafi-jihadis improve their means and methods. The deep resilience of the movement resulting from this overarching doctrine, shared experiences, and global nature is why the US continues to lose this war.