Getting Involved in Local Conflicts Risks Making the United States a Real Target for Extremists

Following the recent advance of the insurgent group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), some commentators have been critical of the Obama administration’s expressed intention to end the “war” that began following the 9/11 terror attacks and re-focus the United States counterterrorism efforts on partnering with other nations to effectively train them to address regional threats. As Jack Goldsmith, one of those critical of this plan, argued in Lawfare last week, we are “’war’ with jihadists” and that the rise of ISIS demonstrates the continued existence of this “war,” as the group represents a threat “not just in Iraq, but also potentially in the homeland.

Yet despite this assertion, experts point out that ISIS has a limited, regional focus, and does not presently target the United States. Indeed, as Human Rights First has previously noted, one of the reasons that ISIS split from al Qaeda was ISIS’s “focus on local regimes and rivals, ignoring (al Qaeda leader) Zawahiri’s credo of hitting the “far enemy” — the United States.”

What is likely to make the ISIS switch or broaden its focus to include the United States? The very strategy advocated by people like Goldsmith. In a post on Lawfare over the weekend, Jeremy Shapiro says that the more the United States “get[s] involved in … local conflicts, the more likely it is that (groups like ISIS) will eventually start to see the United States as an attractive target and become real enemies.” Comparing the war on terror to a “war” against an ideology, Shapiro says, “Perhaps the greatest mistake of the Cold War was the failure to properly identify the enemy.” He notes that fear of communism’s spread led to “(u)nnecessary wars against misidentified enemies throughout the Third Word (which) resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, hurt the image of the United States, and sapped American strength.”

This rings true for today’s alarmist critiques that conflate ISIS with al Qaeda and argue that we must maintain a militarily-focused global war on terror, with an ill-defined enemy, in order to protect the United States. As Human Rights First’s Daphne Eviatar said last week, after years of fighting, “Americans are understandably war-weary, and don’t want to see any more U.S. troops killed and U.S. coffers emptied fighting other countries’ wars.” And we certainly don’t want to see our efforts result in groups re-focusing their aims and beginning to target the homeland. The United States must individually evaluate the danger posed by each group rather than exercising cookie cutter foreign policy, which is overly reliant on military force.

As Shapiro states, “Just as there indeed was a Soviet Union during the Cold War, there is an actual Al Qaeda out there plotting against the United States.” We need to focus our counterterrorism strategies on the groups that actually target us, and exercise extreme caution in considering the use of military force to interfere in regional conflicts against groups with local ambitions. Carelessly applying the label al Qaeda to every group that espouses a jihadist ideology and risking the lives of our troops to combat these groups could lead to a greater threat to the United States which would be a truly devastating outcome.

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Published on July 14, 2014

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