By Rafia Zakaria
22 February 2017
LAST week, as Pakistan was reeling from an
onslaught of terror attacks and analysts and ordinary people alike were
wondering what this new and sudden spate of blasts meant, similar questions
were being asked in the United States.
It is widely understood, of course, that
little is known about the course that the new Trump administration intends to
take on any matter. Surprise, intentional or not, has been touted as an actual
strategy, its consequence being that actual inaction cannot be distinguished
from apathy or indecision. So it is with the ‘war on terror’, under whose
auspices the US has bombed and droned and raided half a dozen different
countries over the past decade. Those were the old days; the new days, under this
very new and very belligerent administration, suggest that what was will likely
no longer be.
As a recent article in the American
magazine Foreign Affairs (and written by Peter Feaver and Hal Brands) points
out, the options available to the Trump administration with regard to its
routinely touted goal of “defeating ISIS” (the militant Islamic State group, or
IS) are limited, in part by circumstance and in part by its own rhetoric.
The first and least likely option in
realigning the war on terrorism would be complete disengagement. Predicated on
the assumption that terrorism is rooted in complex political pathologies in
Muslim societies that cannot be solved with American intervention and meddling
(which likely makes the situation worse), this approach would withdraw all
troops from the region and leave the countries involved to sort out issues by
themselves. As Feaver and Brands point out, the drawback of this approach is
that it is too hands off. President Trump likes to win, his closest adviser
Steve Bannon is avowedly martial, and the drumbeat of war on IS was too woven
into Trump’s campaign for such a disengagement to occur.
It will not be hard for a hawkish military
adviser to convince Trump to invest in a huge and costly occupation of the
The exact opposite of disengagement would
be complete investment. This is based on the assumption that terror could and
must be rooted out by a massive deployment of US ground troops, air power and
everything else. Leaving nothing or little to the governments of the actual
countries where IS and its associated groups have gained a foothold, this
approach would seek to root out illiberal forces (including not simply
terrorists but also Islamists), occupy the ground for a long time and build the
kind of liberal democracies that would be an antidote to the insidious
encroachment of extremist ideology.
In Feaver and Brands’ view, this is
unlikely to be the course of the Trump administration because Trump himself has
in his numerous speeches taken nation building off the table.
The two other options described by Feaver
and Brands are halfway options. The one closer to disengagement, and also to
the post-2014 Obama administration, would consider limited engagement,
utilising relationships with countries in the region as a means of sharing
intelligence and rooting out, at least in some minimal sense, the leadership,
organisation and infrastructure of specific groups like IS. It would assume
that terrorism can be contained but never completely exterminated.
Finally, closer to nation-building, another
halfway measure would be a partial deployment of ground troops that attempts to
eradicate terrorist groups but is also in at least a limited sense trying to
root out the ideology behind terrorism.
Feaver and Brands think that the Trump
administration, like the Obama administration, will select one of the two
halfway options. Their explanation for this is that these measures involve the
least amount of political risk and expenditure. This would indeed have been so,
if the Trump administration was likely to base its decision on pragmatic
enumerations and the motivation to score a second term in office in 2020.
However, as the tumultuous first weeks of
the administration have shown, this is not the basis on which strategy and course
of action is devised. It is far more likely that Trump will choose one of the
extreme options, either total disengagement or complete and outright
The reasons for this have little to do with
logic or the general direction of US foreign policy for the past several years
and more to do with who has Trump’s ear and the image of strength and
intractability that Trump so desperately wishes to project.
The bluster and bravado of Trump’s speeches
and the constant reiteration of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ as the most
significant security threat, suggests it will not be hard for a hawkish
military adviser (Michael Flynn would surely have done the job if he had not
been sacked) to convince Trump to invest in a huge and costly occupation of the
Indeed, Trump may have criticised Bush’s
Iraq war and pointed to a turn away from foreign nation-building, but Trump
changes his mind often. Also notable is that he does not criticise the Iraq war
as a critique on occupation or the use of force, but rather its inability to
finish the job. He would have kept the oil, he has said in at least one speech.
The world should not be surprised if the
next episode of the interminable ‘war on terror’ is not a scaling back but a
renewed and ruthless turn to occupation, one that would dominate and, in the
minds of those orchestrating it, annihilate terrorism.
If we know anything about the new American
president, it is his penchant for projecting strength and authority, and as he
grows into his power as president, it is unlikely that America will be enough
to exercise it. He has promised his mostly poor and not very well-educated
supporters jobs; fighting long and interminable wars would, in a way, do just
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching
constitutional law and political philosophy.