A lot of smart people are shaking their heads at the end of 2015 asking when was the moment that the Western world took its eye off the ball.
Last week this column showed how the answers to ending the Long War with Islamism are simply not available to those in the West. It is a conflict between and amongst Islam, and the conversation about how Islam will deal with modernity will be decided by Muslims alone.
The Paris attacks won’t change anything important. Yet they are a symptom of something dangerous which has already changed. What caused the attacks was a fundamental refusal by Western lawmakers to accept that this world’s main security threat has something to do with Islam. It is an absolute failure to grasp how this is Islam’s battle and the West is collateral damage.
Zooming out to a higher level to view the foggy landscape of the past 15 years, a few influential people knew how difficult the Long War would become after 9/11. Al Qaeda wasn’t an unknown quantity, and neither was radical Islam. Both had been telling Western ears their plans and motivations in explicit terms for decades before that terrible day.
Two strategies became obvious in the months and years afterwards. First was the impossibility of influencing Islamist thought with a counter-narrative. We may as well have been on other planets. But we weren’t on other planets because the second strategy focused on avoiding thing intra-Islam conflict spilling out again with bombs in the West.
In response, Western leaders took the fight to the enemy. If al Qaeda was using Afghanistan as a sanctuary, then Afghanistan was where the bombs would fall. Holding Islamists at arm’s length while they sorted themselves out became a job for intelligence and military personnel.
But Afghanistan wouldn’t be enough. It was never going to be enough. The county is high in the Hindu Kush, broken into hundreds of tribal regions and barely a country at all. Sure, many residents consider themselves Islamic, but whatever the outcome of the Afghanistan war it would not alter the global jihadist mind set.
The West knew it would never get a decisive battle with the jihadists, as Europe did with the Ottomans at Lepanto. Yet Western strategists knew the centre of Islamist fervour was in the Arab world, not Afghanistan. This strategy birthed the decision to invade Iraq. Of course, this wasn’t the only calculation, but it was a driving factor.
The decision was to use a big stick to foil the potential for Arab states to coalesce into a force capable of denying the US access to the region and potentially using its combined strength to attack outside the region. This concept is fundamental to US grand strategy. It was exactly the reason the US militarily intervened in Europe in the 20th century three times, for instance.
An obvious target was Saudi Arabia, given its ties to radical Islamism. But the better choice was Iraq, considering Saddam Hussein had committed every human right violation the world has a law for. The US coalition force entered the country in 2003 and so began the “ring fence and honey pot” strategy.
The exact region hosting most of the world’s Islamists became a virtual cage for the angry fighters where they could attack Western soldiers, not civilians, on a somewhat reciprocal battlefield. Islamists in other regions flocked to Iraq, and in the process many were killed by Western soldiers. This strategy has saved countless lives, given that many potential terrorists are now dead. The effect is similar to painting the negative space – what is invisible is important to the larger context.
For 15 years this strategy was mostly working. Some Islamists did escape the ring fence, but most took the bait. Then Europe, in all its wisdom, opened its gates this year to receive a flood of “refugees” from the Levant. It changed what was a trickle of manageable immigration to a destruction of the only workable strategy available to the West in combatting the Long War.
Take a look at the demographics of these new arrivals. Count the numbers of fighting-age males and know this is not a humanitarian crisis, but an invading army. The current situation at the close of 2015 is precisely what the West has wished to avoid for over a decade. What happens next could well make our nightmares a reality.