By Arif Ansar and Claude Rakisits
What a difference two years can make. At the last NATO summit meeting in Chicago the world looked pretty good, Afghanistan appeared to be on track, jihadism was in retreat and Russia was behaving. Now NATO is unexpectedly confronted with some unique challenges. The security organization had thought it had move passed the Cold War era. That thinking has abruptly come to end. Europe is under Russian threat once more.
Then there are matters related to the war on terror. After the death of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda (AQ) head honchos, NATO and the US wanted to move on, and pivot more towards the strategic threats that emanate from the Pacific. The new strategy to deal with the extremists was premised on the assumption that with the use of Special Forces and smart technologies, the remnants of AQ could be managed. NATO and the US required regional allies to lead the fight against extremists as they build the capacity of these partners. The thinking was that this would allow the room to conserve and redirect resources towards strategic adversaries.
The reality on the ground, however, has unfolded differently and has put this assessment to the test. Disturbingly, the war on terror is covering an ever-wider span, to include South and Central Asia and North Africa. The original Al Qaeda has over the years morphed into a phenomenon called Al Qaeda and Associates, and the emergence of groups such as Islamic State (IS). While the debate whether AQ has been weakened continues, it announced the opening of a new ‘Indian subcontinent’ branch recently. This is indeed an ominous development. While AQ and IS may be presently competing, the risk of them cooperating in the future remains a distinct possibility.
What had originally started as the war against extremists is now truly a battle between non-state actors and ever-feeble Western-backed regional states. And the direct threat posed to the US and Europe by AQ has now been supplemented by IS.
As NATO and the US decide their future strategy to tackle IS and put together a coalition, lessons learned so far in the war against extremists would have to be looked at realistically. The alliance would have to seriously think what would come after IS if things do not go as planned.
To avert the potential collapse of the entire nation-state structure in the Middle East, leading to a protracted and bloody sectarian civil war, a radical rethink is now required. This review involves examining the phenomenon of non-state actors afresh, understanding the societal transformation, and focusing more on economics. Without a revisit of the existing policy, the present global order risks further destabilization and loss of American influence. At this juncture it’s equally essential to not be fixated on the present reality alone and on preventing what may happen. Making strategy is as much about envisioning and preparing for an alternative reality.
Classification of Non-State Actors
Up to this point the non-state actors have been classified on the basis of whether they pose a regional risk or a global one. On the other hand, the cross pollination of jihadists has made this definition mute; the majority of the groups aspire to a vision larger than their capability. Then there is the question of Shia and Sunni non-state actors. While AQ and IS are Sunni non-state actors, Hezbollah represents the Shia one. Another way of looking at these groups is from the prism of purpose specificity, which is demonstrated by groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toyba. These differences provide opportunities to look at the phenomenon of non-state actors in a different manner.
Engagement with Iran related to its nuclear ambitions provides one such alternative in dealing with non-state actors. If there is willingness to talk with Iran despite its support for Hezbollah, then this suggests that while state support of the extremist groups is part of the present challenge, it could also be a part of the solution. The real danger is from those extremists that don’t listen to anyone, such as IS and AQ.
The on-going nuclear negotiations have not only helped engage Iran but also created leverage. Now, Iran has to prioritize its interests. It has to evaluate if it’s more important to achieve a permanent nuclear deal and normalization of ties with the West or continue with its activities in Syria and its support of Hezbollah. Clearly, Hezbollah’s restraint during the recent Gaza flare-up was no accident. Iran’s cooperation and constructive role in these areas, including in Iraq, could be highly conducive in ultimately achieving that ever-elusive peace between Israel and Palestine.
For this approach to fully yield results, the anxieties of Israel and Sunni Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia, would have to be carefully managed. Behind the scenes the debate continues whether a ‘full spectrum’ approach should be adopted towards talks with Iran. Complicating the picture is that Israel equates Hezbollah and Hamas with other non-state actors, such as IS and AQ.
As NATO leaders strategize and Washington attempts to put together a coalition to deal with IS and their fellow ideological travellers, the critical difference between non-state actors that can be controlled by state actors, and those that can’t be, should be kept in mind. This differentiation may well be more useful than the standard classification of extremists with regional agenda and those with global aims, which evolved after 9/11.
This has the risk of conveying the wrong signal to the states that have influence over non-state actors and use them to achieve political ends. At the same time, it has the benefit of attaching responsibility for the conduct of such non-state actors. The best way to fight extremism at this juncture is to isolate AQ and IS from potential associates, and jump-start the search for political solution in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition to the role of non-state actors, it is critical to understand the fundamental transformation that Islamic regions and societies are going through. Regardless of the reasons why this is occurring, the balance is shifting towards religious conservatism. This is making Western powers edgy. Especially, if it leads to Islamists gaining power, like they did in Egypt and Tunisia.
But instead of preventing moderate Islamists from gaining power, they should be supported if they win free and fair elections. Moderate Islamists present the last hope to change the tide against the extremists. It’s better to allow them to fail, if that happens to be the case, rather than forcibly removing them. Premature removal of such regimes provides further fuel to the non-state actors that don’t listen and adopt violent means to achieve their aims.
In this context too, the engagement with Iran takes on added emphasis. If a deal over its nuclear program is reached in the near future, it conveys that, if properly engaged, even theocracies can act rationally.
As NATO and the US deliberate on a new strategy, it is clear success against extremists will not be achieved by kinetic means alone, but more so by making them irrelevant. One way to achieve this is to bring moderate Islamists into the fold, despite fears and apprehensions, and then help shift the total societal balance to the center later. There should be no illusions, adjusting this balance will require many years, as it did to get to the present unstable state.
The regional governments’ association with the West adds to the attraction of non-state actors. The war will be won by moving the masses away from the pull of non-state actors and making the state actors govern responsibly and deliver on their citizens’ socio-economic needs, which can hardly be done by focusing primarily on security affairs.
With events occurring so quickly and the possibility of black swans high, it’s not certain this strategy would be enough to change the tide at this late stage. The regional allies are proving incapable or unwilling of standing up to the challenge, and airpower alone will not do the job. Therefore, at this juncture it’s equally essential to not be fixated on the present reality alone and in preventing what may happen. Making strategy is as much about envisioning and preparing for an alternative reality.
Arif Ansar is a Chief Analyst at PoliTact and Claude Rakisits is a Director at PoliTact and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.