The Future Of The War Against Extremists; The Arrival Of Stage III


01-06-2015_Arrival of Stage III of GWOT

By Arif Ansar

In earlier articles different facets and phases of the ‘war against terror’ since it got underway, have been discussed. The terminology has almost become defunct as the balance of power in Middle East stands at a tipping point. Why that has happened is instrumental towards understanding the present status of the campaign against extremists.

For all intents and purposes, the first phase can be classified as the time frame between 9/11 and the demise of Osama bin Laden. The period between Operation Geronimo to the ignition of Yemen conflict can be termed as the second phase. While Yemen has been in the limelight for a while as a strong seat for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the departure of US Special Forces in March this year represented a turning point. The eruption of Yemen conflict in its current form, and the growing Saudi and Gulf involvement there, marks the beginning of the third phase.

Each period of the campaign was accompanied by its own sets of assumptions and characteristics that have been previously discussed. They are being summarized to recollect and help us understand the Stage III. Obviously, each one these patterns pose unique implications.

Phase III of the campaign against terror may see more direct interstate conflict which risks involving one or the other global power. And this will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict that was initially deemed as the war against Islamic extremists.

Mitigating far-flung security threats is one thing, risks that can imperil influence in the home sphere and economic lifeline of an aspiring or an established global power, is a different matter altogether.


Character I – The growth of Non-State Actors of different colors accompanied by Asymmetric Warfare, which the conventional militaries were not trained to engage in.

These include Sunni Islamic State (IS, ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) and AQ that apparently do not listen to anyone. Since 9/11 many affiliates of AQ have also sprung up in the extremism inflicted regions. Some are loosely attached while others are more directly linked with AQ. In some instances, these associates are also perceived to be under the influence of a state entity.

On the other hand, there is the Shia Hezbollah acting as a proxy of Iran.
The third kind of non-state actors are nationalist in character such as the Kurds and Houthis, and moderate forces like Free Syrian Army (FSA) supported by the West, and others, against the extremists.

Character II – Future of extremism as represented by Fission and Fusion of Sunni extremists and the emergence of IS. The harmonization or divisions have resulted in new alignments amongst extremist posing ominous risks for the nation-states of the region and beyond. For examples the tussles between AQ and Associates against IS and Associates.

Character III – Societal transformation of extremist inflicted regions with increased polarization, growing religious conservatism, decreasing secular space and respect for minorities, with difficulty in achieving political consensus. The election results are narrow; power sharing formulas and unity governments are the outcome as witnessed in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Tunisia.

In addition, this transformation has created a fear that religious parties may make it to the helm of power using the system, as occurred in Egypt. Preventing this is requiring constitutional amendments.

Character IV – The application of military force against extremists appears to have not worked and the political reconciliation is proving to be equally difficult; there are no clear winners or losers. The agenda of the extremists is often too harsh to reach any settlement. On the other hand, there is lack of ingenuity in crafting an alternative approach.

Character V – The tactics and strategies employed against extremists are mostly event/incident driven. Strategically, the emerging focus is on regional approaches and the onus is shifting towards western allies to take the lead in the fight against extremists and applying kinetic tactics. In many theaters of the war against terror, civil war like scenarios are now ripe, and Urban Warfare the likely outcome

Character VI – The weakening Nation-State structure is under dual economic and security pressures. The governments of the regions concerned are finding it harder and harder to govern as the multidimensional internal and external security risks intermingle and manifest. Internal divisions make it harder to deal with the external enemies, while those that pose external threats exploit internal risks. This dynamics produces a circular threat perception for the subject.

Character VII – Globalization and interconnectivity is being hindered by security apprehensions whether it be Trans Pacific Partnership, Kashgar-Gwadar Economic Corridor, Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, or New Silk Road.

Economic aspirations now stand face to face with security concerns in many parts of the world, and the individual identity hangs in balance between the national, global, religious, tribal, and ethnic loyalties. The forces of religion and globalization are both acting against the nation-state structure and are often perceived as exploitive.

Character VIII – The cross-pollination of global power tussles, Arab Spring, and extremism has made the war against terror even more complex and motives confusing. This is amply visible in Syrian conflict. Moreover, weakening Europe and emerging BRICS have created a flux in the international systems, making the balancing act very stressful for international players.

Character IX – The future role of religion and the crisis of identity is brewing as nation states become weaker. Two key questions are emerging in this context:
one of them is equally applicable to the West and has to do with the settled debate of the separation of church and state. The other question is related to the extremist inflicted regions, in terms of who represents Islam.

Character X – The emergence of virtual soft weapons of mass destruction: Information and Cyber Warfare. The use of Social Media for radicalization, recruitment, and countering extremist messages and ideologies is an example. While the access to physical WMD’s is limited, these virtual soft weapons are freely available.

Arab and Western Perspectives

In essence, the campaign that was initially directed primarily against the perpetrators of 9/11 and their collaborators, have now spread to the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Afghanistan and Iraq, which were the focus of the Phase I and II, have remerged as a threat and have complicated western withdrawal strategies.

In Phase II, we saw other nations such as Syria, Libya and Yemen join the widening ring of instability. The beginning of Phase III is marked by gradual destabilization of the more secure states of the region, to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and GCC, Jordan, Pakistan, and potentially India.

While the primary threat posed to these states initially came from the Sunni AQ and Associates, over time, the sectarian dimension and nationalist non-state actors (such as Kurds) have joined the fray. While the Western nations have remained supportive in the fight against Sunni extremists, when it comes to the sectarian angle and nationalist forces, their postures are more ambiguous. This has magnified the headaches for the respective states in question.

The present paranoia exhibited by Saudi Arabia and GCC nations is stemming from these contradictions. While the Sunni Arab nations have been fighting the war against Sunni non-state actors, the influence of Iran and Hezbollah has increased in places like Iraq and Syria. In contrast to opposing Hezbollah and Iran, the West entered in to negotiations with the country related to its nuclear program. According to the GCC nations, Iran’s behavior has been rewarded and this will embolden it. Imagine if Saudi Arabia was to do the same; back AQ and IS and then build a nuclear program, while at the same time threaten Israel and the West.

From the Western perspective, Sunni Arab nations have not led a spirited fight against Sunni extremists like Iran, Hezbollah, and Kurds have. Moreover, Western policy is premised first of all on preventing weapons of mass destruction falling in to the hands of extremists, or rogue and autocratic leaders that can threaten Israel or the West. Secondly, to prevent the extremists attacking Western targets again or becoming a proxy for an adversarial power in the future, along the lines of Afghan Jihad of the 80s.

As it stands now, Arab states are left with no leverage other than using the religious card. Even on the sensitive issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is Iran, Turkey, and to some extent Qatar, that took the lead. For its role, Qatar faced serious opposition with in the GCC.

In essence, the Iran deal, if finalized, contains its nuclear program, reduces the risk to Israel and the West, and thus strengthens it to become a strong ally in the fight against Sunni extremists. Additionally, it can help in pushing the Middle East Peace Process forward.

The Emerging Approach to the Middle East Peace

At an event hosted by Atlantic Council on May 7, the author asked the former US Special Envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the present Executive Vice President of Brookings Institution, Martin Indyk, about how the Iranian nuclear deal and the US-Gulf partnership can help or hinder the Middle East Peace Process. Martine Indyk commented that the prospects of a solution emerging from an ‘inside out approach’ i.e., from with in Israel and Palestine, and independent of whatever else is going on in the Middle East, are not good. However, the potential for an ‘outside in’ solution which has emerged because of the possible Iran nuclear deal and Israeli and Arab countries being on the same side, might emerge with positive response because of the new strategic alignment in the region.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Israeli envoy to the US, Ron Dermer, recently commented along the same line:

“They used to believe the key to that [a rapprochement with the Arab word] was solving the Palestinian question, and there is no doubt that issue cannot be ignored,” Dermer said.

He continued: “But as the prime minister said a few months ago, I’m not so sure the reverse won’t be true, meaning that I don’t know if Israel and Palestinian peace will unlock wider rapprochement with the Arab world. It might be broader rapprochement with the Arab world will unlock Israeli-Palestinian peace. We should be focusing the next few years on how we can take advantage of this historic aligning of interests between Israel and our Arab neighbors.”

(Note: It’s too early to tell if a similar ‘Outside In’ approach is applicable towards other festering hot spots, such as Afghanistan and Kashmir. However, despite differences, parallels do exist, and PoliTact will be researching this comparison further.)

The US Elections and Middle East

From the Arab and GCC perspective, the shift in the regional balance of power towards Iran is an additional danger to their security, perhaps even bigger than that posed by Sunni extremists. This view is shared by Israel and the Republican Party in the US, which is in control of both the House and the Senate. This is why the next US election is becoming so crucial. On it depends the direction of the Middle East; will the new American president share the threat perception of Israel and Arab allies, is in contention. In addition, the foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party also want US to once again take an aggressive role in the fight against extremists and against Russia and China.

Extremism and Global Players

US, Russia, and China, and other global powers, share the threat from Islamic extremists and have supported the fight against them in one form or the other. While US has been doing the heavy lifting, other powers have facilitated by building capacity of the allies; by giving training and providing military equipment. Moreover, they have also helped by allowing the use of their territories as part of the crucial supply lines for the campaign against extremists.

However, as the regional states become more entangled in this fight, and with their future at stake, the question for these global players is: what does the change in the regional equilibrium of power means for the global balance. Or in other words, what does the extending arc of instability in these regions implies for their security and economic interests.

In essence, three main considerations arise from this for the global players:

Firstly, if the states involved in the campaign against extremists, which may be allied with China and Russia, start faltering, what would that mean for their global positioning?

Secondly, how will these powers react to the activities of the competitor in their perceived home spheres of influence?

For example, Russia has cooperated with the West when it comes to Syrian chemical weapons and the Iran nuclear deal, as being part of P5+1, but it is playing a different role when it comes to the affairs of Ukraine. Similarly, China would evaluate its posture in South and Central Asia in comparison to what occurs as part of the ‘Pivot to Asia’ US policy.

Thirdly, what would be their contingency plans if the regions engulfed by extremism sink to full fledge chaos that may impact global energy and trade flows?

The Chinese and Russian energy deals may be the direct result of these assessments. On the other hand, US has also made big gains towards energy independence while Europe is still caught in the bind. Phase III of the campaign against terror may see more direct interstate conflict which risks involving one or the other global power. And this will fundamentally change what was initially deemed as the war against Islamic extremists.

While mitigating far-flung security threats is one thing, risks that can imperil influence in the home sphere and economic lifeline of an aspiring or an established global power, is a different matter all together.

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