America’s conflict with violent Islamic extremism is now 15 years old, with no end in sight. While the conflict does not pose an “existential” threat to the United States, both political and military leaders have warned that it will be a multigenerational effort. There is still much killing to come; persistent violence is the new normal.
This is not war in the traditional sense where victory means defeating enemy forces on the battlefield. All of the bombing in the world and even the deployment of American ground combat units to Iraq, Syria or Pakistan would only shift the conflict to other venues. Driving the extremists from their lairs is necessary but not sufficient. Similarly, shutting down the movement of people from the Islamic world to the United States would have minimal effect on the broader conflict. The strategic costs of such an action would far outweigh its benefits. What, then, should be done?
For starters the United States needs to abandon fantasy solutions like bombing al-Qaida or the so-called Islamic State into submission and recognize that, while America cannot be defeated by these groups in the normal sense, its effort to defeat or contain them can fail. One way this could happen is if the American people simply lose their stomach for the conflict.