Most observers would agree that the United States has directly or indirectly contributed to the creation of most of the international terrorist groups that have been in the news for the past thirty years. The narrative of how Osama bin Laden and what was to become al-Qaeda were initially supported by the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to drive the Red Army out of Afghanistan is well known. Washington did so with little regard for broader agendas, including removing the United States out of the Middle East and regime changing the existing secular and religious Arab states in the region.
When the American supported Holy Warrior Mujahidin were successful beyond their dreams and succeeded in forcing the Soviets to withdraw during 1998-9, a weak Moscow-supported Mohammad Najibullah regime stayed in power, only to be defeated in 1992 by the Taliban, who were one component of the Islamist groups that were being supported by the U.S. and its partners. The Taliban soon demonstrated that they too were not willing to be tools of either Islamabad or Washington and eventually provided al-Qaeda and bin Laden with a home, the casus belli that led to the U.S. attack on Afghanistan after 9/11.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq followed, based on a similar pretext, i.e. that Saddam Hussein was in league with terrorists and was preparing weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States. The deliberate dismantling of Iraqi government mechanisms coupled with a collapse in its civil society resulting in extreme sectarianism led many Sunni Iraqis to join the next emerging terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS), also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh. IS was as surely the product of the American interventionist tactics in Iraq as were al-Qaeda and the Taliban earlier in Afghanistan.
IS’s appeal was largely due to its recreation of a territorial state, which it dubbed the new Caliphate. It is now facing final defeat at its last remaining enclaves in Iraq and Syria. Soon, it will only be a dark memory in those two countries, a legacy of ruined cities, mass executions, cultural vandalism and torture.
It is not known if the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive, but the group, which proved to be particularly astute in its handling of internet generated propaganda, will certainly live on through radical websites and to an extent through its foreign supporters returning to their home countries to carry out terrorist acts. There were also be places in Africa and Asia where IS will continue to have a physical presence on the ground, to include Sinai and Libya. But, generally speaking, the group will cease to exist, even though one can anticipate that there will be successor organizations that will benefit from the IS example and follow a similar pattern to attract recruits.
What has changed, however, is the manner in which IS was defeated. The United States helped create al-Qaeda and the Taliban and then played a major role in attempting to destroy them after they ceased to be useful. Washington did indeed play a part in the fighting against IS but it was generally in support of others like the Iraqi Army or Kurdish militias and it did not get seriously engaged due to misgivings about previous interventions and incompatible demands for regime change in Damascus. So IS was defeated by a coalition of Muslim states supported by limited but effective Russian air and sea power, not by some arrangement cobbled together by the United States. Now, the United States, which has lost what little leverage it had to participate at the head table in any discussions to come to a final settlement of the Syrian crisis is desperately seeking to remain relevant by leaving its troops in the area and operating through surrogates.
But the big loser in the defeat of IS will likely be Israel. The Netanyahu government, whose overall strategy has been to weaken all of its neighbors by bringing about their fragmentation along sectarian and tribal lines, has assisted both IS and al-Qaeda fighters in Syria against that country’s legitimate government and has repeatedly attacked Syrian Army forces. It has been actively supporting Kurdish separatism in Iraq while urging the United States to attack Iran and is now colluding with Saudi Arabia to use both military and economic force to compel the Lebanese government to remove the political arm of Hezbollah from the country’s government and to disarm the group. This has created a crescent of battle-tested governments running from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean – Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran – which now have particularly good reasons to hate the Israelis and their meddling in the region.
It would be overreach to suggest that the four governments in question will act in unison against Israel because each has particular national interests that will drive its policies, but they certainly will not make any effort to be accommodating to either Israel or to the United States. The four nations are united by the experience of their war against IS, by their largely Shi’a populations, and by their appreciation of the Iranian effort that contributed so greatly to their successes on the battlefield.
Once again, the United States has intervened in a conflict in the Middle East that was none of its business and, regarding which, no genuine interests were involved. And behind the scenes, Israel was encouraging the unrest for its own reasons. Washington can again walk away from the mess that it has created, but will it? Recent comments from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and from Nikki Haley at the U.N. that the U.S. will keep troops in Syria and will “fight for justice” would suggest that the adults have again left the room. But someday the United States will either have a reality check or run out of manpower and money and will go. Israel will have to stick around and is likely to find itself in a really unfriendly neighborhood.