Behind US President Barack Obama’s weekend state of the nation speech lies an awkward reality. Ever since the September 11 attacks , the West has been fighting two, in some ways separate, but deeply intertwined battles against Islamist militancy.
One — to protect the West from attack — has actually gone remarkably well. The other, however — to shape events in the Middle East and surrounding regions and push back radical militant groups — has been something of a disaster. Somehow, those two campaigns must be reconciled if groups like Islamic State (IS) and its ideology are to be defeated.
Last week’s shooting at a San Bernardino, California, special needs centre was the deadliest jihadist attack on US soil since 9/11. In all, such post- 9/11 attacks have killed 45 people: a series of senseless deaths, yet a relatively small number considering the level of concern and attention paid to the topic.
The vast majority of those attacks appear to have been homegrown plots, albeit in many cases inspired and sometimes carried out by those in direct contact with militant groups elsewhere in the world.
Why have there been so few attacks? There are several reasons, including sheer distance and air travel controls that make it hard for foreign assailants to get themselves into position.
Additionally, the US Muslim population remains well-integrated, particularly compared to Europe; law enforcement efforts have been massive and relatively effective; and strikes overseas have disrupted plots — as has the incompetence of the militants.
And much of it, current and former security officials concede, comes down to luck. What the Paris attacks showed, though, was the last decade of war in the Middle East coming home to roost.
Those attacks may have been largely carried out by European-born or resident attackers, but the planning had clear links to Syria — and with the continent awash with refugees from Middle East war zones, stopping a handful of militants from slipping through the net is all but impossible. That’s much less true in the US and Britain, both of which can control borders much more easily.
Simply protecting the West and letting the Middle East burn is not really an option. Many of the West’s actions over the last decade and a half, however, have made matters worse.
Yet the situation isn’t necessarily as bad as many think it is. Yes, IS still controls a disconcerting amount of Iraq and Syria. Its expansion, however, has largely been halted as a result of airstrikes and efforts by local forces.
As a result, it has become much harder for the group to maintain its narrative of invincibility, particularly as it begins to be pushed back in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has never managed to hold serious urban ground for more than a handful of hours. Nor has Boko Haram in Nigeria or the various groups in Pakistan.
Those states might have their weaknesses, but today they are more urbanised than at any point in history. For now at least, their governments have the ability to hold the cities, and their populations seem to have little appetite for Islamist militant rule. The endless attacks have a high human cost — and it’s almost impossible to stop militants infiltrating the target-rich cities — but total takeover seems unlikely.
For the US and its allies, simply degrading IS to the extent that it could no longer hold major towns would be a success. That, though, will take time — not least because the ethnic Sunni populations of places like Mosul and Raqqa would rather take their chances with IS than live under — and risk recriminations by — the Shiite- dominated governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Persuading them otherwise will not be easy.
There is one country in which outside intervention has achieved such results, however — Somalia, where local African forces, backed by US strikes and intelligence, have pushed Al Shabaab militants first from Mogadishu and now from wider swathes of territory.
The strategy Obama outlined on Sunday is very much in that model. Yes, there will now be small numbers of US special operations forces on the ground in Syria as well as Iraq. In both cases, however, the plan is to build local capacity. If the last 15 years have shown anything, it is that larger Western interventions can be less effective.
Everyone knows they will one day leave, so it’s hard to achieve lasting effects. On that front, targeted air strikes should help. The West may be lousy at long-term strategy, but their militaries are really good at destroying structures and systems.
To build on that strategy, though, you need a functioning state in areas that IS would otherwise control. That’s still a long way away — particularly in Syria.
What binds the two interlocking battles against militancy — to stop attacks in the West and stabilise the current conflict areas — comes down to the same thing: Integration.
In the US and Europe, that is still not that difficult.
In countries like Iraq, Nigeria, and most particularly Syria, rebuilding that social contract is going to be much, much harder. But it is not impossible.