Stumbling Into a Wider War
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD of the New York Times
It should come as no surprise that the United States and its coalition partners are discussing widening the war against the Islamic State beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. Wider wars have become almost habitual in recent years, as military conflicts have expanded with little public awareness or debate. President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” began in Afghanistan, then moved to Iraq and elsewhere. Fourteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Obama is still deploying American troops and weapons to fight Al Qaeda and other extremists in far-flung parts of the world, including Pakistan.
The fight against the Islamic State has focused largely on Iraq and Syria, where the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has seized large swaths of land and established a firm presence. But some regional members of the anti-ISIS coalition of more than 60 nations, according to a report in The Times, are now pressing the administration to carry the fight to other terrorist groups that have declared themselves “provinces” of the Islamic State.
In theory, that could involve the United States and the coalition in Libya, where ISIS has sent a small number of fighters to help organize militants. It could also mean moving against Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an ISIS-supported terrorist group in the Sinai Peninsula that greatly worries Egypt. Intelligence officials estimate that ISIS may have as many as 31,500 fighters in Syria and Iraq; at least a couple of hundred other extremists in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also made less formal pledges of support for ISIS.
It is essential that further expansion of the campaign against ISIS and other militant groups be debated rigorously and openly by Washington and its coalition partners. For one thing, it is dangerous and unwise to assume that “affiliates” pledging support for ISIS are controlled by ISIS, share its resources or can duplicate its ruthless skills. Many cannot do so, and the coalition would make a serious mistake if it treated all splinter groups as the same kind of threat.
In any case, the problem is far more complicated than just going after ISIS and its affiliates. There are many threats ravaging and destabilizing the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, including not only extremistists (some allied with ISIS, many not) but also stubborn, long-standing sectarian conflicts and, in some failed states like Yemen and Libya, the near-total collapse of governmental authority and civil order. That makes finding a coherent and effective strategy — or more likely strategies — to deal with these challenges much harder.
What is manifestly clear is that while America can and should play a leading role, the main responsibility for confronting extremist groups and ending sectarian wars lies with countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. That will require them to put aside enmities, cooperate and take on more of the fight. It will also require many of them to make reforms at home, where radical ideology and repressive governance foster extremism.
A Pentagon official played down the possibility of an expanded war. But the fact that it is under discussion should be of more than passing interest to a public grown tired of war. The spread of extremism will be the focus of several meetings in the next few months, including a summit meeting of Arab leaders called by President Obama for this month and a meeting of coalition military commanders to be convened by the United States Central Command.