How long will the current war against radical Islamism continue? Can we win? How will we know when/if we have won? These questions don’t get much discussion, so preoccupied are we with each surprising outbreak of insurgency and atrocity. Probably, government officials in democracies are not eager to tell the public that this could go on for a lot longer than the next election cycle. Back in 2009, two books offered counsel that still deserves attention.
David Kilcullen saw a core struggle between radical Islam, on the one hand, and the Unbelievers in the West and Incorrect Believers in many Muslim countries, on the other hand. Swirling around both parties to the core struggle were many local movements that associate themselves in name with radical Islam (Al Qaeda then, ISIS now, something else in the future). The strength and the staying power of the local insurgencies vary greatly. Kilcullen thought that the Western countries had a pretty good sense of how to wage the core struggle against radical Islam, even if they botched the execution from time to time. Where they came up short is in managing the peripheral small wars. Indeed, having the local insurgencies pop-up seemingly out of nowhere is one of the things disturbing the public in the West. More recently, the “lone wolf” attacks in Britain, Canada, France, and the United States add to this unease.
According to Michael Burleigh, history tells us that we can and–almost certainly will—win. Terrorism has come and gone in waves: in the 19th Century, they were Irish Fenians, Russian revolutionaries, and European anarchists; in the later 20th Century, they were malcontent leftists in advanced countries (Weathermen, Red Brigades, Red Army Faction, IRA, ETA) and Third World rebels (PLO, South Africa); today they are radical Islamists (Chechens, Al Qaeda, ISIS). Wherever they go, the terrorists have left a trail of dead, maimed, and traumatized victims. In most cases, however, they had little in the way of concrete political achievements to show for their work.
How to defeat these threats? Focusing on the peripheral wars and insurgencies, Kilcullen recommends policies that protect local communities in remote areas from becoming penetrated by radical movements. This, rather than heavy hammer blows from the military, is most likely to stop an insurgency in its tracks. Problems abound with this solution. A lot of the world’s people live in small communities remote from central government authority. Who can tell where the next danger will arise? Is every Middlesex village and farm to be garrisoned “just in case”? Then, most armies train for conventional war against foreign states or for repression of dissent in unjust societies, not for policing or community protection.
Here, Michael Burleigh has some equally useful suggestions. Focusing on the core struggle, Burleigh argues that experience shows that winning the ideological debate through public diplomacy; promoting economic development to drain the swamp of poverty that contributes to radicalization; and developing intelligence capabilities before relying on brute force offers the best path forward. Burleigh’s strategy provides the framework for Kilcullen’s tactics. However, long debates in many languages on social media, nudging countries toward social justice and economic modernization, nurturing good governance in countries suspicious of Western meddling, and building language skills and cultural competence in intelligence agencies is going to take time. We’re in for a long war. People need to know this harsh truth.
 David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Michael Burleigh, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). .